BWS Day 2: The Dickens Debate

North Lanarkshire residents turned out in droves for Wishaw Library's first Book Week Scotland event – the Dickens Debate.

The evening was a good old community get-together to commemorate the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Dickens. It provided food for thought as well as actual food provisions, partnering with the Lanarkshire-based charity Basics Food Bank, which helps individuals and families in crisis with food and hygiene packs.

The Dickens Debate borrowed the famous Oliver Twist's, "Please, sir, I want some more!" as a jumping off point for discussion. Chair and former MSP Dennis Canavan acted as a tremendous chair for the debate whose panel included University of Abertay lecturer in sociology Stuart Waiton, former teacher and Church project manager David Geddes, and humanities teacher Steven Purdie.

While there is danger in over-stretching a metaphor over the course of a 90 minute discussion, the Oliver Twist moment was recalled in connection with child poverty, as an example of societal hierarchy and the upper class control over what the working class gets, and a call to action for a collective conscience in a communal society.

Stuart Waiton questioned the extent to which today's society can be moral, calling on a need for autonomy. He said that the working class are too often encouraged to think of themselves as victims, leading to a rise of cosmopolitan snobbishness and veiled non-contemptuousness.

David Geddes spoke of the 19th Century rise of the working class and called for a more community-driven, rather than individualist, society. He stated that contemptuousness towards the working class is a problem of attitude and that we must see poverty and the impoverished as people, not as a problem. 

Steven Purdie took a somewhat different tack, agreeing that voluntary, mutual and community spirit are dying out. How do we respond to the urban poor asking for more? He spoke of political elites passing down decrees for living wages, the treatment of working class people as individual victims, and other techniques that make it difficult for a collective consciousness to take hold. The working class needs to collaborate, he says, "We should collectively be saying, 'We want some more!'" 

After the opening remarks the audience participation really began to heat up. A local teacher asked, "How do we provide for children during cuts and teach and empower them to enact change?" One local argued that everyone participates in the economy, which is a power that must be respected; while another made a call for us to be judgemental and point the finger of blame towards what he called the real scroungers and parasites: those at the top. A local Labour councillor asked if, during the current crisis in capitalism, there is a seed bed for enacting change.

In closing comments, the panel called upon us to recognise the demoralising effects of the current political system, fight against politics of limitation (laws which infringe on individual rights), and to remind ourselves that we are agents of our own history and of change.

While it is difficult to sum up the essence of a long debate in a short blog post, there is certainly a need for discussion and a pervading feeling that discussions like these are invaluable in local communities. I congratulate Wishaw Library and the event's organisers for bringing this excellent debate to its community.

If you'd like to read up on some of the issues discussed, Stuart recommended On Liberty by John Stewart Mill, and Steven Purdie suggested Frank Furedi's Wasted: Why Education Isn't Educating.

Check back tomorrow for some less political but decidedly fun fare – Vikings in Dundee and a gig with Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat!

Nicola Balkind

Nicola Balkind is a writer, editor and avid reader. She contributes to a number of books, blogs, and the BBC Scotland Movie Café, and is the editor of World Film Locations: Glasgow. Read more of her Book Week Scotland blogs here.