TEDx Houses of Parliament: California Dreaming comes to Whitehall

Posted on 27 June 2012  |   Leave a comment

I have a theory that there is a clear fault line in British public life.

On the one side is those people who are drawn to our traditional institutions. They like to belong, and they tend to be suspicious of action, initiative and ideas.

On the other side is the people who don’t care much for our traditional institutions. They are attracted to progressive American thinkers, psychology, science and business.

When I saw that the Houses of Parliament (stuffy British institution) was organising a TEDx (New Age Californian conference format) I hoped that my theory was going to be challenged or discredited.

In fact the tension ran through the whole event.

The first jarring moment was when Lord Hennessy (old school) talked about George Orwell’s observations on the abuse of language in politics. He updated Orwell’s observations and suggested ‘visions’ were for mystics. This sent an uncomfortable rustle through the audience. TEDsters believe in visions. They cropped up many times during the day.

Rita Clifton (Chairman of Interbrand) referred to them. She was talking about the weakness of political brands. I found myself agreeing with her. Join a political party and you’ll find at a local level they struggle to organise croissants for a coffee morning.

But I also agreed with Rory Stewart MP, who was later asked why political parties were so weak as brands. And he said it was because they weren’t brands. Talk of ‘brands’ is vaguely distasteful in traditional English circles.

Rory Stewart is a peculiar individual. He’s studied at the Dragon, Eton and Balliol, but he’s very relaxed about the power of institutions, and thus he manages to bestride the fault line I described earlier.

The wonderful thing about TEDxHousesofParliament was that we had the ‘magic, mystery and authority’ of British political life from speakers who talked about the history of the Banqueting House, the Sumptuary laws in Elizabethan England and the deathwatch beetle in Westminster Hall, juxtaposed with talks about Occupy, Human Rights and the democratic impulses of swarms of bees.

When Clare Hughes, an architect, explained why the Palace of Westminster was no longer fit for purpose, and that we should look to build something like Holyrood, I was very surprised. It’s an eminently sensible suggestion, but it’s a kind of blasphemy to all those who cherish our tradition and heritage. The British like to be romantic first and practical second.

There was a problem with the event. TEDx Houses of Parliament represented tradition and innovation on stage, but the old school political class: MPs, party workers or think tankers were nowhere to be seen in the audience. Journalists were absent, too.  I found no reports of the event in the national press.

The strapline of TED is ‘ideas worth spreading’. That means it’s an evangelical organisation. We were encouraged to introduce ourselves to our neighbours, and the talks were sandwiched between musical performances. We ended up singing ‘Amazing Grace’ along with the London Oriana Choir.

It was my first TED and it was a marathon. We had three sessions lasting 90 minutes each. That’s like a triple bill at the cinema. But I was never bored. The quality of the speakers was exceptionally high, the only think that there could have been more of was humour.

I wrote an article last year suggesting Party Conferences need to borrow from the TED format. The difference is, at the Party Conferences nobody goes to listen to the speakers, they go for the drink and socialising. It was perhaps entirely appropriate that the refreshments at TEDxHouses of Parliament were awful. Bottles of water, organic lemonade and inappropriate snacks, not a singled cup of tea or coffee between 1pm and 7pm.

There were frequent references to how the venue, the Banqueting House, was where Charles I had been beheaded. It was also where Charles II had been restored. I left thinking the TEDsters could start a revolution, but history warns that inertia and a poverty of imagination will always win in the end.

Brian Jenner

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