All change: navigating the new political disruption

Battle of Ideas festival 2018, Saturday 13 October, Barbican, London.


Whatever way we read today’s political disruptions, change is in the air. Mainstream political parties internationally, from Italy to Sweden, are being thrown into disarray by new challengers. Democratic votes, from Brexit to Trump, are seemingly giving two fingers to establishment norms. Postwar, rules-based economic and diplomatic arrangements are being torn up. Traditional gatekeepers to information, truth and expertise are now no longer the last word; the floodgates are open. The so-called ‘MSM’, the mainstream media, are under pressure from the technological effects of ‘democratisation’, with everyone from tech giant platforms to opinionated bloggers and social-media warriors challenging a monopoly on what we read and having their say.

This turbulent atmosphere is undoubtedly unsettling. It is understandable that we can be tempted to resist change because of the risks associated with it. As Arnold Bennett put it: ‘Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.’ Indeed, we seem to lack the imagination to see this in any way except negatively. Commentators reach to history to scaremonger about contemporary challenges to the status quo as though they must lead inevitably to everything from a repeat of Weimar Germany to another world war. The increasingly shrill alarmism about everything from the leaving the EU to changing lifestyle habits, such as young people’s ‘dependence’ on mobile phones, indicates a free-floating, existential anxiety that implies that a changing world will lead to incalculable threats on all sides.

However, is there a danger that when society cultivates such fears it is promoting a climate of passive helplessness? And interestingly, perhaps what drives these much repeated concerns are risk-averse elites, fearful that millions of citizens are no longer listening to them about the virtues of how we do things now. After all, the majority in the UK voted in defiance of ‘Project Fear’ in 2016. Moreover, is the ‘genie out of the bottle’ now when it comes to political change? For example, if the UK were to end up staying in the EU, the rejection of such a large democratic vote would have consequences for years to come, undermining the legitimacy of the major political parties. We may have no choice but to embrace change and work to shape the future as best we can.

Perhaps we need to reboot our approach to entering a new historic period? Does the unpredictable future need to be experienced as out of our control and scary? After all, change can be full of opportunity. And the alternative to change can be moribund stagnation, as noted by Harold Wilson: ‘He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.’ George Bernard Shaw summed up the choices we face: ‘When people shake their heads because we are living in a restless age, ask them how they would like to life in a stationary one, and do without change.’

Can we transform today’s turbulence as an opportunity to shape the future, grasp the moment with hope, be inspired by a period that is resonant with possibilities? Can we create a climate in which people will embrace new experiences and exhibit a willingness to take risks?

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, How Fear Works: culture of fear in the 21st century and Populism and the European Culture Wars

Dr Eliane Glaser
writer; radio producer; senior lecturer, Bath Spa University; author, Anti-Politics: on the demonization of ideology, authority, and the state

Matthew Goodwin
professor of political science, University of Kent; senior fellow, Chatham House; author, National Populism: the revolt against liberal democracy and Revolt on the Right

Stephen Kinnock MP
Labour MP for Aberavon; member, Exiting the EU Select Committee and EU Scrutiny Committee; co-editor Spirit of Britain, Purpose of Labour: building a whole nation politics to reunite our divided country

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!