Monday, September 21, 2009

Master debaters and the art of conviction

Mr. Eugenides asks whether the art of debate is what we require of our politicians today or if it is more that we require integrity and a belief in that which they're arguing.

So glad the Galloping Greek could return for another bout, his previous two pieces being on Scotland, Greece and Russia and then ... yes, believe it ... on Heaven!

I spent my student days at Glasgow University, and quite a lot of that time was spent in the Union Debating society, which was then reputed as among the very best in the world. Noted for producing formidable debating talents (leave aside their politics) such as John Smith, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy among others, Union debaters had a history of success unparalleled by any other university; fifteen times British champions - three times more wins than any other institution, at that time - and five times World champions, a record which still stands and to which I am proud to have contributed.

More to the point, perhaps, we played the game in the right spirit, dammit. Not for us the rituals of debating geeks up and down the land, burying their heads in back issues of the Economist and memorising statistics about world trade. No, GUU men (and girls) stood up and took the fight to the opposition with rhetoric, confidence and (on a good day) razor-sharp wit; bristling with aggression, chutzpah and balls (particularly the girls), we were the first into the bar at the end of the day and the last out every night, without fail.

Generously funded by our Union – the only good kind of union – some of us were lucky enough to travel the world at taxpayers’ expense before John Prescott made it popular, and we were damned if we were going to spend our precious week in New York, Manila or Sydney getting an early night tucked up in bed when there was nightlife to be explored and local brews to be sampled. Love us or hate us, few people were unaware of the presence of the Glasgow contingent at a post-debate party; kilted, beers in hand and never shy to start a singsong, they were (and are) a fixture thankfully more permanent than the Tartan Army at international football tournaments.

Glasgow was and is peculiar in so far as internal debates are conducted on a “Parliamentary” system. A number of quasi-political clubs, such as SNP, Tories or Whigs, argue for broadly left- or right-wing points of view throughout the year, and while membership of clubs is not tied to real-world political parties, the system makes it possible for those of a certain world-view to attend debates during the year in the knowledge that they will usually be arguing for policies and positions with which they have some sympathy.

But competitive intervarsity debating is different. When you get to a competition, teams are drawn randomly on proposition or opposition, and only then is a motion for debate announced. You have 15 minutes to prepare a detailed and preferably water-tight argument for or against regime change in Burma, say, or renewal of Trident, or the legalisation of drugs. Your own political beliefs and sympathies are neither here nor there. And, unlike Question Time or the House of Commons, assertions and half-truths are punished by opponents, and by adjudicators.

Those who succeed are those who become skilled at making up cases on the fly, who are flexible enough to quickly adapt to either side of literally any subject, who can be instantly persuasive for or against any proposition at the drop of a hat, and then stand up in the next debate and, if need be, argue for precisely the opposite with apparent sincerity and conviction.

My generation of ex-debaters are now, for the most part, in their thirties, and many of the most successful, from places like Oxbridge, the Inns of Court, Glasgow, Edinburgh or Trinity College, are in politics, either as party hacks, advisers or, in many cases, as elected, or soon-to-be-elected, councillors, MSPs and MPs.( I won’t name them to spare their blushes, but they span all parties from all across the spectrum.)

I can’t claim to know all these people well, but I can predict with a fair degree of confidence that in another ten years or so there will be a liberal smattering of familiar [to me] faces on the green benches – and, by extension, in legislatures around the world.

If you’re still reading, you may by now have divined the point I’m building up to. We have a whole generation of budding politicians who have basically been groomed to construct and deliver arguments based not on their own convictions but on the vagaries of a computerised draw. We’re speaking in favour of higher spending to see the country through recession? Great, I’ve jotted down some compelling arguments from the pro side. Oh, sorry, I wrote the draw down wrong; we’re actually opposing higher spending? No problem; we can do that too. What do I personally think about this? What’s that got to do with anything?

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that my time as a debater really did equip me with critical thinking skills and techniques which have stood me in good stead in my life; I’m confident in front of a crowd, still reasonably quick on my feet in an argument, and I can see both sides of every story. And the aforementioned debaters, who are now making their way into politics and may in time become senior figures in their respective parties, are for the most part people of conviction whom I would be happy to have as representatives, even when their politics differ widely from my own.

But I worry about a political system in which whole cohorts of new MPs have essentially been trained to lie as smoothly and professionally as possible, and boast about it on their CVs (as, indeed, do I). We’ve got enough liars in that place as it is.


lady macleod said...

Indeed and well said. Oxford is where I learned conversation as a blood sport and then passed it on to my daughter, who has had some trouble with the Americans who think politeness comes first?

Nice read James.

So if the site goes down, your url is the same yes?

xlbrl said...

Arguments only confirm people in their own opinions, and have the further effect of blinding them to others. All is vanity. The smarter the man, the greater the vanity.

James Higham said...

Url will be different.

The smarter the man, the greater the vanity. All the best villains show it to be so.

Anonymous said...

Errmm, cough, ahem.

Mr E,

It seems that I confused authors.
My words on "rockets, and Iran" assumed James had written this post too.

My comments concerning qualities of individuals who engage in such nonsense should have been directed at you Mr E.

The details were intended for James benefit.

I am also in agreement with Xlbrl comments above.