Birmingham Salon


Creating dangerously or the art of conformity?

Saturday 15th June, 1.00 pm - 3.00 pm

Map Room, Cherry Reds, 88-92 John Bright Street, B1 1BN

Tickets £3.50 (plus EventBrite fee)

Please book via EventBrite

"The work of the artist in all its aspects is, of its nature, individual and free, undisciplined, unregimented, uncontrolled. The artist walks where the breath of spirit blows him. He cannot be told his direction; he doesn’t know it himself”. John Maynard Keynes, writing as chairman of the Arts Council in 1943

In the Second World War, Birmingham Surrealist painter Conroy Maddox had his works seized by Scotland Yard in a raid, as they were suspected to contain messages to the enemy. Perhaps Maddox was an example in action of the exhortation of writer Albert Camus in his 1957 lecture to create dangerously. On the other hand, he might have not been subject to a police raid in a different historical time, and he was more like Keynes’ description of an artist, not really knowing his direction.

Earlier this year, artists were outraged about changes made to the Arts Council’s guidance suggesting artists and art institutions should be careful not to damage the Arts Council’s reputation through “activity that might be considered overtly political and activist”. The argument advanced was that art should be political. 

Arguably though, being political is what is most valued in art now and in rather predictable ways. The 2023 Turner Prize winner Jesse Darling's work is about Brexit, labour, class, and power. On the 2023 Turner Prize shortlist was Barbara Walker for her portraits of Black British people affected by the Windrush scandal. The work of the Turner Prize winner in 2022, Veronica Ryan, also referenced the Windrush scandal. When the Turner Prize was awarded in 2023, Jesse Darling pulled out a Palestinian flag. At this year’s Venice Biennale, the Israeli artists refused to open the Israel Pavilion in protest at the Israel/Gaza war.  Of course, these are all serious issues worthy of debate, interrogation, and artistic representation. But if these artists were advancing very controversial ideas, or were producing art that was not well understood, would they be in receipt of top art prizes or invited to world renowned exhibitions? Are they really being politically challenging or complying with establishment ideological orthodoxy?

As Camus observed, “The question, for all those who cannot live without art and what it signifies, is merely to find out how, among the police forces of so many ideologies (how many churches, what solitude!), the strange liberty of creation is possible.” Whether actual or ideological policing of the arts is taking place, there is an impact on the freedom of the artists and their creativity. 

In the autumn of 2023, dancer and choreographer Rosie Kay and ex-Arts Council employee Denise Fahmy set up an organisation, Freedom in the Arts, out of concern for the narrowing realm of artistic freedom. Its manifesto states: “Artists face a stifling environment of censure and intimidation. Many people working in the arts are afraid to express everyday views. Freedom in the Arts responds to this crisis in the cultural sector.”
We’re very pleased to welcome Denise to Birmingham Salon to discuss the Freedom in the Arts project and its ambition to make the arts a place for the exploration of difficult ideas. 

Denise Fahmy - Denise has 30 years’ experience in arts management and is a museums and visual arts specialist. For 15 years she managed a portfolio of over £2million pa at Arts Council England until, in 2023, she resigned and won an Employment Tribunal against ACE after her colleagues harassed her due to her beliefs. Denise's tribunal win was the first case to test the historic Forstater Judgement.

Chair Rosie Cuckston

Freedom in the Arts Manifesto, Denise Fahmy/Rosie Kay
Artistic freedom is worth the risk, Denise Fahmy, The Critic, February 2024
Letter on Liberty - Art against orthodoxy, JJ Charlesworth, Academy of Ideas, February 2021
Meet the modern day censors, wielding their purse strings over artists and their work, Sonia Sodha, The Guardian, February 2024



Is there policing by consent?

Saturday 11th May, 1.00 pm - 3.00 pm

Map Room, Cherry Reds, 88-92 John Bright Street, B1 1BN

Tickets £3.50 (plus EventBrite fee)

Please book via EventBrite

Recent surveys show the U.K. public have decreasing levels of trust in the police to do a good job, solve crime, and treat everyone fairly regardless of background. A sense that police responsiveness and visibility in communities is lacking, scandals about dishonourable treatment of victims of crime and violent sexual offending carried out by officers are significant factors. And so is public perception of whether the police act impartially.

The Peelian principles on which the U.K. police were established state that public consent for policing is maintained “not by pandering to public opinion” but by applying the law fairly, impartially and by using minimal force. But accusations of two tier policing are frequently made by people with a wide variety of political views and from different backgrounds.

Between 2010 and 2019 around 20,000 officers left the police force and government funding was cut by 20%. Nine thousand, the highest number on record, quit in a single financial year ending March 2023. The current number of police officers is a few thousand more than in 2010, but has not kept pace with U.K. population growth.

In the year leading up to March 2022, half of the police officers who left had retired , leaving the police force struggling with a significant reduction in experienced police officers with young officers not having enough inspectors to train them properly. One third of police officers has less than five years experience, more than double the number in 2017 (Source: BBC News). 

In spite of the obvious police numbers, retention and public trust issues, police powers are due for an unprecedented increase via the Criminal Justice Bill. Currently, only local authorities can issue Public Spaces Protection Orders, but this power would be given to the police via section 68 of the Bill. In effect, this gives the police powers to make up by-laws to make their lives easier without any need for public consultation or democratic accountability. They will also be able to issue Community Protection Notices to children as young as 10. 

What will restore the Peelian principles and our trust in our police force?

Tom Andrews, Lecturer in Policing, University of Derby
Dolan Cummings, writer, co-ordinator of Manifesto Club campaign against the Criminal Justice Bill
Chair: Chris Akers


Survey finds country police force has second lowest morale in the country, Dominic Robertson, Shropshire Star, April 2024

Met Police apologises for 'openly Jewish' comment, BBC News, April 2024
Stop the Criminal Justice Bill, Manifesto Club, February 2024
Only 40% of people in England trust their police force, research reveals, Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, April 2024
How woke policing betrays ordinary people, Neil Davenport, Spiked Online, April 2024

Work, anti-work, post work


Work, anti-work, post work

Saturday 9th March, 1.00 pm - 3.00 pm

Map Room, Cherry Reds, 88-92 John Bright Street, B1 1BN

Tickets £3.50 (plus EventBrite fee)

Please book via EventBrite

Beveridge’s 1942 report cited ‘Idleness 'as one of the five great ‘wants‘ and Freud said that love and work are the cornerstone of our humanness, driven by the same life-force.   From the establishment of bourgeois society, the society of those who work, work has been dogged by its shadows, unemployment and bankruptcy. Unemployment is still a dismal prospect for most people and even proponents of a post-work future still envisage us filling our leisure time with constructive activity underpinned by a universal basic income.  The advent of AI suggests increasing numbers of higher status jobs, such as GP, are threatened with the prospect of unemployment.

However, it appears in the 21st century we have fallen out with the idea of work in a very fundamental way. There are 2.8 million adults designated as suffering from long-term illness and the labour force inactivity rate has increased by 1.4% since the pandemic, now standing at 21.4% and one of the highest since records began in 1993. The NHS has an enormous backlog of people waiting for operations, but is some of this illness a manifestation of anxiety and neurosis: sanctioned shirking? Even so, what would we do if this were to stop? There are currently around 900,000 vacancies, a significant number, but not enough should most of those people become well enough to work.

The pandemic measures saw many workplaces close or limit access, and some companies have never reopened their offices or have drastically cut their use of office space and promoted hybrid working. Arguably, one compensation of even the most tedious and menial of jobs was to be found in the companionship of colleagues. Close technological monitoring at work attempts to produce productivity increases, whilst HR promotes policies that focus on people as members of separate identity groups. Perhaps people are too isolated, self-censoring, and closely scrutinised to find work anything other than dehumanising, and unable to develop friendships at work which might help make it more rewarding. But if that’s the case, why encourage work and home to blur and readily give up opportunities for face to face contact, as many have done, rather than fight for management to back off and for a space wholly dedicated to work? 

There is also a generation gap, with 18-24 year olds the least likely to want to work from home. But in this age group, too, there is also a tendency against showing open ambition and making your work a focus of your life. 

Is this all okay? Does it mean society is reacting against an empty idea of having it all which has meant unsustainable sacrifices in other areas of life? Or are we giving up on opportunities, via our work, to show ourselves at our best?


Three of our Salon regulars, Rosie, Rebecca, and Derrick will discuss their thoughts on this topic.

Rosie Pocklington works in the 3rd sector advising on health and finance. Rosie will focus on work ethic.

Rebecca Rosewarne spent 30 years in Russell Group universities as administrator, student and supervisor. She has 3 Masters Degrees and had 2 attempts at PhD. She will focus on labour force inactivity.

Derrick Scott is a retired computer systems manager. He will focus on the impact of e.g. robotics, AI and other developments on work from shop-floor to C-suite.

Chair: Rosie Cuckston


Which is worse, work or no work? Peter Franklin, UnHerd, February 2020

'There's nothing sexier than a 9 to 5 job': how a generation fell out of love with work, The Telegraph, August 2023 

Post work: the radical idea of a world without jobs, The Guardian, January 2018



AI - Separating Man from Machine

Saturday 10th February, 1.00 pm - 3.00 pm

Map Room, Cherry Reds, 88-92 John Bright Street, B1 1BN

Tickets £3.50

Please book via EventBrite

Oxford Computer Science Professor Michael Wooldridge, who gave the Christmas 2023 Royal Institution Lectures on the subject, describes AI as a glorified spreadsheet and something that doesn't keep him awake at night, although he can see it could pose a catastrophic risk. More generally, thinking about the risks and benefits of AI has moved more towards catastrophising its effects, with the government hosting the first global AI safety summit last November. What both boosters and demonisers of AI seem to have in common is an overestimation of it: it will either solve all problems humanity faces or end us. Even though AI can reportedly predict 70% of earthquakes before they occur, or help farmers better target weedkiller spraying, the fact is that it still regularly makes mistakes. It can give us the answer to a problem such as getting the trains to run on time that all trains should be stopped from running at all.

In the Letter on Liberty essay from which this Salon takes its title, our speaker Sandy Starr argues that AI is a wonder of human invention with connections to other leaps forward in computing such as Babbage's Analytical Engine, Ada Lovelace's first computer programme, Turing's test to assess a machine's ability to imitate a human convincingly, and the invention of Markov chains. However, he concludes that "if aspects of our behaviour, communications and creations can now be emulated by machines, then perhaps we should take this as encouragement to behave, communicate and create differently." We're very pleased that Sandy Starr will be joined by Achim Jung, Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Birmingham, to help us understand more about AI and what computational theory anticipates about its ability.


Sandy Starrdeputy director of the Progress Educational Trust (PET), a charity that improves choices for people affected by infertility and genetic conditions. He serves on the oversight group of the project Governance of Stem-Cell-Based Embryo Models, coordinated by Cambridge Reproduction.

Achim Jung - Emeritus Professor of Computer Science, University of Birmingham; editor - Theoretical Computer Science; co-founder Birmingham Theory Group (theory of computation).

Chair - Chrissie Daz


AI: Separating Man from Machine, Academy of Ideas Letter on Liberty, Sandy Starr, June 2023
From the Chinese Room Argument to the Church-Turing Thesis, Dean Petters & Achim Jung, Computer Science, April 2018
AI predicts 70% of earthquakes a week before they occur, Interesting Engineering, October 2023

Salons in 2024 - save the dates!

Our first set of discussions in 2024 will take place in the Map Room at Cherry Red's, 88-92 John Bright Street, Birmingham, B1 1BN on Saturdays from 1pm - 3pm.

On 10th February, Sandy Starr will join us to discuss his Letter on Liberty "AI, Separating Man from Machine." Are the worries about generative AI technology really about us, rather than the machines? 

Further salons will take place on 9th March, 13th April, 11th May, and 15th June looking at 21st century work and work ethic, freedom and the arts, whether we're equal before the law, and Net Zero. 

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!





Talking liberty - Boxing: don't count it out

Saturday 18th November, 1.00 pm - 3.00 pm

Map Room, Cherry Reds, 88-92 John Bright Street, B1 1BN

Free entry but donations welcome. Donations help us to meet speaker travel and room hire costs for our two debate Salon events.

Please book via EventBrite

Join us for this Battle of Ideas Festival 2023 Satellite Event with Birmingham Salon organiser and regular Chris Akers introducing his newly released Letter on Liberty about boxing.

Open debate has been suffocated by today’s censorious climate and there is little cultural support for freedom as a foundational value. What we need is rowdy, good-natured disagreement and people prepared to experiment with what freedom might mean today. Faced with this challenge, the Academy of Ideas decided to launch Letters on Liberty – a radical public pamphleteering campaign aimed at reimagining arguments for freedom in the twenty-first century.

In his Letter – Boxing: don’t count it out – writer and boxing enthusiast Chris Akers argues that boxing, more than any sport, has a unique way of tapping into the consciousness of the poor, the disgruntled and the forgotten. For all its flaws, he writes, boxing has been the vehicle by which people in poverty have escaped to better surroundings. From Muhammad Ali to Lovemore N’dou, boxing’s greats have often used the sport to highlight political injustices and social issues.

Join Chris to look at boxing’s contemporary challenges – with new scientific research around head injuries and ‘punch drunk’ fighters calling for greater safety measures in the ring. From rules on gloves to ever-decreasing limits on bouts, should boxing modernise to protect its heroes? Or will we lose the glory of the knockout by introducing more red tape? Does boxing ‘save lives’ – teaching ex-offenders and troubled teens discipline and strength? Or is the commercialisation of violence producing bad role models for young people? And if grown men and women want to go toe-to-toe, who are we to stop them?

Chris will introduce the arguments in his Letter on Liberty, but as usual, we request that you read it prior to the Salon.

Speaker: Chris Akers, sports writer; ghost writer "King of the Journeymen: a life of Peter Buckley; podcaster The 286 Project

Chair: Rosie Pocklington, Birmingham Salon organiser

Further reading:



Talking liberty - Escaping the Straitjacket of Mental Health

Saturday 14th October, 1.00 pm - 3.00 pm

Map Room, Cherry Reds, 88-92 John Bright Street, B1 1BN

Free entry but donations welcome. Donations help us to meet speaker travel and room hire costs for our two debate Salon events.

Please book via EventBrite

We are resuming this year's series of discussions based on The Academy of Ideas Letters on Liberty

In his Letter on Liberty, Escaping the Straitjacket of Mental Health, senior lecturer in social work and mental health Ken McLaughlin discusses mental health and liberty from several angles. There is a longstanding critique of the concept of mental health which is that mental health problems are often caused by material and social circumstances, not by individual failings. Secondly, he agrees with the idea that some mental health episodes mean that people are no longer able to respond to reason, and that on a temporary basis they can be deprived of their liberty in order to keep them safe whilst they receive appropriate treatment. However, he points out that once able to return to the community under a Community Treatment Order, they remain in an unsatisfactory hybrid position, "neither patient or citizen, but a diminished hybrid of the two, the 'community patient'." Ken McLaughlin also suggests that a new group of professionals within workplaces and educational establishments benefit from talking up mental health as an issue. 

How far do you agree with these points? Please join us to discuss. We request you read the Letter on Liberty before coming along. However, the arguments made in it will be introduced by Jo Hurlow, who will then also give his response. Josephine Leibrandt will also give her response. 

Jo Hurlow is a Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist and President of Birmingham Medicolegal Society.
Josephine Leibrandt is a counsellor and trainee psychotherapist studying an MSc & Advanced Diploma at Newman University. Josephine has also worked on research into anxiety and on services provided to autistic children. 

Rosie Cuckston

Further reading:

Suppressing negative thoughts may be good for mental health after all, University of Cambridge Research News, Sep 2023

Inward and upward

Saturday 16th September, 1.00 pm - 5.00 pm

John Peek Room, Birmingham and Midland Institute, 9 Margaret Street, Birmingham, B3 3BU

Small Expectations? Social Mobility in the 21st Century

1.15 - 2.45 pm

Over the past 50 years, people in Britain who are born in to professional-managerial families are approximately 9 times as likely to enter managerial or professional careers as they are manual routine jobs. If you are from a family of unskilled workers, you have less than half the chance of accessing ‘salariat’ employment and around 4 times the chance of ending up in the most disadvantaged rountine positions.

The OECD reports that children from ethnic minority families engaged in unskilled work were much more likely to achieve long-range upward mobility than their white counterparts. The exception are men from Pakistani, Bangladeshi backgrounds who have fallen behind over the past 50 years, with a decline in their presence in the managerial or professional sector.

As economist Steffan Ball has stated "On social mobility, political debate is often focused on who climbs up the social ladder and that is critical. But it should also consider whether better off families retain their social and economic position. And on this metric too, the poorest and the richest in the U.K. are the most socially immobile. So this exacerbates social inequalities.”

The pace of social mobility has slowed but there is little consensus as to why. Factors like education, housing, and taxation have all have effects on our life chances.  As does geography: a high percentage of the high paying service sector jobs are based in the South East, which creates a disadvantage for the regions. 

Home ownership and a university degree have been seen as short cuts to social mobility and hence a focus of government policy in spite of both relying on increasing levels of debt. Both of these approaches look to have failed, with discouragingly higher mortgage interest rates and a much less marked salary disparity between graduates and non-graduates, with everyone’s wages squeezed.

Implied in the concept of social mobility is that, on the whole, movement is upwards. However, sociologist John Goldthorpe has pointed out "Politicians don’t want to hear the truth, which is that for people to climb the social ladder, others must move.” Where would they move to? Does this reveal there is no ceiling to mobility, or is it a hint that some must lower their expectations? 

The concept of social mobility requires us to think about meritocracy, equality, family and community.  What would our country look like if offered true social mobility? Does one person’s inheritance, financial or cultural, block another’s opportunity?


Lisa Mckenzie, working-class academic focused on issues of social and class inequality. Author, Working Class Lockdown Diaries (2021) and Getting By:Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain (2015)
Hilary Salt, founder, First Actuarial LLP. Hilary provides pension consultancy advice and undertakes policy work in private sector and public service organisations.

Chair - Simon Curtis
Session produced by Rosie Pocklington


The Myth of Class Mobility, Riposte magazine interviewing Lisa McKenzie, 2018
Social Mobility, the Next Generation, Sutton Trust report, 2023
The Myth of Social Mobility, Joanna Williams, Spiked 2019

Break - 2.45 - 3.15 pm. Tea/coffee included in ticket price.

Immigration: numbers, skills, visas or values?

3.15 - 4.45 pm

Immigration is one of the most divisive and emotive subjects of modern times. There are those who believe that the UK’s borders should be more open to allow those in need to enter the country. They often resort to caricaturing those who disagree with them as racist.  On the other side are people who want stricter border controls who see the opposition’s  only interest in immigration laws as how to help the people who break them, letting in rapists, thieves, and murderers through their misguided kindness, or carelessly allowing British working class lives to be significantly impacted.

The increase in levels of immigration to the UK comes from a mixture of official controlled routes, including new ones for people from Ukraine, Hong Kong, and Afghanistan, and illegal ones. What is it that is causing concern about immigration? Is it true that the UK is mainly hostile to refugees and that if we had more legal routes to apply then so many people would not risk crossing the Channel in a small boat and immigrant numbers would be lower? Or is Britain actually on balance a success story for immigration but now unable to provide for everyone already here? 

Often expressed is the idea that we just want control over our borders and that we just want to debate immigration. But what would this control look like? What effects would it have, and what is it exactly that we aren’t debating? 

Perhaps it comes down to whether there is maximum number of immigrants we can accommodate in the broadest sense of the word, or add to our workforce. If so,  is that merely a question of resources and need for certain skills, or of other things, like maintaining shared values? 


Sam Bidwell, Director, Centre for Commonwealth Affairs, Parliamentary researcher and writer for The Critic

Chair - Chris Akers, host 286 Project podcast
Session produced by Chris Akers



Coming up at Birmingham Salon this autumn:

Small Expectations? Social Mobility in the 21st Century

Immigration: Numbers, skills, values or visas?

Saturday 16th September, 1 pm - 5 pm, Birmingham and Midland Institute

Further details coming soon. Tickets £15 via EventBrite

Talking Liberty - Escaping the Straitjacket of Mental Health

Saturday 14th October 1 pm - 3 pm, Cherry Reds

Donations only. Tickets via EventBrite

Talking Liberty - Social and Political Freedom by Knockout

Saturday 18th November 1pm - 3 pm, Cherry Reds

Donations only. Tickets via EventBrite


Talking liberty - Taking conscience seriously

Saturday 24th June, 1.00 pm - 3.00 pm

Map Room, Cherry Reds, 88-92 John Bright Street, B1 1BN

Free entry but donations welcome. Donations help us to meet speaker travel and room hire costs for our two debate Salon events.

Please book via EventBrite

In a world where talk of conscience seems rather shallow (you can both invest and party with a conscience according to two recent news items) it's heartening to read the Letter on Liberty, Taking Conscience Seriously, where Dolan Cummings argues gives a fuller account of conscience: that inner conviction about what is right or wrong. Conscience, he says, is not necessarily unchanging, is subject to external influence, and is an instinct that can be educated.  

Whether we're considering assertions about speech being free or harmful, having an argument over whether lockdowns were great for saving lives or an authoritarian measure that prioritised health over other things that make lives worth living, or weighing up the merits of car ownership against concerns about air pollution, our conscience will be involved in our deliberations and decisions. Beyond the narrow idea of freedom of conscience - live and let live - argues Cummings, conscience acts as "a bulwark against groupthink and moral conformism". 

Does conscience need a religious context, or at least some kind of religious heritage, in order to work properly? An instinct, especially a moral one, sounds a bit like something that would discard reasoning and science. Why would we value something that might challenge groupthink if it does so by disregarding evidence and deciding on something that sounds unsafe or unsound? And is conscience something that gives us pangs or is it always switched on? 

In the third of this year's series of discussions based on the Academy of Ideas Letters on Liberty, Simon Curtis will introduce the ideas and arguments put forward by Cummings.  Simon Curtis is a regular attendee of the Salon.

We strongly recommend reading Taking Conscience Seriously before coming along to this Salon.

Further reading