Debating The Motion: inside an Oxford Union debate

If there is one thing that the British excel at, it is polite disagreement. Their ability for vehement, yet civilised, argument is simply beyond par (for an example, just watch In the Loop). Perhaps it is not surprising then, to learn that England is the land that birthed debating societies. Since the 18th century, England’s debating societies have allowed this country’s elite to refine their eloquence at verbal altercation.

One of the oldest and most famous debating societies in England is The Oxford Union. According to their own website “The Union is the world’s most prestigious debating society, with an unparalleled reputation for bringing international guests and speakers to Oxford.” Clearly, they see no harm in a little self-promotion!

To be fair though, the Union has hosted more famous world leaders and international celebrities than the Oscars and the G08 summits combined. Past speakers have included Mother Teresa, Winston Churchill, the Dalai Lama, Albert Einstein, David Cameron, Johnny Depp, Clint Eastwood, Diego Maradona, Ronald Regan, Stephen Hawking, Martin Sheen, Sir Ian McKellen, Michael Jackson, Imran Khan, Lionel Richie, Russell Brand, and The Sun’s Page 3 girls. The Queen herself has spoken there, and they even went Gangnam style.

Since moving to Oxford, I have always wanted to attend a debate at The Union: to watch the world’s eminent movers and shakers passionately dispute current events and ardently challenge contentious issues with the utmost of British reserve and decorum. But like any prestigious society, The Union has shrewd strategies in place to maintain its high standards and keep the riff-raff out. That is, they only admit members and membership costs a hefty £230 a year (you must remember that members of the Union normally go on to have illustrious careers running either multinational corporations or small European countries).

Oxford Union

Needless to say, I have not forked out the cash to join (though I seriously considered it when I heard Johnny Depp was coming last year). So, last week when I saw that they were offering places for the riff-raff at a debate, I snaffled a spot.

Here’s how it went down:

I arrived outside the 18th century stone building and joined the long queue of non-members waiting to get their names ticked off the entry list: the members filed past us in their own separate speedy-boarding line. Eventually, I was ushered into the famed debating chamber, a large high-ceiling room lined with stained-glass windows, marble busts, and gilded-framed oil paintings of fat, solemn-looking, white men in academic gowns and velvet robes.

The long wooden pews on the ground floor were already full, the audience a mix of ages and occupations. Many were obviously students, but there was also a pervasiveness of business suits and ties. I noticed with some amusement that there was an improving gradient of attire from the back of the room to the front. Resigned to not being in the heart of the action, I climbed the winding staircase to the balcony to look down on proceedings (pun not intended) with the rest of the riff-raff.

Then with Swiss-like precision at exactly 6.30pm the debate began.

The motion

This house believes that the current growth crisis is a result of decades of technological stagnation in a risk-averse society.

Arguing for the affirmative: Garry Kasparov, 13 time world chess champion, writer, political activist, and the man who both defeated and succumbed to Blue, and Peter Thiel, technology entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist and the man who invented PayPal and was the first investor in Facebook (Peter owns 10% of Facebook – yep do the math).

Arguing for the negative: Mark Shuttleworth, entrepreneur, founder of the Ubuntu project and the first tourist in space (appropriate really, given his name). Supporting him was Kenneth Rogoff, Professor of Economics at Harvard University and the former economic director of the IMF.

The debate starts:

Garry Kasparov walks his solid frame to the podium, smiling broadly under his heavy black brows. He thanks the Union for the invitation to speak and begins his verbal thesis. “Innovation is risky; governments are risk averse. Companies and governments are afraid of failure and not willing to take risks. Our society has fostered financial engineers rather than scientific engineers. Unless we start to take risks then growth will continue to stagnate.”

Mark Shuttleworth then rebuts for the opposition. He takes the podium casually. He is not wearing a tie and both his jacket and shirt are unbuttoned (who needs buttons when you have a billion dollars). “Governments have always been risk averse,” he says. “Companies can’t be blamed for lack of growth because they are not the innovators. Innovators are the weird, geeky, crazy individuals amongst us.” (I get the feeling he is speaking from experience).  “The growth crisis is not due to technological stagnation. Look at the advancements in digital technology. Bubble and bust are just human consequences of greed and lack of foresight.”

Oxford Union

Then it is Peter Thiel’s turn to redirect for the affirmative. Despite his equally large bank account, his buttoned-downed suit, starched shirt, and tie are immaculate. They support his conservative pessimistic stance. “Most key thinkers believe that the next generation will be the first to be worse off than their grandparents were,” he argues. (How is ‘worse-offness’ measured, I wonder?). “The future has turned out to be worse than predicted and we are now in technological regression. We might be able to watch videos on our phones, but we are riding a century-old subway while doing it.” (the not so subtle dig at the London Tube elicits some stifled smirks)

Finally, Kenneth Rogoff takes the microphone. He begins by wondering whether the Queen lost when she spoke at the Union, and then jokes again that of the three other people arguing tonight, two are billionaires and the other could be if he had won the Russian presidency. The audience finds this hilarious. He then cites “areas where technological advances have taken huge leaps in recent years, such as connectivity and artificial intelligence”, and takes a little stab at Kasparov’s “undoing by a computer,”  (laughter again – he is clearly winning the audience vote). “But,” he says “scientists need to regroup and focus on more pressing issues like the environment and the natural crisis. Governments must fund their endeavours over long periods. Monopolies are simply not good for science. Education systems need reform to ensure they don’t hold us back from reaching our potential.” Oh Kenneth, you had me at “environmental crisis.”

With their main theses now presented, the debaters can interrogate their opponents. Unfortunately, this is much duller than it sounds with the one highlight being Garry Kasparov’s question to Mark Shuttleworth, “What happened to the future we were promised? The Flintstones prophecy? Where is space travel for all?” Without missing a beat, Mark answers rather smugly, “Wealth gives you a sneak preview of what the future will be like for everybody else!” (You can’t hate the man for taking the opportunity to float in space).

Following this exchange, the audience then posed some equally dull and mostly self-serving questions, which the debaters did their best to avoid answering. Then after exactly 90 minutes of intellectual nourishment, the debate ended.

It was time to determine the winner. In the tradition of the Oxford Union, the audience determine the winner of a debate by voting with their feet; that is by leaving the debating chamber either through the door marked ‘Ayes’ or the door marked ‘Nayes’.

Oxford Union

From the vantage point of the balcony, I watched the rush of heads stream out the doors. It looked too close to call. I chose to exit through the door marked ‘Nayes’, adding my pedestrian ballot to those of the masses. I tell myself their position was superior and their arguments were better. Perhaps they were. But just quietly, I may have simply been after a closer look at a cute, single, billionaire astronaut.

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