Is Leeds a City of Debate…?

Our author Paul Thomas
Our author Paul Thomas

Paul Thomas co founder of the Leeds Salon got us thinking during a recent blog post by Neil from Test Space Leeds. Amongst the cacophony of responses Paul posited that Leeds was defined as a City of Debate (I’m almost terrified that none of you will comment at the end of this interesting post…please don’t let me down dear reader!) So here is our guest post from Paul outlining why he made his claim

Leading Debate?

At the end of Helen Crawford’s review of Café Scientifique in Chapel Allerton she asks ‘Leeds does seem to be buzzing with debating, parlour and salon groups these days, are we entering a golden era intellectually?’ Well, as co-founder of one such forum, I hope so. And what’s more, could this be part of the much sort after ‘unique identity for Leeds’, as discussed recently on The Culture Vulture?

Debate in the City

You may not know it but Leeds is not short of opportunities for public debate, especially in comparison to most other British cities outside London. And while some debating groups have been around for over a half a decade, most have sprung up in just the last two or three years, these include:

Café Scientifique – Chapel Allerton

This was the first Café Scientifique in the UK, and was established in 1998 by Duncan Dallas a former YTV producer. The idea for the Café Scientifique was inspired by the Café Philosophique set up in Paris in the 1960s. Each café is autonomous but part of an established and growing network throughout the UK and internationally. The aim of the Café Scientifique is to bring science back into culture by opening scientific issues to a public audience, and hosting civilized and informed discussion as a tool for social change. Discussions are usually held monthly in Chapel Allerton. The venue may vary so check the website for details and to join the mailing list, or click here

Café Scientifique – Headingley

It seems there’s so much demand for good debate on science in Leeds that it has not one but two Café Scientifiques pulling in large audiences. Headingley Café Scientifique was started in the early 2006 by Chris Hill, under the auspices of the Headingley Development Trust, and has continued since 2007 with Ann Clarke as organiser. The Café has thrived from its inception and aims to provide not only a welcoming place for public scientific debate but also to enhance the range of cultural opportunities in Headingley. Discussions are held monthly in The New Headingley Club 56 St Michael’s Road. Visit the website to join the mailing list or e-mail

Taking Soundings

Taking Sounding began in 2007 and was founded by a group of lecturers based at Leeds Metropolitan University who subscribe to the journal Soundings. Its monthly meetings are addressed by a speaker who may be associated with that journal, but doesn’t have to be. It aims to stimulate radical leftist debate on contemporary political and cultural issues, and they pull in a varied audience from Leeds and beyond. Taking Soundings is not aligned with any party and discussions are courteous and non-sectarian. Meetings are usually at the Old (BBC) Broadcasting House, Woodhouse Lane opposite Leeds Met. To join the mailing list e-mail

Café Economique

Unable to find anywhere in Leeds that discussed economics aimed at the general public, David Adshead, Lorna Arblaster and Claire Bastin set up Café Economique in 2007. The Café is organised by Economic Justice for All, a discussion forum which aims to broaden and deepen the debate on economic justice for all within the context of environmental sustainability, and to encourage participation in economic debate on a local, national and international level. They hold monthly meetings at a Chapel Allerton venue. Café Economique’s website is temporarily unavailable, for more information and to join the mailing list e-mail

Leeds Salon

Leeds Salon was founded by Michele Ledda and I in early 2009, and was inspired by similar initiatives in Huddersfield and Manchester and our participation in the sixth-form Debating Matters competition. We hold public debates around contemporary political, cultural and scientific issues, aiming to challenge some orthodoxies along the way. As with the Café Scientifiques, the Salon is autonomous but also part of a loose network of Salons that have sprung up nationally and internationally in recent years. Discussions take place at various venues in and around Leeds City Centre. Visit the website to join the mailing list visit or e-mail

All these fora attract good sized and diverse audiences, and are not the only opportunities for public discussion in Leeds. In fact, they seem to be popping up all the time. There’s the innovative Bettakultcha initiative, the recently established Union 105/Chapel Town Salon art gallery and conversation space, and a new Café Philosophique based in Weetwood should be up and running before the end of the year. While at Leeds University there’s the Inter-Disciplinary Ethics Applied, the Roundhouse journal group, and Liberty @ Leeds, all of whom hold regular public debates attracting some big names speakers. Although not principally a discussion group, the Leeds-based charity Together for Peace held its Leeds Summat weekend of culture and debate last November at Leeds University Union, which it’s planning to repeat in August 2011. And of course there’s Culture Vulture’s very own Cultural Conversations initiative, aimed at helping to promote and unite all that’s happening culturally in Leeds.

A City of Debate

For me 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. But surely you’d think that would apply everywhere. However, while Leeds seems rife with opportunities for debate this doesn’t seem to be replicated in other northern UK cities (but please tell me if I’m wrong about this). For example, if we compare Leeds to Manchester (to which it seems most often compared) the only equivalent forum to those in Leeds that I know of is Manchester Salon. And while Leeds has two Café Scientifiques pulling in regular audiences of 40-60 per talk, Cafe Scientifique in Manchester wound-down in 2006 due to lack of interest. But why is this? After all, Leeds is both a smaller city and, as has been argued recently on Culture Vulture, is apparently lagging behind other cities in terms of ‘stuff happening’ and cultural spaces to do it in.

Perhaps, initially at least, Leeds has been fortunate in having individuals or groups willing to have a go. But in turn this has become a mutually reinforcing dynamic. For example, not only does Leeds have two Café Scientifiques but, as mentioned, the initiative was actually founded in Leeds by Duncan Dallas. In turn, the Café Scientifique inspired a number of other themed cafés, most of which seemed to have disappeared but from which Café Economique is a notable survivor. Likewise, as far as I know Taking Soundings is the only public debating forum of the Soundings journal in the UK. And for Leeds Salon, the nearby Huddersfield and Manchester Salons were major inspirations in us deciding to turn a small book group into a public debating forum. In other words, the existence of a few successful debating groups in and around Leeds has encouraged others to have a go. In turn, this has contributed to the steady build up over time a certain ‘culture of debate’, which has been important to the subsequent success of groups such ours.

If you think about it, the idea of going out for an evening to sit amongst possible strangers discussing politics, science or culture might seem an odd or daunting prospect, especially in today’s more de-politicised culture. But the growth of initiatives both encourages, and normalises them for, the potential newcomer, helping build a broader public intellectual audience within Leeds and beyond used to the concept and format. This in turn has been aided by the development of links and relations amongst many of the above groups which have promoted wider awareness of the opportunities to engage in, or simply sit and listen, to open public debate: whether that’s about some of the most important issues of our time, or just anything we think is interesting or worth discussing.

The growth of debating groups isn’t unique to Leeds, but Leeds certainly seems uniquely blessed in terms of number and variety. This is an important cultural dynamic that should be made more aware of and that could, in time, see Leeds become a leading city of debate.

Thanks to Duncan Dallas (Café Scientifique – Chapel Allerton), Ann Clark (Café Scientifique – Headingley), Max Farrar (Taking Soundings), and Ann Arblaster (Café Economique) for biographical information.

Is Paul right that Leeds is uniquely blessed amongst cities in terms of a ‘culture of debate’? And if this is the case, do you agree with Paul’s reasons why or do you have your own explanation as to why this is?


  1. I don’t know that Leeds is unique in this regard – the City Debate at Manchester’s FutureEverything festival illustrated that city’s great grassroots communities too.

    Leeds is overflowing with clubs, meetups, societies and unconferences – but I think the real challenge is to move all this activity into achievement.

    As a city we’re ably showing how easy it is to start a community, but we’re not demonstrating how to sustain them, deepen their roots and create something enduring and valuable.

    1. Loving your comment Imran – agree 100%. Re: that challenge – what are your (and anyone reading this’) thoughts on meeting it? Links to blogs, articles, and papers would be amazing, plus of course some discussion here…

      1. I have some ideas – I ran two R&D labs in the last decade and learned a lot about how to weave fleeting ideas, conversations and concepts into enduring institutions…lol, though both are now gone!

        In both those contexts, tens of thousands of people appeared to be doing a lot, but actually real progress was obscured by activity.

        I’m hungry to try some of this out at city-scale…and maybe even street-scale. We used things like storytelling, concepts & futurism to propogate ideas, but then measured and quantified actual progress on those ideas using mechanisms like futures markets.

        Though at this scale, I don’t have firm answers – there are some interesting levers like Mike Chitty’s “LeedsLAB”, a culture of open government data, better local media, a lot of volunteerism.

        Ultimately, what I’m sensing is a lack of vision, or visions; though we’ve all been great at illustrating symptoms, we haven’t really succeeded in articulating what we want this city to ultimately be? What are those stories? It doesn’t matter how viable they are yet, but they need to be visible.

        1. I’m unfamiliar with most of the techniques you mention, but they sound fascinating. Any further reading would be most welcome!

          A phrase from your first comment really struck me – “As a city we’re ably showing how easy it is to start a community, but we’re not demonstrating how to sustain them, deepen their roots and create something enduring and valuable.” At the moment I’m working on ways of supporting activist groups, and this is pretty much the problem I’m working on.

          Strengthening groups so that they are more resilient isn’t a mystical process, but I have yet to a) speak to someone who can clearly articulate to me the ‘how-to’ of a really strong group or b) read a comprehensive guide on the subject. This mystifies me. Best practice doesn’t solve a problem itself, but bloody hell it helps.

          In terms of ‘creating something valuable’, I suppose the first question is what value we want to create (or as you put it, what are our visions?). Not only do groups often have little idea of the value they want or could create, they have no idea how it might fit into a bigger picture. This area is ripe for conversations. The recent discussions here on this blog and other places are a great start, and the vision for Leeds is a great opportunity, but I wonder how we take this further. It’s such an important area it deserves far more than a ‘nice chat’ – hmmm…

          Fascinating stuff, and crucial to the progress of our city. Looking forward to the next Cultural Conversations!

          1. Ultimately, it’s *all* activism, as you suggest and I believe great activism is commitment, vision/storytelling and illustrating paths to that…however quixotic.

            Well let’s have that ‘nice chat’ and see what we can do…I’ll see if I can rustle up a reading list, but it might be kinda disjointed (I’ve filled the gaps in over the years).

            I gots some ideas about the vision thing – gonna have a chat with Mike Chitty on how that can be developed sometime this week.

  2. The wealth of debating networks is a real strength of the city. We should celebrate it.: something Leeds is not great at. And we all – at the Council, businesses, the third sector, the twitterati – should take responsibility to act on what we’ve learnt and make Leeds uniquely better as a result. I for one commit to participate, to learn and to act.

  3. Thanks for initiating this Paul. I think Leeds might be unusual in having quite so many discussion groups and the historical/sociological nerd in me is interested in debating why this might be the case.

    My guess is that it is something to do with the relative weakness of the organised labour movement in Leeds, resulting in softer versions of the communist and labour parties than in ‘better organised’ cities, and that allowed for a strong Independent Labour Party (always better on debate than the hard left) and quite a flourishing anarchist and (later) libertarian, feminist, lesbian and gay movements.

    On the question of how to link, strengthen, sustain these autonomous organisations, thereby hangs the sorry history of the left. Some argue that you have to have a (fairly centralised) political party to achieve this. That’s not going to appeal to many of us in these groups (some of us have been there and felt the pain).

    It might be that real social change is best promoted by this plethora of ideas and organisational structures, and that they are only forced to come together in periods of crisis. But the strange thing today is that European societies are in crisis, and we still don’t seem to come together . . . this paradox actually takes quite a lot of thinking through, which of course is why we need all these groups!

    1. Max

      I agree, at least in part, that the popularity of the contemporary debating group is related to the weakness of organised labour movement. Although I would say it’s not just the collapse of the old left, but the increasingly irrelevance and disconnectedness of all political movements across the board has given rise to a new desire to re-examine ideas about the world in general and to look for something new and better than what’s on offer. This might be evidenced in the growth of book sales over the last decade, fiction and non-fiction alike (until the recent recession); and maybe even the recent renaissance in quality TV documentaries is both feeding and helping to create a desire for knowledge and search out opportunities for discussion.

      I also think the nature of the contemporary discussion group is conducive to the development of the broader culture of debate. Unlike in the old days when the only real regular public meetings were organised by competing political groups, this isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s not the case that someone attracted to one forum is unlikely to attend ‘rival’ debates; instead they are likely to go to any-and-all depending on their interest. In addition, I think the contemporary forum is also more conducive to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge than both past party debates and than is encouraged by mainstream education today, and many people turn up not actually to debate but simply to listen to the speakers we invite in discussion with the audience.

      On your point about how to link, strengthen and sustain all these autonomous organisations, I think we’re doing fine at that as it is. My article isn’t a call for that to happen but both a result of the gradual development of links between groups – through website links on each others sites, occasionally promotion of others’ debates, and occasional joint events – and an encouragement to more, and to the realisation of how our individual endeavours add to the whole. As I argue, this developing culture of debate is a mutually reinforcing dynamic – the existence of so many groups both strengthens and sustains them and encourages new forums to start up.

      I certainly wouldn’t advocate any kind of ‘centralisation’. However, a neutral ‘one-stop-shop’ would be useful, and this is where the likes of Culture Vulture could come in. There used to be the old Café Nexus website which listed all the various Cafes where you could visit and see debates were coming up. That was replaced last year by a new Nexus site, which unfortunately hasn’t taken off. I think something similar that listed the forthcoming events of all those fora that wish to sign up to it would be more than useful. This would inform the public of what’s taking place when; help to inform each other when arranging our own events what other groups have coming up to, if at all possible, avoid clashes of dates and/or subject matter; while raising overall awareness of all the opportunities for debate in city.

      I think that the cause of social change, which many groups are inspired by in one way or other is, as you say, best promoted by a plethora of groups – and the more the better. But it would help all groups, and maybe help define Leeds as a unique city of debate, if more people knew what was happening, and the likes of Culture Vulture could prove invaluable in this.

      Paul Thomas

  4. Good shout, Paul.

    Methinx it would be unwise to attempt to build a mass party or unified organisation – certainly now. These things may have had their day or prove superfluous in this more interconnected age.

    What we know of the ‘left’ (as well as the traditional right) is in a mess anyhow – apart from a gut instinct to defend the interests of the mass of society there is a tendency to shoot oneself in the foot by denying growth – more stuff and a better standard of living – and thus running hand-in-hand with mainstream notions of doing with less. The left play a confusing role here and end up justifying austerity – however unintentioned.

    NB. There’s also The Great Debate in Newcastle, Pecha Kucha in Leeds and Huddersfield, Academic groups in Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield, Manchester Soc of Architects . . .

  5. I was directed to this by Linkedin and I must say I had no idea about any of these groups. Judging from the information given so far it all looks a little bit like self-indulgence. Unless I haven’t read it properly it’s not clear to me whether there are clear objectives involved here or just an excuse for talking shops.
    I’m an objective political observer, I hope, but it seems to me that if you want to achieve social justice by political means you don’t start with The Left any more. Too much baggage. Tony Blair, with all his faults, at least saw that, and unfortunately the traditional Left has lost the plot so badly that it needs a really radical re-think. Whatever you think about the Coalition they represent a new scene in politics – a social conscience backed by practical economics.

    1. Peter

      I don’t see the self indulgence involved in setting up public debating groups, unless you think it’s self-indulgent to want to stimulate public debate, which is the general objective of groups. Should we not bother to do that? Is it not important? By both the number of groups and the healthy audiences we all get, there’s clearly a desire amongst a large minority of people to want to engage in public discussion on all and everything, or just come and listen to it.

      My article is in response to a debate on Culture Vulture about what’s Leeds got going for it, and what could be its unique identity. I was pointing out the dynamism of debating groups which people seemed unaware of and suggesting this could be part of that unique identity.

      I don’t see what your second paragraph and comments about ‘the left’ has to do with the article. But if you think the Coalition represents something new in politics you’re as delusional as the left who think every strike represents the re-emergence of the class struggle. I think that amongst the reasons for the rise – not just in Leeds but nationally and internationally – of debating groups is the vacuousness and irrelevance of contemporary political culture, and an educational/intellectual culture that has ceased to value ideas for their own sake.

      Leeds Salon

  6. Although I have been involved in setting up the new Talking Allowed in Leeds group, I must point out that it is Liverpool (and other parts of Merseyside) that seems to be a prime contender for the “city of debates”. The Philosophy in Pubs group was founded by Liverpudlians and is growing and spreading, with 10 groups on Merseyside alone. I am interested in Max’s point, looking for an explanation of the growth of various groups, and I suppose that a good deal of empirical research (and theoretical considerations) would be needed to provide an explanation. The decline in organised forms of debate would be one factor. Where it will all lead, or should lead, could itself be the focus of philosophical debate.

  7. The United States of America Has Literally Been The Land Of Opportunity From It’s Founding. That does not mean every American is filthy rich or there is equitable distribution of wealth. The American National Common Culture Is Characterized By The Wide Range Of Opprortunities Available To Every American Citizen To Truly Participate In The Democratic Process, Of Which Voting Is The Final Step In A Continuous National Dialogue. I Believe This Fundamental Hallmark Of America Is Why American Citizenship Is One Of The Most Sought After Commodities In The Modern World

  8. I know it’s November (almost) and this article is from June. However, as someone from Leeds, I must say I am unaware of any debate forum. Down south there are forums such as the Cogers, whereby anybody may speak about anything. This is a vital forum lacking in Leeds. While it is perfectly okay to have specific societies relating to science, economics etc, there needs to be more of a general forum (to include, dare I say it, politics) for public speaking.

    It’s also disappointing that the Leeds speakers’ corner is only ever used during rallies and protests. I would love to engage in healthy dialogue with people and spout my own opinions on matters I am concerned about; however, as a sole speaker there I would be doomed to fail, be heckled and look like someone who’d lost their marbles by shouting at the top of their voice at nobody.

    If anybody has any desire as I do to promote public speaking and debate, I’d be very interested in hearing from you.

    1. Hey Zzz thanks for commenting and taking time to look around the site. We also have another section called Tell me why…which you may enjoy.

      You wouldn’t be alone if you wanted to debate stuff, just depends sometimes on the subject matter and how you phrase your blog

      Either way we need brave souls happy to lead the way so jump on in!

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