Debating in St Andrews

st-andrews-cathedralI mentioned in a previous post that I had recently been invited to take part in a debate at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. This came as a bit of a surprise to me as I’m a fairly quiet soul and not exactly known for my oratory skills.  Nevertheless, in a moment of weakness I accepted the invite, even though I don’t think I knew what I was letting myself in for…

The Union Debating Society was founded in 1794, and is the oldest in the country (although there is apparently an older one at Trinity College, Dublin), and is steeped in tradition. The debate, held in the University’s Lower Parliamentary Hall, was titled ‘This House Has No Confidence In Her Majesty’s Government’ was the University’s Union Debating Society’s annual Parliamentary Debate.

My first shock came a few days before I was due to fly up to Scotland, when it became apparent that I was going to be on the Opposition side of the debate. This was going to put me in an awkward situation, not being a particular fan of the current administration, as may be clear from my cartoons. It was too late at this stage to change sides, so I agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to speak in defence of the Government.

orderpaperA bigger shock came when I arrived at the debating chamber on the night of the debate. Greeted by be-kilted bagpipe players, I was ushered into a back room of the Hall for a few much needed nerve-calming glasses of port. It was then I was handed the order paper, and realised that I was up against Steward Hosie (SNP MP for Dundee East) and Sir Menzies Campbell (MP for North East Fife, former Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Chancellor of the University).

I had, perhaps naively, been expecting to be debating with student representatives of the various University political parties (of which there were a few). I was worried, not least because my speech, hastily written on the plane coming up to Scotland, had a couple of gags at the expense of the Liberal Democrats (and Sir Menzies in particular) as you will see in the text of the speech below. So, no pressure there then

Anyway, having exchanged a few pleasantries with the other debaters and members of the Board of Ten (of which there are, inevitably, not ten members) we proceeded to the Hall. And when I say proceeded, it was a procession, with gowns (for the students) and a ceremonial sword called Bessie (which I later discovered, like a lot of the traditions in St Andrews is not quite as ancient as you’d thing, the sword having been bought in a second-hand shop a few years previously).

It was a packed house, which was doing nothing for my already frayed nerves, and was laid out in a vaguely parliamentary fashion. I sat facing Ming the Merciless, and the business of the evening kicked off with various Announcements, Minutes and Adjournments before we got to the main event – the Debate. I was fourth to speak, following Sir Ming, and had seven minutes to put my case. I stood at the Despatch Box (yup, just like the ones in Parliament) and delivered my speech:

As someone who spends most of his working day alone in his studio attempting to use as few words as possible to attack this government, it might seem unusual to see me speaking here to a roomful of people in it’s defence. Well, my argument is simple, and rests on one basic fact, that this government is good for business. Not just any business though. My business, as a cartoonist and satirist.

Sure, this government has done questionable things, objectionable things, even offensive things. Things like the ongoing wars on Afghanistan, Iraq and Terror. The gradual erosion of our civil liberties, from ID cards to extending the maximum detention of terror suspects to 42 days (more if they could get away with it). I am willing to accept that the current financial problems the country is facing are not the government’s fault but part of a global crisis. Some things could’ve been done better, but let’s face it, with a Scottish Prime Minister, a Scottish Chancellor of the Exchequer using a Scottish economic model and bailing out Scottish banks, what could possibly go wrong?

But a government lead by a Prime Minister who once claimed to have ‘saved the world’ (but not, admittedly, the cheerleader) is a gift to satire. So much of a gift that even Jeremy Clarkson can take a pop at the ‘one-eyed Scottish idiot’. A Prime Minister who once asked a colleague of mine, Martin Rowson, cartoonist for the Guardian ‘why do you draw me so fat?’, to which Martin’s response was inevitably, ‘because you are fat’. A Prime Minister who has brought back Peter Mandelson yet again shows that he must surely have a sense of humour.

A government in free-fall in the polls, limping from one crisis to another gives the political cartoonist something to get his teeth in to. So whether it’s the allegations of sleaze in the Lords, MPs fiddling their expenses or the Business Secretary swanning around the Adriatic with the Shadow Chancellor, soliciting money from Russian oligarchs this government is ripe for parody.

But what of the Opposition? Surely they are as good a target? And they are… and I’ve certainly taken a fair few swipes at them too. But have you seen the Shadow Cabinet? Can you name more than three or four of them. The fact that William Hague is seen as the elder statesman, or that they have to bring back so-called Big Beast Kenneth Clarke to give them any kind of weight says it all. The only thing more insubstantial than the shadow cabinet is their policies. Policies that are little more than a pale imitation of the current government’s, which in turn are little more than a pale imitation of the previous Conservative administration’s. And we all remember what a glorious success the Major years were.

And what of the Liberal Democrats, the middle-of-the-road choice, who’ll jump into bed with whichever party might give them so much as a whiff of power? I lost all confidence in them when they unceremoniously ditched the only party leader with any real personality about him, Charles Kennedy, the first balding ginger alcoholic to lead a major party since Churchill. To replace him with Menz.. Ming.. Ming the Unpronounceable, and then flush him away in favour of the much younger, er, Whatsisname (or was it Thingy – I always get those two muddled up) was unforgiveable.

Of the Scottish Nationalists, I’m afraid to say that along with the Welsh, or Northern Irish parties, I don’t really know enough about them to comment further.

In conclusion, therefore, I maintain that this government should be allowed to continue to provide cartoonists and satirists with material for a very long time yet. I have every confidence that this government will continue on it’s present course of incompetence and misadventure, and long may they do so.

Well, for my debut as a public speaker I don’t think I did too badly. I came in under the seven minutes (unlike the other speakers, who mostly went well over the time), but I’m told I came across well. The audience laughed at all the right parts, Sir Ming didn’t look too offended, and if I do say so myself, it was the most entertaining speech of the night. The remaining speeches were made, and it came to the vote – which, as it was Rag Week, took the form of a charity collection. Unsurprisingly, the Oppostion lost, and the Proposition was carried. This was followed by a few more speeches and another procession, this time accompanied by the traditional Debating Society song – the Gaudeamus which is an apparently quite smutty song in Latin.

The evening was rounded off with the Parliamentary Dinner, held in Chariots bar (so named as it overlooks the beach on which that famous scene from Chariots of Fire was filmed), along with more debates and singing, not to mention one or two more ‘unofficial’ traditional rites. I later retired to my B&B, prior to a day exploring St Andrews and Dundee (of which more in a future post).

All in all though it was good fun and an entertaining evening, and I am grateful to the Board of Ten of the Debating Society for inviting me. It has been suggested I may be invited back for future debates, which I would certainly look forward to taking part, and now I have a better idea as how these things work, perhaps give a better, more winning performance.

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2 comments on “Debating in St Andrews”

  1. Maggie Bedford Reply

    ..and you weren’t lynched after the 2nd paragraph! Well we all need challenges & this was a really scary one. Enjoyed the speech.
    The web site has given me insight into your political awareness. Your book has already shown your talent.
    Well done.

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