A Big Tent antidote to modern politics

I spent yesterday at the Big Tent Ideas Festival in a field in the English countryside. I was part of a panel, alongside Nimko Ali, Miqaad Versi and Resham Kotecha, in the Demos debate, “Immigration: Time for a new settlement?” We had a discussion which contained honesty, disagreement and no shying away from the divisive subjects, for example, burkas. No-one was accused of racism or Islamophobia, no-one had their motives for making points impugned. At the end, we all said ‘thank you”, “lovely to meet you”, shook hands, smiled at each other, and no-one appeared to hate anyone with the passion of the burning fire of eternal Hell. After the last few years in the Labour party, I felt like I was on some sort of spiritual retreat. I want to hold onto the warm glow (is this what hope feels like?) before it fades.

In our discussion, the growing consensus around the essentialness of free debate was evident from both the panel and the audience. The stifling era of “you can’t say that”, “I’m offended” and so on has clearly had it’s day. Praise be, etc. People are finally alive to the fact that stopping people saying a thing, doesn’t stop them thinking it, and in fact being unable to express thoughts has in many cases only served to make those thoughts grow stronger, more angry, more binary, and more extreme. Silencing has bred tension, fear and contempt, people turn to more extreme outlets and more extreme arguments, personal connections across political, social, and religious divides are not built, and that is ultimately bad for everybody.

However, agreement that we need to have genuine discussions is only the starting point. The much harder part is drilling down into the detail of where we disagree. Often in conversations about tricky issues, we can get lost in generalities or abstractions or politeness; “we all want the same things, a kind society and where we can all get along”. Everyone nods, everyone is none-the-wiser about how we actually square the circles of disagreement. That’s when you need people with the courage to speak, and the courage to listen, the courage to challenge people they disagree with and the courage to challenge the extremes of their “own side”.

Yesterday we discussed, amongst other things, the issue of headscarves on children in primary schools. To give you a flavour of the openness of the debate, points made included: there was no Islamic requirement for headscarves in childhood and children should not be wearing them in primary schools. The headscarf was sexualising young children, suggesting that they were sexual objects needing to have their hair covered in public. Girls sometimes wanted to wear them because their mothers wore them and they wanted to be like them. Who had the right to decide what a child wore, the parents or the state? There is sexualisation of children in British society anyway, and we should see a debate around the headscarf on children within that context. Leaders in the Muslim community should given a moral lead on this issue. That British feminists have so far failed to stand up for girls on this issue. That a government education policy was needed stating that girls in primary school were too young to wear the headscarf and would therefore not be permitted to do so.

A debate like this would not have been possible at a Labour Party or left-wing event. It would have deteriorated instantly into allegations of islamophobia, booing and jeers from the audience, and moderates shying away from the discussion because of a fear of being labelled a bigot. So, well done George Freeman MP, Sally Morgan and Dolly Theis for building something that genuinely facilitated the free exchange of ideas, where no point of view seemed off limits and where people who disagreed spoke the truth as they saw it, while still treating each other with courtesy and respect. This is how politics should be done.