Leeds … City of Debate
In 2010, in a review of Café Scientifique in Chapel Allerton, Leeds, the author commented that: “Leeds does seem to be buzzing with debating parlours and salon groups these days, are we entering a golden era intellectually?” (Crawford, 2010). This review appeared a year after Michele Ledda and I founded The Leeds Salon, to host lively public discussions around political, cultural and scientific issues — or anything that takes our fancy — with the aim of challenging any orthodoxies along the way, and defending and developing the legacy of the Enlightenment.
The Salon developed out of a book group that had met every few months over the previous year-and-a-half. We were inspired to turn that into a public discussion forum by the salons we had discovered in Manchester and Huddersfield, along with our involvement in the national sixth-form Debating Matters competition.
When we started the Salon, we were unaware of all the other public discussion groups that existed in Leeds, or indeed how dynamic Leeds was compared to most other UK cities. We had expected to have to work hard to build a name and audience – which we have. But the Salon proved popular from very early on. And this was due, I would argue, at least in part, to the ‘buzz’ alluded to in the above review.
Around the time we founded The Leeds Salon, most notable amongst the discussion fora in Leeds was Café Scientifique in Chapel Allerton. In fact, this was the first ever Café Scientifique, established in 1998 by the late Duncan Dallas, a former television producer, who was inspired by the Café Philosophique movement that began in France in 1992.
The aim of Café Scientifique, as Duncan explained to me in 2010, is “to bring science back into culture by opening scientific issues to a public audience” (Thomas, 2010). The Cafés work as a franchise, with any group of like-minded people able to set one up. And, since its inception, it has proved enormously popular, spreading throughout the UK and, with the help of the British Council, internationally too. It has also expanded in Leeds itself, with a second Café Scientifique (Headingley) started by local residents in Headingley in 2006, and still going strong.
2007 saw the founding of another Leeds-based initiative, with Taking Soundings founded by a group of lecturers based at the then Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett). This is the first and possibly only discussion forum associated with the left-wing journal Soundings. And it was around this time that many other independent public discussion groups also sprang up, including Café Economique, now in its third incarnation. Cafés Philosophique, Sociologique, and Artistique were, sadly, short-lived affairs.
In February 2009 we founded The Leeds Salon, and later that year Leeds Skeptics in the Pub was set-up, a branch of the national Skeptics movement. The following year Talking Allowed in Leeds was established, the first of several Leeds branches of the popular Philosophy in Pubs initiative that originated in Liverpool in 2001. Also in 2010, again in Chapel Allerton, Café Psychologique was founded by a group analyst as “a space where people can talk about life over a drink from a psychological perspective” (Thomas, 2011), and which has since spread to several other UK towns. In January 2011, a new Café Philosophique began in Headingley, followed later in the year by a third Café Scientifique in Leeds Museum, both of which have since wound-down.
Of course, over the years many other groups have either spread to, or originated in Leeds, including the longest-surviving group I know of – outside of Leeds Philosophical & Literary Society (1819) – and that is Forum 2000, whose origins date back to 1978, and takes place in Horsforth during the day as it was originally aimed at retired people.
Another short-lived group which it would be good to see resurrected was Café Cinematique, which existed from 2016 to 2017 and combined a film showing and discussion, and which took place, again, in Chapel Allerton (if Leeds is a ‘City of Debate’, Chapel Allerton must surely be the ‘Suburb of Debate’). While a more recent addition is Leeds Pint of Science, which is part of a national initiative aiming “to provide a space for researchers and members of the public alike to come together” to chat about the latest science research.
Although Leeds has been unusually dynamic, public discussion groups have grown in popularity through the UK over the past decade, a phenomenon that has been commented on in the press. However, what I have not seen any discussion of is why so many groups have emerged and spread when they have.
As I have written before, “It seems obvious that all this activity is tapping into a desire for more stimulating debate than is provided by mainstream contemporary political and intellectual culture” (Thomas, 2010). More specifically, I would argue that the growth in debating groups is linked to the long decline of traditional left-right politics and, in particular, political parties themselves. As a consequence, if anyone has wanted challenging and robust political debate, or were interested in questioning the world around them, they have been forced to search out, or create, new opportunities to do so.
In particular, in the more recent past, the only regular public political meetings were organised by rival, mainly left-wing, political parties in fierce competition with each other. In contrast, the growth of public discussion fora is not a zero-sum game. It is not the case that someone attracted to one forum is unlikely to attend a ‘rival’ group. Instead they are likely to go to any-and-all, building a common audience, and developing a broader culture of debate.
At the same time that we have seen the demise of politics with a capital ‘P’, we have also seen the abandonment of the liberal educationalist ethos by successive government education policies and within education itself. Rather than upholding the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, education has moved in both a more utilitarian and therapeutic direction. On the one hand, there is an increasing emphasis on skills, employability and social and economic usefulness and, on the other, an emphasis on ‘relevance’, identity and feelings over rigorous critique and the search for a truth – the attainability of which has long since been called into question in academia itself.
This move away from the principles of liberal education has also undermined the principle of academic freedom and seen increased attacks within academia on freedom of speech itself – both from academics and, more overtly, the student body. As such, universities have become increasingly intolerant of open and free debate. To host a debate on campus nowadays, organisers must pass both Student Union regulations and officials keen to prohibit anything they deem potentially offensive, as well as universities’ own ‘protocols on freedom of expression’ and codes of conduct. Against this background, public discussion fora have played an increasingly important role in hosting open intellectual debate and, in particular, challenging many of the orthodoxies that originate in universities themselves.
However, while this is a national development, I would still argue that Leeds has been unusually blessed in the number of diverse and independent initiatives that have sprung. But why?
Culture of Debate
Some have attributed Leeds’ success and dynamism to it possessing a more independent left-wing spirit than other cities (see the comments to Thomas, 2010 & 2011). There may be something in this that is worth further research. However, most British cities have a left-wing tradition and, while some of the groups in Leeds were begun by people whose origins were on the organised left, this does not apply to all of them.
For me, the explanation is more prosaic. I think that in Leeds we have just been lucky in having a very successful early starter with the founding of the first Café Scientifique, which has both benefitted and inspired other groups — as evidenced by the popularity of the prefix ‘Café’. In other words, I would argue that a mutually reinforcing ‘culture of debate’ has developed in Leeds which has helped to develop and expand the audience and opportunities for intellectual debate: a dynamic that, of course, works nationally and internationally too.
The growth of public discussion groups is an important contemporary cultural phenomenon. This has occurred during a period of depoliticisation and the growth of anti-intellectual and illiberal trends within higher education and broader society. They can act as both a counter to these trends and, in our increasingly censorious times, as essential arenas for the defence and exercise of free and open debate. And it is that which, above all, defines The Leeds Salon.
All public discussion fora should share the same basic aims: the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and to enthuse people with debate as an end in itself. In general, I think this is true of the groups I have attended in Leeds. But, beyond that, each group will have its own specific, if similar or overlapping, agenda; for example, to open up discussion about scientific, philosophic or economic issues, etc.
The specific aim of The Leeds Salon, as mentioned, is to defend and develop the legacy of the Enlightenment, hence our motto “Re-Enlightening Debate”. To do this requires creating a space in which free speech can be exercised and ideas and issues can be openly contested. And this informs the way we approach any issue.
We are not, as some groups are, interested in a one-sided discussion that re-affirms our own beliefs. We want all ideas and arguments on the table. To try and achieve this, we will write our event blurb to try and attract an audience with as diverse and wide a range of opinions as possible. In addition, we try and balance any panel two-to-one against our own views.
To try and get the diverse range of opinion we want, when promoting a salon, as well as sending an email round our mailing list, we will also send separate emails to any individuals or organisation we think may be interested in that particular topic. To do this, we have built-up over the years a separate, now 20 page and growing, ‘promo list’. This list contains contacts in nearly every faculty of arts, humanities, science and social science in the seven universities in West Yorkshire and York, and all relevant student union societies. It has the local contact for the three major political parties and several smaller ones, and separate list of all Leeds City councillors. It has the listing addresses for the main newspapers and media organisations in Leeds and the surrounding area. It also contains contacts or addresses for major religious organisations, charities, artistic, literary and scientific organisations, environmental and various women’s and feminist groups.
Our approach to how we organise for a debate is, of course, informed by our political outlook; above all, our belief in the paramount importance of free speech to social progress and individual flourishing. In fact, we were once described disparagingly on a Leeds blog comment thread as “Enlightenment Libertarians”. I like that. As, regardless of the laws of the land, we will uphold the absolute right to freedom of speech in The Leeds Salon.
Paul Thomas, The Leeds Salon,
This is a living document originally written February 2017, and updated January 2023
Crawford, H. (2010) Café Scientifique, The Culture Vulture, 18 February 2010: https://theculturevulture.co.uk/blog/reviews/cafe-scientifique/ (accessed 6 August 2010).
Thomas, P (2010) Is Leeds a City of Debate…? The Culture Vulture, 6 August 2010: https://theculturevulture.co.uk/blog/speakerscorner/is-leeds-a-city-of-debate/ (accessed 6 August 2010).
Thomas, P (2011) Does Leeds Lead Debate? The Culture Vulture, 24 August 2011: https://theculturevulture.co.uk/blog/speakerscorner/does-leeds-lead-debate/ (accessed 24 August 2011.