Does Leeds Lead Debate?

281870_220597774642100_220339341334610_530098_2291526_nLast August, in response to Neil Owen’s original report on Leeds cultural offerings, I argued that debating groups were an important cultural dynamic in the city that could be one aspect of its ‘unique identity’. A year on, and again following Tim Ineaux’s recent ‘report’, how does my claim that Leeds is a ‘city of debate’ stack up?

In my original article I listed 5 main public debating groups in Leeds:

In addition, I listed various other initiatives that promote public discussion such the Leeds Summat (which returns this November), Culture Vulture’s own Cultural Conversations, and the Inter-Disciplinary Ethics Applied Centre.

I argued that Leeds seemed uniquely dynamic on the debating front compared with other cities. The reasons for which were perhaps a result of the early setting up and success of some groups, in particular Café Scientifique (founded in Leeds), which encouraged others to have a go, in turn creating a keen and growing audience for public debate. Whatever the reasons, the last year has seen the emergence of even more groups. Amongst those new debating fora, and one existing one I failed to mention last August, are:

  • Leeds Skeptics in the Pub was founded by Chris Worfolk in January 2009, and like many of the other fora mentioned is part of a growing national network of Skeptics (or Sceptics) groups. Skeptics meet the third Saturday afternoon of each month in Dr Foley’s on The Headrow and discuss issues of science, reason and rational thinking. Like many of the groups this is usually led by an invited speaker.
  • Café Psychologique was founded in December 2010 by Chris Powell, as a space where people can talk about life over a drink from a psychological perspective. The Café takes place the fourth Tuesday every month in Seven Arts in Chapel Allerton. Chris is looking for other venues throughout the UK to set up Cafe Psychologiques.
  • Café Philosophique takes place in Richmond House School Sports Pavilion, Glen Road, Weetwood. It was founded on January 2011 by John Dickinson and is part of a Weetwood Residents Association community liaison initiative and aims to foster good community relations and ‘some lively debate along the way’. After three successful Café’s earlier this year they are returning in the autumn with a further six planned discussions.
  • A third Leeds Café Scientifique began in May this year which takes place the second Sunday morning of each month at Leeds City Museum. It was founded by museum curator Clare Brown who aims to provide another forum in the heart of the city ‘by which people can feel comfortable understanding and talking about science’. Details for Café Scientifique Leeds City Museum can be found on the Café Scientifique Chapel Allerton website here.

Overall there are 9 independent forums dedicated to promoting public discussion in Leeds on all and every subject, and which regularly pull in audiences of 30 to 60+ per debate. We can also add to this various other organisations that promote occasional public debate in Leeds such as the British Science Association: West Yorkshire Branch. Leeds is also home to the public presentation forum and phenomenon that is Bettakultcha which is also spreading its wings beyond Leeds.

Not only does all this add up to a healthy culture of intellectual discussion in the city, but there has also developed a healthy sense of fraternity between many of the groups through the swapping of website links, joint events and the occasional promoting of each others’ events which has helped, I believe, make the idea of Leeds as a city of debate a reality. However, if anyone thinks any other UK city (outside London) could rival Leeds as a city of debate tell us which and why.

Paul Thomas is co-founder of The Leeds Salon, proselytises about debate in Leeds, and writes regularly for Freedom in a Puritan Age and Culture Vulture. He will be giving a talk on how to set up a debating group at the Sunrise Conference 2011, which takes place on Saturday 3 September in The Cosmopolitan Hotel, 2 Lower Briggate, Leeds, and online.


  1. Paul, you mention a lot a groups and meeting dates, but are less forthcoming about the quality of discussion and debate. I’m a Leeds lad myself and I value quality more than price or numbers in this case, so what about the quality? I Manchester, where I’m trying to bring civilisation to the funny folk on the other side of the pennines, I’ve been to various discussion forum and quality hasn’t been the primary focus or purpose of discussion as far as I can see. In fact many forum seem to focus much more on format and procedure rather than the process of digging deap into a subject in order to reveal elements of the debate obscured or ignored in other forum. Obviously Leeds is best as that’s where I’m from, but perhaps some details on the pros and cons of each forum would be useful.

    Cheers, Simon

    1. Simon

      I agree that what matters most is not numbers of groups or size of audience but the quality of the debate. However, I think both the number of groups and the audiences they pull in are indicative of an exciting cultural dynamic in the city, and also nationally with Cafes and Salons springing up everywhere.

      I’ve been to most, but not yet all the groups mentioned, and the quality of the debate has of course varied – as it has for the Salon – from some lively and in-depth discussions to some that have been a bit flat to say the least. I think the more groups there are and, crucially, the more a critical audience is built up for public debate, the more pressure this should put on all of us to improve both organisationally and intellectually.

      However, as for details on the ‘pros and cons’ of each forum and quality of debate, that really needs someone more neutral to put in the journalistic leg work.


  2. Despite its dry sounding (but accurate)name I can highly recommend the Freedom in a Puritan Age site and Paul’s contributions there especially.

  3. I’ve been to two Cafe Scientifique talks at the City Museum: both were fascinating and enjoyable. The only thing that puzzled me was why so few people attended. The talks were free, on Sunday mid-morning and in central Leeds. Perhaps a lack of advertising is responsible? I’m looking forward to trying some of these other groups – thanks for the informative article, Paul.

    1. Ally,

      Thanks for your comments. It’s a problem for all the groups getting the word about which hopefully this will help address. I went to the last Leeds City Museum Café Scientifique and there were over 30 people there for a debate on the life cycle of the stars, which is a good number for any group, but especially one so new.


  4. There may very well be another event offering exploration of difficult issues (I’m reluctant to use the word ‘debate’ as it suggests adversarial positions). Bettakultcha is considering a ‘members only’ event where several speakers contribute their views to a particular question. The idea is to explore as many angles as possible on the topic and thus demystify the issue.

    Everything is in flux at the moment but if anyone is interested in contributing, please get in touch.

    1. Hi Ivor

      I’m much more a fan of clarity of understanding than plethora of angles. There are many very intelligent people I’ve come across recently who are hell bent on questioning every angle and determined to present yet more angles than anyone could imagine.

      Alas, they are more concerned with playing intellectual games than developing ideas they actually believe in and argue the case for. Bold in questioning and profoundly timid when it comes to clarity and purpose, and we all saw where that approach articulate by the police in the recent riots led us.



  5. Apart from the minuscule point size in this comment section, I like Paul’s article and the responses very much. I’d be very interested to know whether Paul’s original point – is Leeds unique/unusual in its number of debating forums? – holds water.

    Whether or not Leeds is unique, I’m also interested to know why Leeds has so many of these discussion groups. My first shot at an explanation is the relative absence of both Stalinism and hard Trotskyism in Leeds, and a rather weak labour movement. Thus the party-builders (from the Communist Party to the Fourth International to the Labour Party) were unable to exert hegemony in Leeds. Interestingly, Leeds was a centre for the best elements in the Labour Party, the group called Independent Labour Publications (ILP), formerly the Independent Labour Party.

    This, I think, resulted in there being a significant political space in the city, which was filled by what might loosely be called left libertarianism. This manifested itself in various ways. Leeds has a proud anarchist tradition, the group I was in in the 1970s which called itself Leeds Libertarians (many of us then joined Big Flame in Leeds, which itself was a sometimes uncomfortable alliance of libertarians and very soft Leninists, and I might go so far as to suggest that the ILP had some libertarian elements). Leeds also contributed massively to the development of feminism from the late 1960s the feminist movement (founding members of Leeds Women’s Liberation were once anarchists), was a quick starter in the Gay Liberation Movement, and had a very active Black Power movement (more Jamesian than Nationalist). This abbreviated history should also include the Centre for Marxist Education, set up by Ralph Miliband and Tom Steele in about 1973, based, significantly, at the Swarthmore Centre, itself a bastion of free thinkers and the Workers Education Association. Further intellectual support came from the Polytechnic’s Art Department (especially Jeff Nuttall and Sue and John Fox) and odd-balls at Leeds University like Zygmunt Bauman, TJ Clark (briefly, fortunately) and Griselda Pollock.

    None of these groups succumbed to the blandishments of the Leninist/Trotskyist groups; in fact, the city then benefited from those leftists who gave up their membership of Trotskyist groups (several of whom were in the SWP’s excellent predecessor, the International Socialists). They all professed a commitment to building movements, rather than parties, and thus claimed to be non-sectarian and open to debate. Of course none were able to maintain those ideals all the time but their ideas and activity laid the foundations, I think, for the culture of debate that exists today in Leeds.

    By the way, all this – and much more – could be debated at a meeting of Leeds Taking Soundings, supported by Leeds Salon and hopefully some of the other debating societies, on 23rd November, when Tom Steele will discuss “Ideas, Education and political movements in Leeds”.

    1. Max

      Thanks for your comments. However, I’m not sure the Leeds’ old left traditions can really explain the current popularity of debating groups. First, because many aspects of that history will be shared by other major cities which lack Leeds’ debating dynamism (with possible exception of Liverpool according to PIP’s). And also because, while the likes of Duncan, some at Taking Soundings and some of us at Leeds Salon go back to various left-wing traditions, I’m not sure the majority of those who’ve founded debating groups do.

      It may not be much of a sociological explanation but I think we’ve just been lucky in having some early starters, particularly the original Café Scientifique but also Taking Sounds (admittedly started by people with history in the old left), and they in turn have inspired other groups to start up, and helped create a new audience for a newer form of non-sectarian debate (in a way that wasn’t entirely possible in the days of the old left – as you point out).

      I think the more interesting question is not why Leeds as much, as why now – why in the last half decade or so have so public debating groups emerged whether in Leeds, nationally and internationally (as with the Cafés and Salons)?

      In Leeds Guide earlier in the year I argued that maybe the growth of debating groups is, at least in part, linked to the decline in robust and challenging intellectual debate within mainstream politics – itself due to the disappearance of any significant ideological divide or battles between both left and right. At the same time as we’ve seen the demise of political with a capital ‘P’, we’ve also seen the abandonment of the liberal ethos of knowledge for its own sake within successive government education policy and academia itself. In other word, we’ve been living through politically and intellectual ‘dumbed-down’ times (to use an over-used phrase).

      As a consequence, I argued, those interested in questioning and debating the world around them have been forced to search out or create new opportunities to do so (a recent development that may add weight to this claim is development of student-organised tutorial groups, with lecturers invited to address groups of students who feel they’re not getting the education they want or expected, with ‘classes’ sometimes held in the students own accommodation – as discussed earlier this year in the Light organised by the Art in Unusual Places lot).

      Whatever the reasons for the growth of public debate – and Leeds’ dynamism in particular – I look forward to the discussion on 23 November (and chatting over a few pints afterwards – one political tradition at least we should all uphold).


    2. Max

      Very useful initial point about the font size, and asserts your critical faculties from the start – nice. You rather throw away the critical approach though when you follow on your questioning of the notion that Leeds is unique in its liveliness of debating forums, with an explanation of why that may be.

      I can’t help thinking you should have stuck to the questioning of Leeds uniqueness as a similar liveliness of debating forum exists in Manchester. For me, the most interesting aspect of this subject is to understand why discussion forum or debates are so lacking in critique or purposefulness. Your mapping of the key organisations and trends in the recent political history of Leeds is very useful and informative.

      The idea that the political traditions and personalities involved in Leeds historically are responsible for the lack of real critique or for the asserted unique popularity of debate in Leeds is asserted rather than substantiated. The collapse of Politics nationally, and indeed internationally, shouldn’t be underestimated in the impact it has. Whilst the main parties in most countries still exist, the ideas promoted to ‘manage’ society are a profoundly detached from their history.

      Max, can’t help thinking you should spend a couple of months working your way round each discussion forum in Leeds and to see if you can indeed see any continuity from the politics of the 60’s and 70’s, which probably are quite exagerated in formulation in Leeds. That would make a useful article for sure.

      Cheers, Simon

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