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Bristol’s Festival of Economics: An Annual Forum for Public Debate in Times of Crisis Romesh Vaitilingam

Written by Romesh Vaitilingam

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One of the core aims of our annual Festival of Economics is to encourage young people to take up the subject. Here’s a workshop held as part of the festival. (Ibolya Feher)

Bristol Ideas launched Festival of Economics in 2012. At the opening event, a Guardian journalist said on a panel that he had left London with the fear that he would be speaking to an empty room. He was delighted to see a full house of 400 people. Festival of Economics has grown even more since then and, in 2024, will enter a new phase when it becomes part of the Economics Observatory, based at the University of Bristol. Romesh Vaitilingam worked with Bristol Ideas for a decade on the festival. He reflects here on its success and what this means for economics.

‘Just one damn thing after another’ is an amusing portrayal of historical narrative. It also applies rather neatly to Britain’s past few decades of almost continuous economic disaster. Since the late 2000s, the country has lurched from the fall of Northern Rock and the global financial crisis through the self-inflicted economic pain of austerity and Brexit in the 2010s to the recent unavoidable hits to incomes and wellbeing from the Covid 19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing surge in food and energy prices.

All of this takes some explaining to British people, whose lives and livelihoods have been so affected. That’s a task to which the Bristol Festival of Economics has sought to make a local and national contribution over the past dozen years with an annual series of public events bringing together economic experts from universities, thinktanks, the private sector and the media with policy-makers, practitioners and West Country residents keen to understand what’s going on.

The 12 editions of the festival since 2012 have covered an enormous range of topics including the economics of climate change, new technology, geopolitical tensions, food security and the ageing society. It’s welcomed many of the economics profession’s top thinkers, policy officials and media stars: including Nobel laureates Angus Deaton, Robert J Shiller and Jean Tirole, Bank of England policymakers Swati Dhingra, Andy Haldane, Mervyn King and Huw Pill, and journalists Stephanie Flanders, Tim Harford and Linda Yueh. And speakers have spanned the generations: from the youngest panellist, school student and Bristol youth mayor Alice Towle, to octogenarian writer and feminist Katharine Whitehorn.

The annual gathering attracts large and highly engaged audiences, including big numbers of young people from local schools and universities. By making economics relevant to their futures, the Festival provides valuable support for initiatives to address the uncomfortable fact that, for many years in this country, economics students have been disproportionately male, white and privately educated. It also helps economic policymakers in their efforts to listen directly to the public’s concerns about jobs, pay and the cost of living: not least in the Bank of England’s citizens’ panels that have opened the festival for the past few years.

20161118 – FOI Economics Day 2 AtBristol by Jon Craig 07778606070

Two people have underpinned the festival’s success. One is economics scholar and commentator Diane Coyle, who on returning from a festival of economics in Trento, Italy, in the summer of 2012, asked on Twitter (now X) why no such civic event happened in Britain. The other is Bristol Ideas director Andrew Kelly, who picked up that challenge, replying: ‘You programme it, and we’ll organise it!’ The rest, as they say, is history: a popular annual forum for promoting the public understanding of economics and debating issues of broad social concern.

Back then, it seemed laughable to think that there was a connection between the words ‘festival’ and ‘economics’. Now, their combination has become a widely known and highly regarded fixture in the calendar for economists and the public: not as inexorably intertwined as ‘economic’ and ‘crisis’, but it’s getting there.

Romesh Vaitilingam MBE is editor-inchief of the Economics Observatory based at the University of Bristol. He is the author of The Financial Times Guide to Using the Financial Pages, now in its sixth edition. In 2003, he was awarded an MBE for services to economic and social science.

This essay is taken from Our Project Was the City: Bristol Ideas 1992-2024, published May 2024.

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