Birmingham Salon


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


United? Kingdom?

Saturday 22nd April, 1.00 pm - 5.00 pm

The Arthur Sullivan Room, Birmingham Midland Institute, 9 Margaret Street, Birmingham B3 3BU

Tickets £15 via EventBrite 

Join us for the Birmingham book launch of Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy after Brexit (Polity 2023) by Philip Cunliffe, George Hoare, Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay plus a debate on the future of Ireland and another debate on the future of the monarchy.

1.10 pm - 1.40 pm
Book launch 

Peter Ramsay, Professor of Law, London School of Economics, will introduce Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy after Brexit in conversation with Salon organiser Dave Aveston.

The introduction to the book is available to read on Amazon.

1.45 pm - 3.00 pm
Debate - What is the future for Ireland?

For the best part of a thousand years the history of Ireland has been bound up with that of England.  The relationship has never been a stable one.  England made many attempts to subjugate and colonise its neighbour. The plantation system which it introduced there acted as a model for later British colonial adventures. The harsh treatment of the Catholic majority was one factor in ensuring that the attempt to incorporate Ireland into the United Kingdom was never likely to succeed for long.  Similarly the granting of partial independence and the partition of the island provoked violent upheaval that has never been fully resolved.  

The peace agreement put in place by Tony Blair’s government at the end of the 1990s remains one of his proudest achievements. Yet this power-sharing compromise was never likely to resolve the problems in Northern Ireland permanently as it left the status of the province ambiguously poised between Britain and the Republic of Ireland, with neither state claiming ultimate sovereignty over the territory.  

When both the UK and Ireland were part of the European community it might have looked as though long-term stability was possible, but this was only achieved by both nations and their people subsuming part of their sovereignty to a larger organisation. The arrangement was always likely to unravel at some point. As it happened the decision by the British people to leave the EU was the event which precipitated this unravelling.  While some predicted that Brexit would lead to a renewal of the ‘troubles’, violent unrest has not erupted, but the political system in Stormont has ground to a halt.  

Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework has been widely lauded as an imaginative and practical solution to the deadlock, but even if it does succeed, it will do so by leaving Northern Ireland subject to certain rules and regulations that do not apply in the rest of the UK. Can the Union survive a trade border within the UK? Can any diplomatic agreement succeed as long as the question of Northern Ireland’s position within the UK remains an anomaly, with a completely different type of government to the rest of the state? Tony Blair’s Good Friday agreement included a provision that, if the majority ever wanted it, Northern Ireland could join the Republic. Is this a realistic possibility? What then are the prospects facing the people of Ireland over the next decade or two? And what contribution if any will people in Britain make to this future?

Pauline Hadaway: writer and researcher. Pauline completed her doctoral research at University of Manchester examining the cultural economy and politics of peace building in Northen Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement.
Peter Ramsay, Professor of Law, LSE. Peter also writes about politics at
Chrissie Daz
The Graveyard of Euroscepticism, Peter Ramsay, Northern Star
Will the Windsor Framework get Brexit Done? Tom McTague, UnHerd
Is there no growth in support for a united Ireland? Is support shrinking instead? FactCheck NI

3.00 pm - 3.30 pm - Break (tea and coffee included in ticket price)

3.30 pm - 4.45 pm 
Debate - What is the future of the monarchy

Another aspect of the relation between the monarchy and politics is rarely ever discussed as our speaker, Don Milligan, points out.  This is “the role of the monarchy within Parliamentary democracy where the powers of the Crown [giving legitimacy]are exercised by the prime minister and the government of the day without any public or democratic scrutiny”. It means the Prime Minister instructs the monarch to appoint people to the House of Lords, Supreme Court and also to the Privy Council. Three members of the Privy council can convene completely secret meetings of first ministers, ministers and other leading figures in the state. These are not frequent, but should there be any such meetings at all?

Whilst there is a campaign to make Britain a republic, quite often the focus is on the cost of the monarchy and others have argued this is not of the utmost importance compared to the democratic impact. But is the focus on the royal family’s wealth a problem when so many other services are crying out for investment and the King is already very rich? If we had a republic, would we replace the role of monarch in some other form such as a president? Nigel Farage said a republican head of state would be “some sort of duffer, somebody who had failed”. But why would that be? If we had a presidency, how would it interact with Parliament? When we are already supposedly embarrassed by our history and tradition, how could we invest a republic with some foundational principles which might carry it on into the future, a new tradition? Should we keep the monarchy as it is, or just with all its non-Parliamentary trappings for some other reasons? If so, what would they be?

Don Milligan: author, The Embrace of Capital: Capitalism from the Inside (Zero books 2022. Don has been a gay activist, trade unionist, and member of the communist movement for many years.
Tessa Clarke: Tessa is a journalist, author, documentary reporter and blogs at Diary.of.a.Journalist on Instagram. She is the author of two books on free speech, privacy and the royals.
Rosie Cuckston
What's wrong with the monarchy? Don Milligan, Off the Cuff
The republican anti-aesthetic, Samuel Martin, The Critic
The rational case for a British republic, Mick Hume, Spiked Online


Talking liberty - The seductive power of literature

Saturday 25th March, 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 costs for our two debate Salon events.

Please book via EventBrite

In his Letter on Liberty, The Seductive Power of Literature, author and film-maker Phil Harrison makes the case for the importance to freedom of reading. "A book must be an axe that smashes the frozen sea inside us" Kafka wrote. Harrison sets out what happens to our awareness of language, of our desires and motivations, and to our understanding of the "other" when we read, elaborating on Kafka's metaphor with reference to a range of writers from George Eliot to JM Coetzee. 

Good writing (and reading of it) helps us break out of the constraints, pressures, and attempts to reduce what we are that is imposed upon us by the politics of right and left, Harrison argues. As sensitivity readers get to work on Roald Dahl, James Bond, and Ladybird fairytales, to what degree can this essay help us consider what is happening? 

Please join us in the Map Room from 1.00 pm.  At 1.15 pm, Rosie Pocklington, Salon regular, avid reader and member of Moseley Writers Group and Florence Cuckston Fenn, an A Level English Literature student will introduce the arguments made in this Letter on Liberty and give their response to it.  Attendees are strongly encouraged to read The Seductive Power of Literature, although the arguments in it will be summarised by Rosie. The Letters on Liberty are available at £5 for a group of three or as free PDFs.

Further reading


Talking Liberty - In defence of teaching history

Saturday 25th February
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 costs for our two debate Salon events.

Please book via EventBrite

This is the second in our occasional series of events where we discuss topics covered in the Academy of Idea Letters on Liberty series.

In his Letter on Liberty, In defence of teaching history, historian, author and teacher Nicholas Kinloch writes: "History has long been the most controversial of all subjects on the school curriculum. No-one seems to worry very much about what children are taught in geography, drama or even science (although this may be changing). History has always been different.

What children should learn about the past, and how they should learn it, has invariably been the subject of considerable disagreement."

The essay then goes on to consider the issue of decolonisation, the influence of critical race theory, and the ideal of achieving objectivity in looking at history.

From l.10 - 1.40, Vince Gould will introduce his music and history project Abolition Times. Vincent Gould is a performance poet, musician and actor. He has been making songs, poems, satire and video for the last decade or so. To find out more about his current project go to Abolition Times

And then from 1.45, Chris Akers will introduce the arguments in the Letter on Liberty itself, and his own response to them, followed by discussion. Chris has been working in the care sector for over 15 years and graduated from Open University in 2015 with a degree in Psychology. He also has written about boxing, notably King of the Journeymen with Peter Buckley, and is interested in history, politics, and sport.

Attendees are encouraged to read the Letter on Liberty being discussed, although the arguments in it will be summarised by Chris.

Further reading


Aspects of the Omnicrisis

 Saturday 28th January, 1.00 pm - 5.00 pm

The Arthur Sullivan Room, Birmingham Midland Institute, 9 Margaret Street, Birmingham B3 3BU

Tickets £15 available at the event (cash only) or via EventBrite

National interest and global order - which comes first?

1.15 pm - 2.45 pm

The invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was a shock to the system of international relations. There was surprise that Russia believes its action serves its national interest and that we are seeing Europe once again threatened with war. The decades-long attempt to manage conflict and operate a rules-based order through supranational organisations like the UN, NATO and the EU was supposed prevent another world war. 

The supranational system and its ideals is also a way for the United States to pursue its own national interests. It does this despite its relative economic decline, by political and military means in the guise of freedom and human rights promoting respectability. This year it has also been pushing these interests more openly, from imposing sanctions on Chinese technology companies and capitalising on the energy crisis in Europe to taking advantage of the strength of the dollar in international trade.  

The war in Ukraine has not undermined supranational institutions which still have the support of the most powerful world leaders. Going it alone doesn’t look like an attractive option. NATO seems to be stronger than ever in most of Europe where many feel threatened by Russia. When British Prime Minister Truss tried to follow a new economic policy, she was soon forced to resign after the IMF commented negatively. When her successor Sunak suggested that he had better things to do than attend the COP27 climate conference such was the criticism, he quickly changed his mind. 

What is the significance of recent events in the tug of war between supranational institutions and nation states? What ideas might guide international relations in the future? As the war drags on in Ukraine, impacts Europe and conflicts break out in other countries bordering Russia, is it possible to agree a system that will operate to prevent future conflicts. Or would this inevitably be a cover for the most powerful nations to impose their will on others? As politicians and policy continue to be influenced by supranational organisations, is national sovereignty an illusion or more important than ever?


Dr Philip Cunliffe, Associate Professor in International Relations, University College London; author, The New Twenty Years’ Crisis 1999-2019: A critique of international relations; co-host, @Bungacast podcast

Dr Jake Scott, political theorist specialising in theories of peoplehood and populism. Jake has appeared on France24, GB News, and is a regular on TalkTV;


Dave Aveston

How to prevent World War III, Philip Cunliffe, UnHerd
Whatever happened to the national interest, Pete Ramsay & Philip Cunliffe, The Northern Star

Break: tea/coffee (included in ticket price) 2.45 - 3.15 pm

Reparations, industrial revolution: how should poor nations develop in the 21st century?

3.15 pm - 4.45 pm

During the Enlightenment period of the 18th century, the emerging system of industrial capitalism was largely greeted with enthusiasm.  It was thought that, over time, industry would bring wealth to all and that the gap between rich and poor nations would gradually decline.  

Clearly this dream has not been realised; if anything the trend has been in the opposite direction.  The Covid pandemic and responses to it is part of the reason for this. Previous explanations for uneven development have ranged from crudely racist ones, cultural and geographical factors, naked exploitation and the exigencies of cold war politics.  Behind even the most despicable of these explanations, however, there always lay an understanding that, at least in principle, the poor world ought to be allowed to catch up and that worldwide industrial development of the kind seen in the West would be in the interests of humanity as a whole. But this thinking has changed. At COP27 it was clear that the industrial revolution is now viewed as the first step on the path to the climate emergency. 

Do climate change and other environmental impacts of industrial development mean we have come up against a natural barrier beyond which it is no longer possible to go?  Is it now necessary to restrain growth in order to avoid destroying the planet, and what will that mean for billions of people in conditions of extreme poverty? Should they not enjoy the high standards of living modern society has shown are possible? Are Western environmentalist ideals just another form of colonialism or do they offer a different pathway, learning from previous mistakes and sparing people from catastrophe? Could loss and damage payments from the rich countries be part of a better route to development or are they tokenistic in the bigger scheme of changes that poor countries need?


Austin Williams, Senior Lecturer in Architecture, Kingston School of Art; author China's Urban Revolution:Understanding Chinese Eco-cities

John Vogler, Professorial Research Fellow in International Relations, University of Keele; author Climate Change in World Politics


Chrissie Daz  


The global south has the power to force radical climate action, Jason Hickel, Al Jazeera


Coming up in 2023

Coming up in 2023...

Aspects of the Omnicrisis
Saturday 28th January, Birmingham & Midland Institute

This is our event rescheduled from October 2022 looking at changes to the international order, supranational institutions and globalism, and how poorer countries should develop in the 21st century.

Speakers include Philip Cunliffe, Associate Professor in International Relations, University College London, Austin Williams, Senior Lecturer in Architecture, Kingston School of Art and John Vogler, Professorial Research Fellow in International Relations, University of Keele.

Talking liberty - In defence of teaching history
Saturday 25th February, Map Room at Cherry Reds

Talking liberty - The seductive power of literature
Saturday 25th March, Map Room at Cherry Reds

The Talking Liberty events will consider the arguments put forward in the Academy of Ideas Letters on Liberty on these subjects.

United? Kingdom?
Saturday 22nd April, Birmingham & Midland Institute

With the coronation of King Charles III approaching, we will discuss the institution of the British monarchy and also consider the future of Ireland.

Speakers include Don Milligan, author The Embrace of Capital 

Talking Liberty - The Future of Free Speech

Talking Liberty - the future of free speech

Saturday 12th November
1.00 pm - 3.30 pm
Map Room, Cherry Reds, 88-92 John Bright Street, B1 1BN

Free entry but donations welcome

Please book via EventBrite

This is the first in an occasional series of discussions based on the Letters on Liberty essays published by the Academy of Ideas.

Please join us from 1.00 pm for social time and informal discussion. From 1.45 pm we will introduce and discuss the essay The Future of Free Speech by Jacob Mchangama. You can purchase the essay in booklet format or download a PDF version. You are strongly encouraged to read it to contribute more fully to the discussion, but if you don't we will give a short summary to introduce the key arguments.

Mchangama is the author of Free Speech:a history from Socrates to Social Media, and he argues in this essay that we are in a free speech recession. 

"Free speech is one of the most powerful and transformative ideas ever conceived. It is held as the 'first freedom, the bedrock of democracy, the enemy of tyranny, the midwife of enlightenment and the source of truth...But free speech is far from assured; it has not been the default position in the long arc of history. Thus, after decades of global gains, it has now suffered more than a decade of setbacks."

How far do you agree with these assertions? Does Mchangama set out a convincing case for the importance of free speech? Is it helpful to those who want to defend free speech, or are there significant omissions? 

Following our discussion, we will agree which of the Letters on Liberty to discuss in 2023.

Free speech in the news:

National Secular Society defends free speech at 'Stand with Salman' event

Arrest of protestors prompts free speech concerns

Joanne Harris faces member vote on Society of Authors role amid call for free speech review

John Cleese set to join GB News in a push for 'free speech'

Most students think UK universities protect free speech, survey finds


Aspects of the "omnicrisis"

Aspects of the omnicrisis

Saturday 8th October

This event has been cancelled due to the impact of the planned rail strike on 8th October. It will be rescheduled.


Law and Justice

Saturday 7th May, 1.00 pm - 5.00 pm
The Arthur Sullivan Room, Birmingham Midland Institute, 9 Margaret Street, Birmingham B3 3BU

Tickets £15 (includes tea/coffee) from EventBrite

Law-making and Freedom with Claire Fox (Baroness Fox of Buckley)
1.15 pm - 2.45 pm

Longstanding campaigner for freedom of speech, Claire Fox sits as a non-affiliated peer in the House of Lords, an institution she believes should be abolished as it constrains British democracy. Her short weekly YouTube videos, Inside the Lords, give her insights into the process of legislating as it takes place between the House of Commons and House of Lords, why certain pieces of legislation promised in a manifesto may not materialise at all and why others appear and disappear. 

Key recent pieces of legislation such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the Online Safety Bill present a major increase in restrictions on our freedom. What hope should we have, if any, of something less draconian emerging from the legislative process and what are the implications of this legislation for the wider justice system? To what degree are such laws related to what the majority of the electorate want and where should the work of law making take place?

Claire Fox is a writer, broadcaster and director of the Academy of Ideas. She was Brexit Party MEP for the North-West of England until the UK left the EU in January 2020. Claire was introduced into the House of Lords in October 2020.

Rosie Cuckston, Birmingham Salon organiser

Suggested reading for this discussion:

The House of Lords defending democracy - oh please, Fraser MyersSpiked Online, March 2022
Is Nadine Dorries a free speech champion or censorship fanatic? Freddie Hayward, New Statesman, February 2022
From lockdown to net zero accountability is dead in British politics, Steve Baker MPThe Telegraph, January 2022 

Refreshment break: 2.45 pm - 3.15 pm

What Are Prisons For?
3.15 pm - 4.45 pm

Prisoners are denied many of the normal rights of citizenship, such as being able to vote. But what are prisons for? And do prisons work? Denying liberty serves an important function in punishing those who have broken the law. But is it not also humane to give prisoners the chance to turn their lives around? 

In addition to the usual restrictions, the pandemic meant that visits from family and friends was stopped as were educational and rehabilitation courses and opportunities to work.  What impact has this had?Does the current prison system downplay people’s inherent capacity for change? Should there be more emphasis on people having the power to redeem themselves? If so, what changes need to be made to the UK prison system? 


Dr Anna Kotova, Lecturer in Criminology, University of Birmingham. Anna holds a PhD in Criminology from the University of Oxford and her teaching and research interests are in prison sociology and the impact of imprisonment on prisoners' families. Anna is also a member of Academic Advisory Group for West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner.

Dr Jonathan Hurlow, Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist. Jo is Chair of the Psychiatry Division of the Birmingham Medical Institute and vice president of the Birmingham Medicolegal Society. He sits on the Committee for Professional Practice and Ethics at the Royal College of Psychiatry.

Michael Campbell, De Profundis Ltd, expert advisor to prisons. Michael supports governors, officers and prisoners to implement change that strengthens safety for everyone in prison. Michael served 3½ years in prisons across the country and develops practical solutions grounded in his experience to tackle prisoners’ anxiety, stress and frustration.

Ruth Mieschbuehler, Senior Lecturer in Education 
Studies, University of Derby. Organiser, East Midlands Salon.

Suggested reading for this discussion:

Locked up under lockdown: the plight of prisoners, Michael Campbell, People's Lockdown Enquiry
March 2022
The Rise of the Woke Prison, Joanna Williams, Spiked Online, June 2021
Our Prisons Are a National Disgrace, Ian Birrell, Unherd, December 2019


Unbearable Lightness of Citizenship

Return of Birmingham Salon Saturdays

We are very pleased to return to our in-person Saturday discussions. To relaunch these events, we will run the one which was cancelled in March 2020 as the pandemic restrictions started. 

Birmingham Salon has changed venue to The Arthur Sullivan Room at Birmingham Midland Institute on Margaret Street. It's a convenient central Birmingham venue only a few minutes walk from our previous home at The Old Joint Stock pub. And of course, the BMI has a long and impressive history. It was founded in 1854 by an Act of Parliament for the "diffusion and advancement of Science, Literature, and Art among all Classes of Persons resident in Birmingham and the Midland counties."

The Unbearable Lightness of Citizenship

Saturday 2nd April, 1.00 pm - 5.00 pm
Birmingham Midland Institute, 9 Margaret Street, Birmingham B3 3BU

Tickets £15 (includes tea/coffee) from EventBrite

Citizenship, identity, and belonging

1.15 pm - 2.45 pm

In Ancient Athens and Rome, citizenship developed as a bond between an individual and the city-state. Since the American and French Revolutions, the idea of increasing numbers of people being citizens went in tandem with the development of nation states, and a reciprocal relation of state protection of individual rights for allegiance to the nation. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the nation state became linked to imperialism, nationalism and tyranny even as masses of citizens got the right to vote and got rid of colonial rulers. 
This discussion will look at the idea of citizenship in the 21st century and whether citizenship been replaced by individuated, consumerist and cultural identities. Are we too divided by identities of race, gender and political affiliations to identify as citizens of a nation? What is the relationship between citizenship and language, culture, place and participation in common goals and ideals? If citizenship is more than visas, passports, pledges of allegiance, and other trappings of state organised process, what is it? 

Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, Head of Education and Co-ordinator, Don't Divide Us. Author What Should Schools Teach?Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth.

Mladen Pupavac, co-author Changing European Visions of Disaster and Development. Mladen has taught International Relations at Harlaxton College, University of Derby, and University of Leicester. He previously worked as a translator for the UN International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Chrissie Daz

Reading for this session

In defence of immigrants, a reply to Lionel Shriver, Alka Seghal Cuthbert, Areo Magazine
How identity stole the debate, Olivier Roy, Green European Journal

tea and coffee break - 2.45 - 3.15 pm

The emergency state citizen 

3.15 pm - 4.45 pm

Our second discussion will review the situation of citizens following the last two years of pandemic measures both in relation to government and to each other.  

Since March 2020, large numbers of people, under quite extreme conditions, conformed with requirements: millions of us following restrictions that were often bizarre and led in some cases to immense personal distress. On the other hand, a significant number have rejected vaccination which has led for some to a major impingement on their participation in society, job loss or loss of sick pay, scapegoating for the problems of others, and to cases of severe ill health or death which could possibly have been avoided.

Whether it's the behaviourists of SAGE, governments using nudge theory, the fact checking and censorship carried out by big tech and social media companies, or the popularisation of the concept of mass formation psychosis, the view that people are easily manipulated and misled appears predominant across the political spectrum.

The political ideal of citizenship in a democracy requires us to be free, morally autonomous beings using reason and judgment, who can take an active part in the direction and running of the nation. How far are we from this ideal, and what do we need to realise it?

Dr Ayoub Bouguettaya, School of Psychology, University of Birmingham.  His current research interests include Covid 19 and messaging norms, behavioural economics from a social identity perspective (nudges), and conspiracy theories and social identity.

Dr Greg Scorzo, PhD in Meta-Ethics, author Love Before Covid, host Art of Thinking Podcast and editor of Culture on the Offsenive magazine.

Vanessa Pupavac, senior lecturer, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. Co-author Changing European Visions of Disaster and Development (2020). Vanessa has recently published a pamphlet, "Translation as Liberation" with the Letters on Liberty series.

Rosie Cuckston

Reading for this session
How the psychology of blame can explain Covid 19 responses, Ayoub Bouguettaya & Victoria Team, The Conversation
The Virus, Lockdown and the Right, Niall McCrae & M.L.R. Smith, Areo Magazine
The Failure to Think, Bafflement Essay 3, Alex Klaushofer, Ways of Seeing Substack

Our next event will be on Saturday 7th May on the theme of law and justice.