In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Debating at LSE

Last weekend, I awoke rather early and stepped onto an unfilled train to London. I was travelling to participate in my second debating competition, an open tournament at the LSE. There was a short delay before the tournament commenced, as all the debaters flowed into a lecture theatre. The room echoed with the joy of reunited friends and speculation over the topics we would be debating.

Debates in the British parliamentary style have four teams of two people, who sit in positions entitled Opening Government, Opening Opposition, Closing Government and Closing Opposition. In the opening positions, the first speakers of the opening positions, called the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, set out the initial case for and against the motion. Unique to these two positions is that certain motions require a mechanism – a method of achieving the motion’s aim. For example, This House would increase property taxes has a variety of possible mechanisms: council tax in the current bands could be increased; new, higher council tax bands could be introduced; or new taxes on top of existing property taxes could be implemented. When a motion requires a mechanism, the Prime Minister must explicitly state what this mechanism is, and the Leader of the Opposition will usually attack that mechanism, pointing out any potential flaws. Alternately, the Leader of the Opposition may set out a separate proposition, such as in the example, that the opposition would lower property taxes. The second speakers for both sides, called the Deputy Prime Minister and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition respectively, should continue the case initiated by their team’s first speaker. These speeches will necessarily include attempted rebuttals at the points raised by prior speakers.

The London School of Economics is well-known for debating, but also hosts talks and discussions on politics, society and economics. (Photo thanks to markhillary, found here).

The London School of Economics is well-known for debating, but also hosts talks and discussions on politics, society and economics. (Photo thanks to markhillary, found here).

The closing positions have an entirely distinct role. The first speakers for these closing positions are called the Government Member and Opposition Member, and their purpose is to extend the debate. Naturally, different debates call for different extensions. The speaker can take the debate in a new direction, or they can more deeply analyse previous points brought up by the opening team.  The last speakers for each side are called the Government Whip and the Opposition Whip. Their role is to summarize the debate for their side, giving a biased news report on the debate, which explains how their side won.

For clarity, the speaking order of the participants proceeds: Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Deputy Prime Minister, and Deputy Leader of the Opposition; Government Member, Opposition Member, Government Whip and Opposition Whip. In tournaments, the speeches are usually seven minutes long, with the middle five minutes being unprotected. This means that the opposite side can stand up, and if permitted by the speaker, ask questions of the speaker’s arguments, called Points of Information. It is advisable to take at least one Point of Information, as it demonstrates that the speaker is not fearful of their opposition. Taking too many questions shows that the speaker does not have enough substantive material to fill their speech time.

Debating in Motions

The first motion was: This House believes that Western Liberal Democracies should institute bans on their citizens visiting illiberal states whose economies depend on tourism.  In this first debate, I was in the role of Opposition Whip, so I had to summarise the debate against the motion, with the intent of focusing on my team mate’s arguments. Unfortunately, I put too much attention onto the Opening Opposition’s eloquent arguments, and missed making a full rebuttal about the nature of international sanctions, which are generally applied to those nations, rather than specific sanctions seeking to achieve specific policy changes.

After a short interval, the second motion was announced: This House would require prospective owners or large shareholders of sports team to gain majority support from season ticket holders or other representatives of the fan base to complete their acquisition. Some debaters may be apathetic about sports, as this motion was met with a dirge of groans. For this debate, I was Leader of the Opposition, and made the case that the fragmentation of knowledge means that shareholders are better placed to make such decisions than fan representatives, fans and owners have differing interests but some shared goals; and that less control of business decisions would lead to less investment in sport. The judges criticised the dearth of analysis and examples for my final two points, meaning that I was open to the closing opposition team using those points and explaining them better, which is what happened. Whilst I certainly tried to highlight it, there was a fundamental contradiction in the Prime Minister’s case which I should have made explicitly obvious: the profit-obsessed owners were choosing not to implement fan representation, despite that it would supposedly increase their profits.

The next motion was perilously difficult: This House would make conscription a war crime. As government whip, I thought I made a good speech, pointing out the main clashes in the debate: whether conscription lead to more war or less war, individual liberty over the collective good and the effects that conscription has on society. The judge took the view that the Closing Government had failed to contextualize the debate, and fully explain the nature of the social contract, and how it cannot be used to justify conscription.

The LSE has an urban campus, beating to London's fused hearts. (Photo thanks to Nigel Cox, found here).

The LSE has an urban campus, beating to London’s fused hearts. (Photo thanks to Nigel Cox, found here).

Only the first three debates allowed for immediate feedback, and the last two debates also did not reveal what positions each team were placed in by the judges. Round Four’s motion was: This House would require close relatives of the homeless to pay their welfare costs to the extent they can afford to do so.  It was the end of the day, so I was suffering from thirst, hunger and a drought of ideas. As Deputy Prime Minister, I put forward the case that the welfare systems are founded on contributions, and so like child support, this new revenue stream should be supported. It was interesting to hear from latter opposition speakers that it was outrageous to impose ‘forced care’ of people you don’t choose, such as family members, but perfectly justified to institute such a system country-wide through a welfare state. I made this argumentation explicit during a Point of Information, but the only response I received was that it was “good” to do it this way, as “the state is best placed” to give welfare.

A Valuable Experience

Finally, the LSE adjudicators must have a penchant for long and precise motions, as the fifth motion was: This House would allocate state funding for the arts exclusively to new and original work, and never to reproduction of great works or other old plays, opera, music, films or art. I took on the role as Government Whip, ending the debate for the government side. As the final debate before the quarter-finals, I decided to have some fun, pulling upon exact quotes from the Leader of the Opposition, that “the best art comes from emotional struggle” and “the government are molly-coddling new artists”, to suggest that the opposition thought we should be deliberately making the lives of artists harder. It was a strange debate, as the opposition appeared to think we were proposing old art, and the culture it creates, be destroyed.

Debating at tournaments is a valuable experience, not just for the social aspects; but because a day of intense debating purifies your focus onto different parts of your debating style. I will certainly make sure that I can take my analytic skills and apply them fully during spoken debates, as well as putting the revelation of contradictions as a key part of my speeches from now on.

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This entry was posted on February 19, 2013 by in Student Politics and tagged , .
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