The speakers began by discussing the problem of actually using the word “beauty”. “It isn’t that politicians don’t appreciate beauty,” noted Letwin, “it’s that one isn’t allowed to talk about it”. Reynolds and Letwin railed against the Orwellian “newspeak” that results in people in power discussing “biodiversity” and “sustainability” but prevents them from talking candidly about beauty. They argued that avoiding using simple words like “beautiful” and “ugly” means that the debate itself is problematic; we need to resuscitate the credibility of the terminology first in order to have the debate taken seriously.

The way in which society and politicians measure value was a central topic of the discussion. Reynolds described herself as being against “equations” as they are incapable of doing justice to the value of beauty to our lives, saying “we got captured by economism; the only thing that matters is things that you can count. We know that’s not true; we need to think different way about what we value.” Letwin countered that Economics was not a totally “dismal science” and is perfectly capable of attaching value to highly intangible things like beauty, or love, albeit in a particular way. “It’s not the lack of putting a number on it that is the real issue, it’s that we’re dead scared of doing even that,” he said.

The speakers held a variety of parties to blame. Planners, developers and architects were maligned, but politicians also came under fire. The divide between Westminster and Whitehall was highlighted by comment from several senior civil servants and Ed Vaizey, Minister of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, who argued for a more joined up approach to beauty in politics, elements of which do already exist. He called Letwin’s speech on beauty in 2005 “one of the most important political speeches ever made” and pushed for an annual meeting of senior ministers to discuss beauty and how to implement the culture white paper.

On the topic of whether or not it is justifiable to push for beauty being on the political agenda in a time of austerity, the speakers were united. Letwin argued that, far from being a cherry on top of a good life, a beautiful habitat is something than even those in the most deprived areas need. Reynolds took a similar line, criticising beauty being seen as secondary to, or less urgent than, other contributors to welfare.

Reynolds noted that while we are making great strides in the UK in creating a future for the rural economy of sustainable integration and harmony, “we have an enormous challenge if we are going to live together in the densities that we need to in our cities, they hold the key to our future. The debate about ugliness and beauty helps us to articulate what we mean and what we find useful; it’s pretending that there’s some kind of economic solution that is driving us in the wrong direction,” she said.

The discussion was moderated by Hywel Williams, Senior Adviser at the Legatum Institute.

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About the Speakers

Dame Fiona Reynolds DBE became Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 2012, having been the Director-General of the National Trust since 2001. Before her position with the Trust, she was Director of the Women’s Unit in the Cabinet Office and was previously Director of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (now Campaign to Protect Rural England) and Secretary to the Council for National Parks (now Campaign for National Parks). Reynolds is the Senior Independent Director of the Executive Board of the BBC, a Non-Executive Director of Wessex Water and Chairs the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England, the charity The Green Alliance and the International National Trusts Organisation. Reynolds was appointed CBE for services to the environment and conservation in 1998 and DBE in 2008.

Oliver Letwin is the Member of Parliament for West Dorset and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He has overall charge of the Cabinet Office and responsibility for advising the Prime Minister on the implementation of government policy for the coordination of constitutional reform; the resilience of the UK's infrastructure; and the red tape challenge. Letwin has been a fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge, a civil servant and a bank director. Before becoming a cabinet minister, he held a series of positions in the Shadow Cabinet, as Shadow Chief Secretary, Shadow Home Secretary, Shadow Chancellor, Shadow Environment Secretary and Chairman of the Conservative Policy Review. He has written many books, pamphlets and articles, including Ethics, Emotion and the Unity of the Self; Privatising the World: A Study of International Privatisation in Theory and Practice; and The Purpose of Politics.

About the Roads to Freedom Series

As part of The Culture of Prosperity programme, this series offers a progress report on the idea of freedom. The history of the developed west has been shaped by the increased degree of freedom exercised by individuals who have been able to escape the constraints that prevailed in the past. Contributors to this series will be drawing conclusions from the study of the past while also seeking to find ways of removing the obstacles to freedom’s progress.' The relationship between rights and duties, freedoms and responsibilities, provides Roads to Freedom with its central theme in 2016. More information is available here.