Birmingham Salon

The Productivity Puzzle: What is Wrong with the British Economy?

Thursday 26th November 2015, at 7.30pm.
The Victoria, 48 John Bright Street, Birmingham, B1 1BN

The Bank of England reported recently that output per worker has been exceptionally weak since the downturn. And in July, commentators were shocked to discover that French workers, with their enviable work-life balance, are more productive than their British counterparts.   

The West Midlands has suffered devastating losses in its manufacturing sector in recent decades. So was it the 2008 global meltdown that slowed down productivity, or does the problem predate that?

We should ask whether the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is doing something usefully innovative that we can emulate. Or whether, in fact, the focus on cities like Manchester is more symptomatic of a broader crisis of ideas in central government, a lack of political will to tackle the underlying problems of our economy, a desperate attempt to find a painless model of success.

Jeremy Corbyn has proposed infrastructure as a potential solution to economic decay, and he is far from alone in that. But to what extent is the state responsible for growth anyway?

It has become a truism that manufacturers are clinging to a ‘make do and mend’ approach to plant and equipment. Maybe this is where the fundamental problem lies. Without modernising the productive base, is the UK, the world’s industrial birthplace, condemned to perpetual stagnation, enjoying only intermittent and fragile growth spikes?

At a time when GDP stands at 4.5% above its pre-crisis peak and unemployment continues to fall, productivity is nonetheless a problem that resonates widely, and politicians are discussing it openly, after decades of denial.

What difference would increased economic productivity make to our lives?


Phil Mullan
An economist and business manager, Phil Mullan is author of The Imaginary Time Bomb: Why an Ageing Population is not a Social Problem (IB Tauris, 2000). He is currently researching the economic features of decay and resilience in the Western world, and writing a book entitled Getting Back Our Mojo. In business, he is director of Epping Consulting, following eight years in senior management roles with EasyNet Global Services and Cybercafé Ltd.

Craig Chapman
Senior Academic for Research in the School of Engineering, Design and Manufacturing Systems, Craig Chapman has worked in Europe, USA and the UK, in a range of senior business and design roles. In academia, Craig’s career has taken him from Senior Research Fellow, Head of the Knowledge Based Product Development Lab at Warwick Manufacturing Group, University of Warwick to Head of the Knowledge Based Engineering Lab and Senior Academic for Research at Birmingham City University.

The debate is produced and chaired by Sarah Bartlett.

Recommended Readings

Fixing the foundations: creating a more prosperous nation. HM Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2015
The UK productivity puzzle. Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin, Quarter 2, 2014.


No more Peaky Blinders? In 2015 violent crime is not inevitable

Tuesday 8th September 2015, at 7.00pm
Birmingham Medical Institute, 36 Harborne Road, Birmingham, West Midlands B15 3AF

The Home Office’s PREVENT anti-terrorism strategy has been adapted to the area of serious and organised crime. Under this initiative, public services will intervene in cases where individuals are observed to be at risk of perpetrating violent crime, raising concerns about confidentiality and the use of public budgets for information gathering.

Even more problematically, the strategy applies the same measures to individuals who simply have a need that makes them vulnerable to the possibility of perpetrating violent crime. 

Is violent crime inevitable? Surely individuals can make their own choice about whether or not to perpetrate violent crime. Or can they? Maybe the ability to take responsibility for that choice is hindered by a whole range of vulnerability factors that limit their capacity to respond to reason in certain circumstances.

To help unpick this issue, the debate will imagine a number of contemporary Peaky Blinders characters:
Peaky Blinder A knows of few people in his family and social circles who make a lawful and peaceful living.
Peaky Blinder B has financial difficulties.
Peaky Blinder C is dependent on crack cocaine, alcohol and cannabis, experiences psychotic symptoms, and has an anti-social personality disorder.
Peaky Blinder D has limited skills and knowledge to make a living lawfully.

If public servants intervene with any of these Peaky Blinders, can they strengthen or limit choice and responsibility? And would those interventions hold a realistic chance of preventing an act of violent crime?

This debate is a collaboration between Birmingham Salon and the Birmingham Medical Institute.
The debate is chaired by Jonathan Hurlow.


Yvonne Mosquito - Deputy Police Commissioner
Sean Russell - Chief Inspector, and West Midlands Policing Lead for Prevention of Violence and Mental Health
Dr Hanna Pickard - Reader in Philosophy, University of Birmingham
Dr Damien J. Williams - Lecturer in Public Health Sciences, School of Medicine, University of St Andrews

Can a boy grow up to be a woman?

Thursday 11th June, 2015 at 7.30 pm
The Victoria, 48 John Bright Street, Birmingham, B1 1BN

Bruce Jenner, Lana Wachowski and Chelsea Manning all made the news recently by coming out as trans. This wave of high-profile cases prompted feminist campaigner Julie Bindel to condemn the prescription of hormone blockers to prospective trans kids as 'child abuse'. She was widely censured as a result.  

But is Bindel right? Is indulging a child's gender confusion in any way problematic?

Some would argue that individuals who are born and socialised as males can only ever become men.  However hard they try to alter this fundamental reality – with surgery, hormones, and even by looking like a woman – the change will only be illusory. They are still men in essence.  

Does gender have an essence?

Chrissie Daz will be in conversation with Helene Guldberg. Chrissie Daz is a cabaret performer and writer who is currently writing a book about gender.  Helene Guldberg is an associate lecturer in child development and author of "Reclaiming Childhood; Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear" and "Just another ape"
The story of two transgender children:

The rise of the 'third gender':

Bruce Jenner is not a woman. He is a sick and delusional man:

No, Bradley Manning, you are not a woman:

Apathy in the UK: does the political disengagement of young people threaten the future of democracy?

7.30pm. Thursday 23rd April 2015 at at The Victoria, 48 John Bright Street, Birmingham, B1 1BN
Recent UK research reveals young people to be politically disengaged, fatalistic and pessimistic about politics, and placing little faith in politicians. All this makes them less likely to vote. They believe their elected representatives should be more diverse and accessible, less stuffy in their appearance, and reaching out to them on issues they can relate to.

With better education about politics in schools, young people say, they might make more informed choices at the ballot box and get more involved in political life.  However they also think that their generation does politics differently, through such means as petitions and boycotts.

Voter turnout is falling right across the population, but older people are still more likely to vote than the young.  What does this mean for the future of democracy? With campaigns to encourage young voter registration, proposals for youth manifestos and assemblies, and plans for social media outreach among the political parties, are we in danger of seeing everything all our political problems through the eyes of the young?

Matt Henn is Professor of Social Research within the Division of Politics and International Relations at Nottingham Trent University.  He has researched extensively on the subject of young people and politics and contributed to Beyond the Youth Citizenship Commission: Young People and Politics (Political Studies Association 2014) and Democracy and Protest (Merlin Press, 2003).

Dr Jennie Bristow is an associate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent. She is author of Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict (Palgrave, May 2015) and Standing up to Supernanny (Imprint Academic 2009). She is also co-author of Parenting Culture Studies (Palgrave 2014) and Licensed to Hug (Civitas 2010).

Candice Holdsworth is founder and editor of Imagine Athena. Candice has an MSc in Political Theory from the London School of Economics, and can usually be found discussing ideas and culture. Her writings also feature on Thought Leader and On Netflix Now .

The salon is produced and chaired by Rosamund Cuckston.

Recommended Readings
Twenty somethings, call off the generational jihad


Has Physics Destroyed Philosophy?

7.30pm. Thursday January 29th 2015 at The Victoria, 48 John Bright Street, Birmingham B1 1BN.

Philosophy is dead, Stephen Hawking argues. It has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. 

So Raymond Tallis relates in his essay Should we just shut up and calculate? Does Physics need Philosophy?At Birmingham Salon, Tallis will explore the gulf separating science and philosophy – the contrast between the world as we experience it and its representation in the physical sciences. 

It was not always this way. Tallis is at pains to point out that in ancient times, the philosopher and the physicist were often one and the same. “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here” was reputedly inscribed at the entrance of Plato’s Academy. From the 16th century scientific revolution onwards, however, quantitative and empirical approaches progressively displaced ‘armchair speculations’. While Philosophy came to a standstill – or seemed to – science made spectacular advances that have transformed human lives. 

So what’s the problem?
Our daily lived experience and scientific theory have parted company, Tallis says, and this is especially noticeable in relation to time. The Special Theory of Relativity sounded the death knell for ‘tensed time’ with its clearly delineated notions of past, present and future. And yet this is a reality that underpins the lives of everyone, including physicists. Einstein himself was troubled by the disappearance of the ‘now’ and its meaninglessness in physics. That the theory of relativity cannot accommodate our lived experience and the contrast between the knowable past and the unknowable future ought to concern us all, argues Tallis.

At the Birmingham Salon, Tallis will make the case for a philosophical approach to complement physics  in reconciling scientific discovery with the everyday reality.

About Raymond Tallis

Professor Raymond Tallis is a philosopher, poet, novelist and cultural critic and was until recently a physician and clinical scientist. In autumn 2009 he was listed by the Economist'sIntelligent Life Magazineas one of the top living polymaths in the world.

Recommended Reading

Philosophy isn't dead yet. Raymond Tallis in The Guardian, 27 May 2013

Should we just shut up and calculate? Does Physics need Philosophy? In: Tallis, Raymond. Reflections of a metaphysical flâneur and other essays, 2013 

Mistaking Mathematics for Reality  In: Tallis Raymond. EpimetheanImaginings: Philosophical and other meditations on every day light, 2014.

The International Health Service: Will migration heal the nation?

7.30pm. Friday 9th January 2015, at Birmingham Medical Institute, 36 Harborne Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 3AF

Does migration keep the NHS healthy or is it breaking the bank?

In the year ending March 2014, 243,000 people migrated into the UK. As an organisation with almost two million employees, it is reasonable to expect that some of these people will work in the NHS.
UKIPs Head of Policy, Tim Aker, on the other hand, has argued that open borders policies turned (the NHS) into an international health service, linking migration to two billion pounds of NHS expenditure.

Efficiency savingsseem to have gained popularity as an effective treatment for the long term health of the NHS ever since former NHS Chief Executive Sir David Nicholson set his challenge to save £20 billion by 2015. The Health Minister, Lord Howe, has launched plans to extend NHS charges to migrants to stop the abuse of our NHS. The Department of Health claimed that these measures could recover £500 million.

An alternative view was put forward by Professor Sir Simon Wessely, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. On Radio Fours Any Questions, he named and praised the Romanian social worker who helped his father when he was seriously unwell. Like the former President of the Royal College of GPs, Clare Gerada, he noted that you are more likely to meet an immigrant working as a doctor than sitting in the waiting room. Bring them on, he went on to say.


Professor George Tadros: Consultant in old age liaison psychiatry and a clinical lead for the pioneering Rapid Assessment, Interface and Discharge (RAID) service based at City Hospital in Winson Green.

Gisela Stuart:  Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston since 1997, and health minister under Tony Blairs government.

Dr Luke Evans:Freelance GP in practices around the Edgbaston area. Prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for Birmingham Edgbaston.

Phil Bennion: Former MEP for the West Midlands, arable farmer and Chairman of the National Farmers' Union in Staffordshire.

Ken McLaughlin: Senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, teaching sociology, social policy, mental health and social work.

The debate is produced and chaired by Jonathan Hurlow, Member of the Birmingham Salon, Forensic Psychiatrist & former Research Officer for the All Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform.

Recommended Readings

Guardian report on study suggesting that temporary migrants cost the NHS up to £2bn a year.

Collier, Paul. Exodus: Immigration and multiculturalism in the 21st century, 2013. Available on Amazonin printed and Kindle editions.


Risky business? Fracking and the future of energy

Thursday 13th November 2014, 7.30 pm at The Victoria, 48 John Bright Street, Birmingham, B1 1BN.

This Birmingham Salon debate is a satellite event of Battle of Ideas 2014.
In the UK, widespread disenchantment with the rising cost of fuel runs alongside fears that the dark days of power cuts are set to return.
How are we to generate the affordable and reliable sources of energy needed? As forecasters point to the doubling of global demand for fuel by 2050 – with the world’s population approaching nine billion – are politicians wrongly prioritising energy efficiency over availability?
In Europe, EU rules have led to the closure of many coal-fired power stations, and due to political prevarication, generating capacity has yet to recover. For the second half of this decade, the gap between peak demand and total power-station capacity will be close to zero. 
Meanwhile, alternative energy solutions are mired in controversy. The Fukushima crisis of 2011 continues to overshadow the nuclear power industry. Onshore wind farms, biofuels and hydroelectric dams fail to generate consensus in terms of social and environmental impact. 
So what about shale gas? Touted as a low-cost, low-carbon ‘bridge’ from coal to renewables, fracking nevertheless attracts noisy opposition, even at the test drilling stage. Are protesters’ fears valid, or have environmentalists simply united with NIMBY agendas? 
A more radical approach might be to look beyond quick fixes such as shale and wind, towards more innovative solutions. That would sidestep the need to ‘break the earth’ at least. But right now, developments such as nuclear fusion are dismissed as unrealistic, and meanwhile energy supplies remain worryingly tight. 
The real risk might be that a paralysing fear of the unknown prevents us from confronting a challenge that has huge implications for people’s lives.
How can the UK keep the lights on?


Chris Crean, regional campaigns co-ordinator (West Midlands), Friends of the Earth

James Woudhuysen, co-author, Energise! A future for energy innovation


Helen Guldberg, director, spiked; author, Reclaiming Childhood and Just Another Ape

Recommended Readings

Woudhuysen agrees to differ with George Monbiot on the subject of fracking.  

Professor David MacKay discusses land usage to meet energy requirements via different renewable energy routes.

Will Boisvert says we should embrace our high energy planet and refutes claims made by Naomi Klein about the energy solutions in the face of climate change.

US study finds that solar panels produced in China have high production-related pollution levels and carbon footprint.

Series of articles in The Guardian on the precautionary principle, which predicates much discussion on the risks of different types of energy solution.


Forced adoption, fatalities, and failure: what's up with the child protection system?

7.30pm. Thursday 9th October 2014, at The Victoria, 48 John Bright Street, Birmingham B1 1BN.

Speakers for this important debate include John Hemming MP, Chair of Justice for Families.

“The system keeps limping along – its feet bearing the self-inflicted gunshot wounds of trigger-happy policymakers." Professor Sue White, University of Birmingham

The Children and Families Act 2014 is the latest in a barrage of laws centred on the UK’s child protection system. Since the 1989 Children's Act, which established the primacy of child welfare and the importance of preserving home and family links where possible, an astonishing 21 further Acts of Parliament have focused on the protection of children.
So why have we seen such terrible fatalities over the same period?

Professionals point to problems such as performance targets, obsession with data, difficulties in recruiting and training social workers, and a lack of recognition of child protection issues in other professions leading to a failure of agencies to collaborate effectively.

But at the end of the day, the very system set up to monitor cases such as Victoria Climbie, Baby P, and Daniel Pelka, has failed to protect those children.

Recent campaigns highlighting the process of adopting out (forced adoption) children in care have indicated a possible class, disability, and race bias within the child protection system. And yet the Rotherham scandal suggests that it was the unquestioning culture of political correctness across the system that left large numbers of children open to sexual exploitation.

So is the child protection system interfering or incompetent? Is it under-funded, under-valued, over-stretched and over-criticised?  Or is it overbearing and morally compromised to the point that it loses sight of its own principles?

Putting the headlines to one side, what does the system look like when it works well? And are we all to blame for demanding quick fixes, when longer-term solutions that address the full complexity of the issues would be more effective?


John Hemming MP: Member of Parliament for Birmingham Yardley and Chair of Justice for Families

Professor Kate Morris: Professor of Social Work and Director of the Centre for Social Work, University of Nottingham

Recommended Readings

Forced Adoptions and Mums on the Run - BBC R4 programme

Professor Kate Morris and others on rethinking the child protection system

Cathy Ashley of the Family Rights Group voices concern about the Children and Families Act 2014

Frank Furedi argues that making reporting of child abuse mandatory will be

The suspicion that social work doesn't work has been reinforced by the Rotherham report


Exceptionally independent? The Scottish Independence Referendum and the case for the Union

7.30pm. Thursday 11th September 2014, at The Victoria, 48 John Bright Street, Birmingham B1 1BN.

The discussion about Scottish independence affects more than just the Scottish electorate - it calls into question the very union created by two acts of Parliament in 1706 and 1707, which formed the nation of Great Britain we live in today. Beyond the often uninspiring and tedious practicalities of the current independence debate lie some important principles.

Some maintain that Great Britain was the first modern society based not on ethnicity or race, but on shared purpose and beliefs. Rather than being formed at the end of a bayonet’, as were so many other states in the same period, it was instead a product of Enlightenment thinking which recognised shared economic and political values, and an intricately linked history.  

Questioning the value of patriotism and nationalism, Samuel Johnson declared in 1774 that: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel."  Scottish nationalism, the Yes campaign argue, is a modern, civic nationalism, devoid of older associations with racism and jingoism. And it's not the only nationalism enjoying increasing purchase today – a recent independence march in Edinburgh, for example, was attended by Catalan nationalists who are also looking to hold their own independence referendum. The nation state, supporters of Scottish devolution argue, is in decline around the world, being increasingly replaced by autonomous states working in economic and defence federations. Many argue that these resurgent national identities need not be viewed as parochial, inward looking or conservative, but rather reflect a new spirit of integration of smaller nations into the greater whole of the European Union, which itself aspires to act as a safeguard against sectarianism and the national conflicts of old.

Can those in favour of the union today make a valid case for maintaining it? Or is the growth of competing nationalisms the next inevitable shift in these islands' history? In the midst of British anxieties about social cohesion, what effect will the breakup of the union have? As the notion of nation states is increasingly being called into question, what does it means to be British, or indeed Scottish, today?


 Justine Brian: Justine is the National Coordinator of the Debating Matters competition for sixth form students.

 Dr Joe Jackson: Teaching Fellow, University of Warwick School of English Literature and Comparative Studies, Joe teaches "Devolutionary British Fiction 1940 to the present".

Recommended Readings

Jonathan Meades in his series on Scotland Off Kilter says that the independent nation is a delusional state.  

Brendan ONeill links the Scottish independence campaign to the divisive cult of identity politics” and argues there is a moral case for the Union.

Working people are beginning to see the Independence Referendum as presenting “the possibility of taking back some power for themselves,"writes Jonathan Shafi,  co-founder of the Radical Independence Campaign, in The Scotsman.  

Writer Alasdair Gray does not have much faith in the SNP but hopes that independence will mean in 2016 a new set of MSPs without old party allegiances will be elected who will “thoroughly and publicly debate important matters.”

Both Farage and Galloway are wrong about Scottish Nationalism, according to the Bella Caledonia online magazine, which is instead "articulating a vision for an internationalist, multicultural Scotland."

Patrick West gives an account of the differences between the Catalan and Scottish Independence campaigns.

How popular is pop music?

7.30pm. Thursday 12th June 2014, at The Victoria, 48 John Bright Street, Birmingham B1 1BN.

Has pop music lost its power over the hearts and minds of the young?

Debate among the nation’s music commentariat has intensified with the 20 year anniversary of Britpop. Symptoms of decline are numerous – from the collapse of NME sales to the rise of the reunion tour. As Salon speaker Neil Davenport notes, “Chart hits no longer have an era-defining quality.” 

Should we look for the source of the problem within pop itself? Have we exhausted the possibilities of the three-minute record and the thematically-unified album? Or is there a broader malaise?

Bob Stanley isn’t the only music writer to point to the impact of digital technologies – the free and instant download culture that demands less of us, in both financial and emotional terms. But rather than view this as a technology-driven problem, some see a broader retreat into a pervasive “slow-developing popular culture where the past always wins”. Others accuse X Factor of killing organic channels that nurture emerging pop talent.

Has the relentless war on public drinking and shared space driven us into an atomised relationship with music, detached from fashion or cultural thought? Are we scared of the jagged edges of past pop movements such as punk? If today’s young people lack the creative drive and fearlessness that pop music feeds on, how has that happened?

On the other hand, reports of the demise of pop music may be much exaggerated.

Pop music has always moved along with shifts in technology. Is manufactured pop really killing grassroots culture, or is Brian Epstein proof that it’s always been an integral part of the industry? X Factor may be a symptom rather than a cause, or even not a problem at all. Perhaps nostalgia makes us see pop through the distorted prism of the past.

Are we back in moribund 1975 – with the explosion of punk just round the corner? Do today’s pop hotspots, such as US cities Nashville and Austin, prove that the talent is still out there? Or does the lethargy at the heart of today’s youth culture mean no more heroes anymore?


Neil Davenport: Neil is a music writer and sociology/politics teacher in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Adam Regan: Owner of Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, one of Birmingham’s most prominent music venues.

Michael Whitehouse: Graduate of Birmingham's Academy of Music and Sound. Guitarist for indie bands SubTotal and Torpedo Joe, and rock band Rubrik. Avid music fan.

Thanks, as always, to The Victoria, for providing the venue.

Recommended Readings

Album sales are declining, but it’s part of the battle between art and commerce – Bob Stanley.

Pop history: A poor substitute for real history – Neil Davenport.

We don’t read newspapers because the journalism is so boring – Adam Curtis.