Madsen Pirie comes to Pembroke Politics
The Pembroke Politics Society, formed in 2013, already has an impressive track record of attracting world-class speakers for its events. The latest Politics Society talk was by Madsen Pirie, founder of the Adam Smith Institute. Jon Cooper, the Society’s Speakers Officer, reports on the event.
Politics societies have an important role to play in modern life. They contribute to an active public sphere, where ideas are shared, discussed and scrutinised. By contributing to greater political awareness by allowing the open discussion of issues, they allow participants to make more informed political decisions in a democracy. Pembroke Politics, a student-run politics society, aims to stimulate political discussion and awareness in both our college and the wider university, and in doing so I believe plays an important part in our democratic process.
The typical format of our activities are events where influential speakers give a short talk, followed by a lively question and answers session. As Speakers Officer, it’s essentially my responsibility to make sure we get interesting speakers that will both attract an audience and contribute to the political life at Pembroke. That’s why, unlike other student-run societies that host speakers, we try to avoid sensationalism. Instead of hosting celebrities or more controversial figures, we invite speakers to explore bigger issues in greater detail. Recent events have included a panel on ‘The Kurds in a changing Middle East’ chaired by former master Sir Richard Dearlove, and a talk on the future of the Labour Party by Cambridge’s MP Daniel Zeichner.
The committee was very excited, then, to be able to host Dr Madsen Pirie on the 30th of October. As the founder and current President of the Adam Smith Institute, a leading think-tank promoting free market ideas, Madsen has been incredibly influential in government policy over the past forty years. He has been described as the lead architect of Thatcher’s privatisation programme. He’s authored several books, and has a PhD in Philosophy from Edinburgh, together with an MPhil in Land Economy from Pembroke.
When the date was agreed, we met Madsen some time before the event to discuss what topic he might speak about. As two other committee members and I sat down to dinner with him, it was clear he very genuinely believed in the work he did. Student politics can often be very left wing without scrutiny. It’s almost conventional wisdom that to be left-wing, and desire government intervention, means that you actually care about the plight of the poor in society, as opposed to capitalistic selfishness.
Madsen tells us about how, while he doesn’t mind a large gap between the rich and poor, he believes that his policies are the only way to lift the poor up from poverty, and give everyone in society fundamental freedoms, allowing them to follow creative and innovative pursuits. Listening to an influential figure who was willing to be so honest about their political beliefs, while making them accessible and comprehensible, challenged conventional understandings on which I hadn’t often been challenged. It was a privilege I was very pleased to extend to the wider college community.
We together agreed that Madsen would speak on the topic of the fundamental difference between the left and right. We discussed what this meant for a while, and he said it was material he’d not yet published. He talked about how while the left tried to implant an idea of the world on a more complicated reality, the right used evidence and rationality to determine its incremental approach to policy. Eventually, the title of the event was finalised as ‘The Important Political Difference: Idealism versus Empiricism’, since while this tended to apply along the lines of left and right, it wouldn’t always.
Organising these events, beyond inviting a speaker and deciding a topic, involve some level of logistical effort. Rooms have to be booked, permission obtained, catering arranged, and committee members have to be on hand to manage it at the time. In publicising the event, we spoke to the leaders of the Cambridge University Conservative Association, Cambridge Libertarians, the Cambridge Society for Economic Pluralism, while putting posters made by our publicity officer up in departments, colleges and the UL. I even managed to flatter our Head Porter to put a poster up opposite the porter’s lodge. It’s always a learning game, though, and we discovered new tools such as contributing to the Talks and What’s On sections of the university website a little too late.
When all the planning all comes together, though, the result rewards the entire committee’s efforts. The event turned out to be a great success. We have had both of our events this term in the Old Library, which is a beautiful room to host speakers. We are also very lucky to have our refreshments funded. As such, the first ten to fifteen minutes typically involve a couple of glasses of wine, some nibbles and the opportunity to see friends in college you might not often, or make new ones.
Eventually attendees were beckoned by our Co-President Kerry Smith to take their seats. Madsen himself was engaging, describing it as no coincidence that his name was M. Piri-cism, before discussing how idealism and empiricism had been conceptualised from the classical to the modern world. He told me to ‘shut him up’ after fifteen minutes of talking, and thus followed a lively question and answers session. Predictably, we touched on topics of privatisation in the NHS, the collieries and transport, while other questions explored whether empiricism and idealism were theoretically mutually exclusive. Madsen’s charm is in dealing with complex, stifling issues in a way that one can immediately understand. I overheard several people come away from the event still discussing and debating the topics that had been raised.
Our planning and work had satisfyingly fulfilled the aims of our society. But, crucially, it was also good fun. It is convention that the committee takes speakers to dinner following our events. Usually this involves Formal Hall. While Madsen was used to eating at High Table at Pembroke, he ate with us, and conversation rained quite considerably while the wine flowed. We bought Madsen a box of chocolates to thank him for his kindness in coming to our event, which he told us it would take him sixth months to eat.
We are lucky at Pembroke to have the resources to host events like this, in attracting speakers, having access to beautiful spaces and engaged students who attend the speakers we host. As we continue to get a sense of the best way to do things, Pembroke Politics looks as if it’s only going to grow. But the work doesn’t stop there. We’ve recently launched a website, looking to expand to publishing student contributions on political issues, and are currently planning our term card for Lent. The future looks ever brighter for Pembroke’s engagement with political life.