Jamie Cameron

Intelligence Squared at the Southbank Centre with Ted Hodgkinson


Is Climate Activism Working? 12 July at the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. 


Promoting spirited debate has become an increasingly important part of the cultural programme at the Southbank Centre. Intelligence Squared, renowned for their engaging events, has spearheaded a series of thought-provoking discussions at the Centre. Among them, March saw The War in Ukraine: How Does It End? chaired by Clive Myrie, an award-winning journalist and BBC News presenter. The discussion centred around the potential paths to peace in Ukraine. Esteemed historians such as Orlando Figes and Max Hastings lent their expertise, while Olesya Khromeychuk, a Ukrainian historian, and Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. A further event, Can We Have Prosperity Without Growth? gathered influential figures like Bim Afolami MP, a Conservative MP and author of Unlocking Britain: Recovery and Renewal After COVID-19, and Kate Raworth, an economist and co-founder of Doughnut Economics Action Lab.

On 12 July, the centre hosts an event with Ben Okri, Phoebe Plummer and Dr Rupert Read, debating whether the future direction of climate activism and discuss which protest tactics can actually make a difference. From throwing soup at Van Gogh’s sunflowers to blocking traffic and vandalising buildings with spray paint, this debate explores recent climate activism; Are these disruptive tactics necessary for climate activists to shift the conversation and achieve their goals? Or are they antisocial measures that risk alienating the public and hurting the climate movement altogether?

We spoke to Ted Hodgkinson, Head of Literature and Spoken Word at Southbank Centre, about the forthcoming programme.


First of all, I am really interested to hear how this part of the programme came to be? Why did you feel that political debate would fit well alongside the rest of the literature programme?

The Southbank Centre has a long history of being a space for political debate and in recent years our literature programme has featured a series of appearances from prominent political leaders and thinkers. These have ranged from memorable appearances by Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders, to our upcoming Summer Season, which includes speakers who occupy different ends of the political spectrum, from Yanis Varoufakis to Theresa May. In most cases the literature programme explores political issues through the lens of the artform, whether that’s a newly published political memoir, or a powerful piece of spoken word poetry.

We wanted to retain this strong connection to the artform, but take it a step further by carving out regular space in one of our largest halls for debates that tackle the burning issues of our times head on. The Southbank Centre exists to give the widest possible audience access to the arts and culture and of course politics is inextricably linked to our cultural life, perhaps especially so in these polarised times. So our aim is to present talks and debates that offer a balanced, nuanced and illuminating picture of the issues of the moment, while maintaining a strong link to arts and culture throughout. I’ve long admired the work that Intelligence Squared do in producing talks of the highest calibre and I proposed a collaboration which has already proved extremely productive. Each of the talks we collaborate on incorporates an artistic element and we work closely across the curation of the panel and on the subjects themselves.


Next, how did you decide which topics would be up for debate? Was it different to how you’d approach selecting authors for readings, for example?

Yes, it is different to deciding to programme an author talk, as in most cases we weigh up the decision based on a particular upcoming publication. In this case, it’s a combination of factors and is very much a dialogue between Southbank Centre and Intelligence Squared about the issues we collectively decide to be the most pressing, timely and interesting. It’s also partly a question of whether there are significant upcoming publications or a cluster around a particular issue. We’re always challenging ourselves and each other by asking what a debate presented by us would add to the cultural conversation.

Our ambition is to present debates which are rigorous, constructive and illuminating, rather than simply rehashing already entrenched positions. There are times in the partnership when we’ve proposed a particular subject because it aligns with a wider organisational focus, like the upcoming debate on the climate crisis, which is part of our Planet Summer season of activity. We suggested a focus on climate to Intelligence Squared and they responded by formulating an interesting provocation ‘Is Climate Activism Working?’ We almost simultaneously suggested doing debates on AI to each other, so there are clearly certain subjects which are firmly on both our radars.


Finally, can you talk a bit about this idea that debate serves a public interest? How and in what ways do you think a culture stands to gain from these types of events?

In our divided and tribal times, I believe it’s important for public spaces like the Southbank Centre to offer open forums in which the issues that have profound consequences for our lives can be debated. This goes right back to our roots in the Festival of Britain in 1951, which was about making the arts and culture accessible to everyone, and continues to be an abiding mission today.

These kinds of debates, like literature more generally, can help us to find the words to navigate the complexities and difficulties of the modern world. While a novelist or poet might be more attuned to the inner workings of our daily lives, leading political thinkers, economists and scientists can equip us with the understanding we need to penetrate dense matters which have direct impact on our lives, from the climate to AI. 


Upcoming Intelligence Squared Events at the Southbank Centre

Is Climate Activism Working? 12 July at the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall features Ben Okri, a Booker-winning novelist passionate about the connection between art and climate activism, Phoebe Plummer, a Just Stop Oil activist who threw soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery, and Dr Rupert Read a former Extinction Rebellion spokesperson and Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. He is also the co-director of the Climate Majority Project and author of Why Climate Breakdown Matters.

This debate is part of Planet Summer, the Southbank Centre’s multi-artform season exploring hope, care and climate activism.


For more information on the Southbank Centre and their forthcoming events, click here.


Ted Hodgkinson is a broadcaster, editor, critic and Head of Literature and Spoken Word at Southbank Centre, where he oversees the seasonal literature programme as well as the annual London Literature Festival and the National Poetry Library. Formerly online editor at Granta magazine, his essays, interviews and reviews have appeared across a range of publications and websites, including the Times Literary Supplement, the Literary Review, the New Statesman, the Spectator, the Literary Hub and the Independent.

He is a former British Council literature programmer for the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. He has judged numerous awards including the BBC National Short Story Award, the Orwell Prize for political writing and in 2020 chaired the International Booker Prize. He co-edited, with Icelandic author and poet Sjón, the first anthology of Nordic short stories in English, The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories from the North (Pushkin Press, 2017), to critical acclaim. In 2018, for a second consecutive year, he was named in The Bookseller’s list of the 100 most influential people in publishing. In 2020, he was made a Trustee of English PEN.

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