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March 20, 2012

Let’s Talk About It: The Rise of the Debating Club

By Spear's

Intelligence Squared, the Stone Club and 5×15 are all examples of what’s getting London’s smart set talking: talking. By Melinda Hughes

Intelligence Squared, the Stone Club and 5×15 are all examples of what’s getting London’s smart set talking: talking. By Melinda Hughes
EVERYONE’S DOING IT in London. The buzzword is ‘debate’ and jawboning events across London are becoming more popular among the switched-on smart set. There are also key people who are encouraging those with a conscience and a will to discuss, debate and provoke change.

In the past few years I have seen the popularity of events run by Intelligence Square, 5X15 and a new body called the Stone Club grow and grow. These events all have one thing in common: they have sprung out of the increasing popularity of American TED conferences, founded in 1984, which has taken the world by storm.

I recently attended ‘Empathy and the Art of Listening’ with speakers Roman Krznaric, co-founder of the School of Life, and Karl James, director of the Dialogue Project, part of Carole Stone’s new club. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this whirlwind network queen, Stone knows everyone worth knowing in the worlds of politics, industry and media. She has boundless energy and a mental database of over a thousand names and her recent personal success at a stand-up comedy course means she is certifiably witty. Her Christmas parties are legendary.

Founder of YouGovStone, she is often called upon for specialist research for corporate giants such as Unilever and KPMG. With her vast database, she has moved on from her salons previously held in Covent Garden to events at venues such as One Alfred Place or the Groucho Club. Topics covered this year are what the US elections mean for the UK, the privatisation of the NHS and privacy in the modern age.

The format is simple: a glass of wine, a speaker or two, then a Q&A. The evenings are informal, relaxed and there is dinner for those who want it. Dinner, I hasten to add, where you will be encouraged to move, meet and mingle between courses.

‘Carole Stone is really one of the most pro-active and extraordinary ladies I have ever met, with a unique energy towards bringing an eclectic group of people together,’ says Jack Klaff, who is also involved with Intelligence Squared. He is a past speaker at 5X15, an actor, writer and broadcaster. ‘Stone’s background was working on the BBC’s Any Questions and her altruistic desire to forge contacts for her guests is unsurpassable.’
IN COMPARISON WITH Stone’s rather more intimate, sometimes quirky and often politically themed evenings, debates on a much larger scale are produced by the now global Intelligence Squared, which recently went in to brief receivership. IQ2’s temporary state of finances (more to do with political in house manoeuvrings) certainly does not reflect the popularity and clout they have worldwide.

Saved by Yana Peel and Amelie von Wedel, backers from Asia, IQ2 is a non-profit organization run by Ted Maxwell, with media entrepreneur John Gordon and editor-in-chief of The Week Jeremy O’Grady (the original driving forces) now consultants.

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The team is supported by the live events producer and ‘Intelligent Beauty’ Hannah Kaye and their range of ever expanding talks and debates have taken London by storm, tackling topics from social networking, prostitution and gun crime to atheism, architecture and the legalisation of drugs. Many events are now transmitted live and they seem to be attracting a growing array of starry speakers including Stephen Fry and most recently Russell Brand.

Sensing a desire for debate, using their flare for social enterprise, Gordon and O’Grady set up IQ2 in 2002 with a debate about fox hunting, two years before the bill became law. They have since hosted hundreds of events globally featuring speakers of the highest calibre.

I am a devotee and since attending my first debate in 2006 entitled ‘Lord Rees Mogg is dead, long live Big Brother’ with Toby Young and playwright and witty raconteur/journalist Lloyd Evans on the debating panel, I have been to events on a myriad of topics and in December batted my eyelashes at sexy philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy from the third row.

As their database grows, their formats expand and last year resulted in an ambitious weekend science and global future conference ‘If’ at the Royal Geographical Society in November, loosely based on the original TED format.

Recent popular IQ2 debates have included ‘The baby boomers have stolen the family silver’ and ‘Foreign aid does more harm than good’. However it was Stephen Fry’s speech at ‘The Catholic Church is a force for good’ in 2009 that scored the most hits on YouTube. Even though I recall another talk where a rather grumpy Gore Vidal caused a stunned hush over a remark about Israel, there haven’t been any fights, walkouts or tantrums. Damn those intellectuals and their middle-class manners!
IF YOU WOULD like something a little less testing and a little more entertaining yet want to stay on the intelligent side of things, then perhaps 5X15 is for you. This is a clever format founded by Rosie Boycott, Daisy Leitch and Eleanor O’Keeffe. Five speakers – writers, broadcasters, actors or entrepreneurs – speak for fifteen minutes in front of an audience gathered with a bottle of reasonably priced wine at various tables around the more bohemian environment of Notting Hill’s Tabernacle Club.

There is certainly a more convivial atmosphere at these personality driven events and I’ve found the atmosphere social and friendly. Speakers have included the Duchess of Devonshire, Jude Kelly, Eve Ensler, Ruby Wax and Max Mosley. I love these events as you never know quite what you’re getting but be warned, they are extremely popular and very often sold out.

So what does this say about our evenings out in London? Where once we were happy for dinner and a movie, we are now seeking out intellectual stimulation, discourse and an opportunity to meet more like-minded people in a social setting. I can’t help noticing that 5X15 and Intelligence Squared Debates prove to be prime hunting ground for those perhaps looking for something more than debate and it makes total sense: most people are affluent, well read and have the evening free (which means they’re most likely not tied to nappy-changing).

‘There have been a few instances where voting slips have been torn in half, a mobile phone number scrawled on the paper then surreptitiously slipped into a coat pocket,’ explains John Gordon. It seems IQ2 may be in the process of creating ‘Intelligence Snared’ where people can have a drink or even attend a dinner after the debate but I think the trick is not to make it too obvious – we are after all far too intelligent for that.

Read more by Melinda Hughes

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