A few weeks ago, out of the blue, I had an email from the President of the St Andrew’s University Debating Society inviting me to take part in their annual Parliamentary Debate on the subject “This House has no faith in Her Majesty’s Government.”
I was heavily encouraged by my Liberal Democrat Voice co-editor Stephen Tall (who had taken part last year) and others to accept, despite my reservations. It had been a long time since I’d been at a university debate and I’d never spoken in one, not even from the floor. They key thing for me is that I write, I don’t speak. My gob is not equipped with the advantage of a backspace key. Nor can I tell jokes or do all the theatrical stuff. I allowed myself to be talked into it, though. By the morning of the debate on Thursday, I was alternately hyperventilating and mewling into a pillow, wondering why on earth I’d put myself in this situation. I had no alternative, though, but to embrace the fear and get on with it.
My satnav took me on the scariest route possible to North East Fife. I had thought of defying her, but she gets incredibly passive aggressive if you do so. I joined members of the Debating Society’s Board of 10 for a pre-debate meal. Unusually, I was the only speaker there. Chatting to them and finding out about the university and the society really helped settle my nerves. They were very lovely and hospitable.
We then went to the Parliamentary Hall for the debate to take place. The first thing I saw was a toilet seat balanced on the table, a trophy from the Bogwall Competition. The second thing was a bottle of port, awarded to the best floor speaker.
I was really chuffed that Charles, a friend of mine who had been working nearby that day came along to cheer me on. It was great to have a friendly face in the crowd. My team-mate was Dr Ian Duncan, the Scottish Conservatives’ top listed candidate for the European elections. The first thing he said to me when he arrived was that he’d had a nightmare journey and that he’d thought he had his speech with him but he didn’t. He hastily started scribbling on a piece of paper.
The first speaker proposing the motion was Gregg McClymont MP, He was very reasonable and in my heart of hearts, I could see many of the points that he was making, particularly on welfare reform. He spent a good bit of time talking about food banks. I almost intervened to point out that more people were using them because our government had allowed the DWP to refer people when Labour hadn’t but it felt wrong to me to be scoring low political points over a situation that we just shouldn’t be tolerating. The reason we have hearts is to be horrified when we hear that people are going hungry. For me, a properly funded welfare system would ensure that people are able to met their basic needs. It is unacceptable that people are going hungry in one of the richest countries in the world and there is no excuse for allowing it to continue. The reasons for it are many and varied and need to be tackled by UK, devolved and local administrations. We need to look at the evidence connecting benefit sanctions and food banks and look at other factors such as support for people with addiction or mental health problems. What is most chilling is that food banks will only feed you for 9 days in any year. What do you do for the other 355?
I did intervene on the top rate of tax. It does annoy me when Labour go on about cutting taxes for the rich when income inequality rose on their watch. I also brought up the Liam Byrne “there is no money left” note. Labour are so precious about the fact that we published it, but, honestly, the coalition inherited an economy with its foundations underpinned by candy floss and with bare cupboards. It’s not funny.
Then Ian Duncan provided us with a piece of pure theatre for his offering. He was the only non-novice amongst the table speakers and he was incredibly entertaining. He had the room in fits of laughter. There wasn’t, to be honest, a massive amount of substance and he used the word “pants” in relation to the Labour Party rather a lot and featured heavily on their economic incompetence, arguing that the Coalition had sorted it out.
Daniel Johnston, Chair of the University’s Labour club was next up, For a first time speaker he really did well, commanding the audience, presenting some relevant and potentially damning statistics and talking about the human cost of unemployment, rising living costs and welfare reform. I was surprised that neither he nor Gregg mentioned the Bedroom Tax.
Then it was my turn. I wore the closest thing in my wardrobe to a St Andrew’s Uni gown, and I commented that it felt strange to be making my debut as the oldest speaker (and about the third oldest person) in the room. I did a little bit of comparison of Governments I Have Known and then went into what I see as the major coalition achievements. It won’t surprise you that policies initiated by the Liberal Democrats like equal marriage, improvements in mental health provision, action against FGM, tackling homophobic bullying, shared parental leave and giving extra money to disadvantaged kids featured prominently.
Speakers from the floor talked about gender inequality, the problems caused by the Government’s attitude towards immigration, especially for students and the EU. One speaker mentioned that apprenticeships were being targeted at middle class kids who couldn’t get into university which was maybe not where they were most needed. I’ll have to look into that one.
The motion only passed by 5 votes, which, I guess, isn’t a terrible result. It was frustrating though that there were 11 abstentions. Unfortunately, this gives Stephen Tall bragging rights over me because the vote was tied and therefore the motion fell last year.
I really enjoyed the experience and would recommend it to anyone, especially in that very hospitable and friendly company. I doubt I’d voluntarily venture into the bear pit that is Glasgow University Union, for example.
My journey home passed reasonably uneventfully, although the choices on the radio were appalling. I don’t like driving on dark country roads late at night at the best of times. It was bad enough that I was following a creepy looking transit van in front of me, but then Radio 4 put the Exorcist on. A quick move to Radio 2 found only organ music so I ended up settling for some execrable Forth 1 show where the DJ went on for far too long about how he’d mistaken hair removal cream for toothpaste.