Dining across the divide: ‘He’s picked up a lot of misconceptions from the rightwing press’

They might agree that the current government’s a mess – but will they see eye to eye on cancel culture?

Isaac, 58, London


Occupation Self-employed fundraising consultant for startups

Voting record Has varied throughout his life, from solid Labour originally, to voting Lib Dem once, and Conservative in recent years

Amuse bouche Won five indoor office golf tournaments in one day

Rishi, 46, London


Occupation University professor

Voting record Lib Dem in 2001 – his first election in the UK – and Labour since

Amuse bouche Rishi is also the director of a contemporary circus, so his main skill is telling other people what to do, but he can manage a little Chinese pole

For starters

Isaac You don’t generally set out for dinner thinking: “I’m going to spend an evening arguing with someone.” Rishi is a lovely person.

Rishi I tried to listen to his arguments, and he engaged with my arguments, too. We had a bunch of different tapas dishes: some fish, some beef, a couple of really nice salads.

Isaac Excellent food – we basically shared everything. We had the padrón peppers, the pan con tomate, the cod. Anchovy, of course. The lemon sole.

Rishi and Isaac

The big beef

Rishi He has picked up a lot of misconceptions and, actually, outright lies about what’s happening at universities in terms of cancel culture, from the rightwing press. I work at a university: I tried to relieve him of some of those misconceptions.

Isaac I’m very much of the opinion that if somebody wants to say something offensive, that is their right to do so. I was subject to antisemitic abuse growing up, and I don’t believe it’s had any impact on me other than making me aware that people hold such views. I would rather hear those views expressed than suspect they’re there and not hear them.

Rishi He is Jewish. I’m Asian and I’m gay, and he talked about his experiences of antisemitism. A lot of the debate is not about freedom but about consequences. He said he was at university with a Holocaust denier: “We would argue with him in class, but that didn’t mean we wouldn’t have lunch with him afterwards.” And I said: “If this person wants to deny the Holocaust and nobody wants to have lunch with him, isn’t that a reasonable consequence?”

Isaac I said: “It depends what you mean by consequences.” If the consequence is to whip up a witch-hunt and drive someone out of a job, that is not a reasonable response. That is silencing and intimidation. Freedom of expression shouldn’t extend to silencing people.

Rishi I said: “Yeah, of course, there’s no justification for that.” And I didn’t really go into the fact that that was happening much more to people on the left than on the right.

Rishi and Isaac

Sharing plate

Isaac I’ve always seen the EU referendum as a matter of heart versus head. It’s so striking that the head side – the economic benefits of membership – is more owned by the left, whereas the heart side is more owned by the right.

Rishi We agreed on what an absolute mess the government was, that the Conservative party was incoherent, and that we were going to vote Labour.

Rishi and Isaac

For afters

Isaac We agree that, ultimately, immigration is economically necessary. With the way we’ve shaped our society, to service its needs and the future costs of supporting non-working people, I would be the first to accept that there’s no choice: you’re only going to be able to do that by bringing in people of working age.

Rishi His argument was very much about a lack of resources. I said: “Resources aren’t really finite in that way.” Because people coming to the country are themselves resources. They’re doctors and delivery drivers. I gave him the figures: the majority of immigrants are of working age; 50% are under the age of 25! These are not people who are a burden. So then he moved on to: “It’s really hard for communities to absorb change.”

Isaac The point I was making is that we haven’t invested in the infrastructure necessary to support the numbers of migrants we need, be that housing stock or health provision.

Rishi and Isaac


Rishi We ended up staying there until 11.30. I don’t know if we have enough in common to have a sustained friendship, but we really enjoyed each other’s company.

Isaac It was very cordial. I would happily continue the conversation.

Rishi and Isaac

Additional reporting: Kitty Drake

• Isaac and Rishi ate at Parrillan in London

Want to meet someone from across the divide? Find out how to take part


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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