skip to content

From the future of democracy to Europe in the age of extremes - Political debate at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas

Questions about some of the biggest political issues of our times - from the future of democracy, race, gender and the rise of the far right to the fall-out from the Grenfell Tower tragedy - will be discussed at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas.


The Festival runs from 15th to 28th October. Speakers include Professor David Runciman, author of How Democracy Ends., Baroness Valerie Amos, Professor Philip Murphy, author of The Empire’s new clothes: the myth of the Commonwealth, historian Professor David Reynolds, postcolonial literature expert Dr Priyamvada Gopal, Ian Kearns, author of Collapse: Europe after the European Union and criminologist Professor Ben Bowling.


Professor Runciman will speak about the threats to democracy in the 21st century. He argues that comparisons with the 20th century are a mistake and that what is happening around the world is fundamentally different from the 1930s. He says: “Far from following the familiar pattern of military takeover or collapse in the rule of law, it is likely that democracy will fail in the 21st century in ways that we are not yet familiar with. Our democracies will not implode. But they may simply fade away, hollowed out by forces of technological progress and social division that we lack the power to understand, never mind resist.”


Europe in the age of extremes addresses the huge internal and external pressures facing the European Union, including the rise of nationalist and populist movements of all types across Europe - both inside the EU and outside, as well as the power struggle going on for control of Europe, can it survive? Speakers include Ian Kearns, Dr Julie Smith, Director of the European Centre in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University, John Breuilly, professor of nationalism and ethnicity at the London School of Economics, and Timothy Less, associate researcher at the University of Cambridge and director of the Nova Europa consultancy, which provides political risk analysis of Eastern Europe. 18th October.

Timothy Less will also be speaking on 20th October in an event titled The Second Collapse of Bosnia and Herzegovina where he will outline how the US’ America First policy and the EU’s internal problems are creating a power vacuum which could set Serbs and Croats free to collapse the Bosnian state.



A series of talks and discussions will look at issues around race, immigration and anticolonialism:


What does a global Britain mean post Brexit? Examines whether Britain’s exit from the EU could be an opportunity to rethink immigration policy and whether it has highlighted a need for a broader discussion about Britain’s place in the world today as well as a change in the way we teach history. Speakers include historian Shruti Kapila, Richard Johnson from Lancaster University, Sundeep Lidher, a researcher on the Runnymede Trust's 'Our Migration Story' project, and Professor Philip Murphy. 23rd October.

Professor Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, says his new book on the Commonwealth was prompted by the Brexit debate: “The Commonwealth was drawn into the Brexit debate in ways that ranged from the intentionally vague to the downright dishonest. It was essentially deployed by the Leave campaign as soothing mood music intended to reassure the British public that if we left the EU we would still be able to trade with our ‘Commonwealth friends’. But there was little concrete detail about how or why Brexit would actually enhance Commonwealth trade. Meanwhile there was a highly uncharacteristic degree of unanimity among the other members of the Commonwealth in favour of Britain remaining in the EU, not least because its departure was likely to disrupt existing patterns of aid and trade. But the campaign certainly pointed to the fact that the Commonwealth was very poorly understood in the UK.”

Baroness Valerie Amos, Director of SOAS University of London, will deliver The Race Equality Lecture on the theme of race and merit. Her talk will examine what we mean by ‘merit’ in terms of recruitment and promotion and whether our definition of merit contributes to sustaining racial inequalities. 22nd October

In Anticolonialism and the making of British dissent Dr Priyamvada Gopal, Reader in Anglophone and Related Literatures at the University of Cambridge, will argue that the emergence of metropolitan dissent from the imperial project alongside liberation struggles in the colonies was a two-way process, and that the resistance of the colonised shaped cultures of dissent in the heart of the imperium in profoundly important ways. 25th October.

In Black power, in Britain and on film historian Robin Bunce chairs a discussion of film makers and screenwriters who are bringing the hidden history of the Black Power Movement to the screen. Speakers include writer and producer Misan Sagay, screen writer and script editor Anna Ssemuyaba, director and producer Cathy Hassan, Helen Bart, legal producer of Stephen: the murder that changed a nation and Farrukh Dhondy, leading member of the British Black Panthers, author, screenwriter and producer for Channel 4. 20th October.

As part of events to launch the new Centre for the Study of Global Human Movement, Professor Ben Bowling and Professor Alison Phipps will reflect on the consequences of Britain’s ‘hostile environment’ and the criminalisation of migrant communities and explore creative ways to engage with and integrate ‘strangers’ in Crimmigration versus Integration: People's Lives, People's Voices. 23rd October


Gates of Europe is a month-long photo exhibition based on reporting by journalists Dietmar Telser and Benjamin Stöß who travelled along the external borders of Europe, talking to refugees, border police and activists in Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey.


Other politics-related events include:


Regulation, inspection and extreme risk: the history behind the Grenfell Tower tragedy

which will discuss the historical precursors to the Grenfell tragedy. In Victorian Britain a number of disasters similar to the Grenfell Tower fire struck in various sectors of industry and society as the rapidly changing and largely unregulated profit-oriented economy threw up all manner of hazards. This event examines how statutory regulatory bodies were set up to counter these dangers, how they evolved into today’s publicly funded inspectorates and how cost-cutting has affected their ability to function. 17th October.

Bridging the gender gap will address what gender equality means in practice, whether feminism is a threat to men or a collective liberation from social stereotypes and whether there can be equality at work without equality at home. With  economist Victoria Bateman, author of the forthcoming book The Sex Factor - how women made the West rich, film, tv and theatre director Topher Campbell, sociologist Manali Desai and Duncan Fisher from the Family Initiative. 24th October

The Festival sponsors and partners are St John’s College, Anglia Ruskin University, RAND Europe, University of Cambridge Museums and Botanic Garden, Cambridge Junction and Cambridge University Press. The Festival media partners are BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.

*Bookings for the Festival of Ideas open on 24th September.

Find out more on Facebook: and on Twitter:  #cfi2018