Reflections on the first Charles Kennedy Debate and the future of the EU
Last Friday, I found myself in the Glasgow University Union Debating Chamber. It had been a while. My last foray had not ended well. In my defence, it was over twenty years ago and I was wearing a scarlet gown at the time, as St Andrews students do. For those who don’t know the GUU, that is the equivalent of wearing a top hat flashing the message, ‘Heckle me now.’ As folks said of the old Glasgow Empire Theatre, ‘if they liked you, they let you live.’ It was in this ‘feisty’ chamber that Charles Kennedy cut his debating teeth.
Kennedy is still spoken of in Scottish debating circles, for one simple reason - he was bloody good! If a trophy could be won, he won it. Of course, Charles Kennedy was not alone. Glasgow produced a generation of argumentative buggers that graced the Commons benches for decades: John Smith, Menzies Campbell, Donald Dewar. Glasgow debaters have always given Oxford and Cambridge University a serious run for their money. Indeed, the University’s record is still unsurpassed at the World University Debating Championships.
It was Charles Kennedy that brought me back to Glasgow last week, sadly for the wrong reasons. I had come to speak in the first Charles Kennedy Memorial Debate.
The GUU had done their debating son proud. The chamber was packed from the cheap seats to the galleries. Sir Ming Campbell, Glasgow alumni and Kennedy’s successor as leader of the Liberal Democrats, presided. The motion was an issue close to Kennedy’s heart: ‘This House believes that the UK should remain within the European Union.’ Charles Kennedy would have felt very much at home.
The speakers met across a table littered with trophies, treasures of past debating glories. The proposition was a cross-party affair: the SNP’s Fiona Hyslop, Glasgow alumni and Minister for Europe, LibDem Alex Cole-Hamilton (his dad and I were in Brussels talking Rare Earth Elements just the day before), and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling. Oh, and me, tucked in the middle. For debaters out there, I was ‘third prop’, aka the graveyard position…
The opposition featured Labour's Graham Stringer MP, prominent Eurosceptic Arron Banks, Business for Britain's John Mills, and activist Cat Boyd.
With a competitive debating line-up, a formidable judging panel was also provided in the form of Alastair Campbell, former spin doctor extraordinaire and Kennedy pal, Anton Muscatelli, the BBC’s Brian Taylor, former LibDem MP Jo Swinson and Christine O’Neill of Brodie’s law firm who were generously sponsoring the event.
I won’t bore you with the details of the debate, you will have months of that to come I can assure you. Let me make only a few personal observations.
There will be much talk in the coming months about politicians from different parties sharing a platform to advocate a common cause. Some have argued that is what ‘did' for the Labour Party in the Independence Referendum. Maybe this was the case. My take: some things are bigger than party. The future of the UK is bigger than any party, SNP included. Somewhat counterintuitively, my support for the right of Catalan nationals to determine their future also falls in to this category. Democracy itself is bigger than any single party. (Let me just say there have been some raised eyebrows in my party regarding my Catalan interventions and leave it at that…). So I will share a platform with any and all that share my position. Sometimes I will qualify how I differ from my fellow panelists, but I am sure folks will understand.
On a related point, I have known Fiona Hyslop for years. We disagree all the time, that’s half the fun of politics, but I do not fault her passion or her advocacy for all that she believes to be right. I say this because Ms Hyslop provided the highlight of the evening, worthy of a standing ovation. Let me explain. As debaters know, the last minute is key. It’s protected; no interruptions, no ‘Points of Information’. It’s the chance to channel your Churchill or Lincoln, your Salmond or Corbyn. To thunder your statement, or to hush your voice and bring the chamber into your confidence. Ms Hyslop began her concluding remarks in stentorian tones: ‘We… must… stay… in… the… UK… errrr… the EU’. Alastair Campbell was on his feet, punching the air. So were our colleagues on the proposition. Amusingly, so were the opposition. It was the only statement that literally brought the house together. And to her credit, Ms Hyslop was gracious in accepting the applause.
Interestingly, both sides did recognise the strengths of the EU; the ability to sell goods without let or hindrance; that it is hard to bomb those with whom you trade; the need to trade beyond the EU’s borders; even the idea that some problems - climate change, for example - are better addressed at a pan-European level.
As with all debates, there was a division. It was conducted, as we would say back in St Andrews, by ‘oral acclamation’. The ‘ayes’ echoed to the rafters, but when the ‘noes’ were called, there was silence. Not even the speakers chose to raise their voices in support of the motion. Exactly what it means for the coming referendum is hard to say. It certainly made for an amusing finale to the evening.
I can’t help but think Charles Kennedy would have had a blast.