People don’t say what they mean in debating societies. They speak to provoke, entertain and win arguments
Published: 14 September 2021
They seek to suck all the joy out of life, these new Puritans.
Consider the Lib Dem response to the airing on Monday of a few old (1987 and 1993) tapes of Michael Gove making deliberately outrageous remarks at the Oxford and Cambridge Unions to shock and amuse. He should, said Chief Whip Wendy Chamberlain, “be ashamed that he ever thought these things, let alone said them. These inappropriate and racist remarks are not befitting of a government minister, nor befitting of a journalist, in fact not befitting of anyone.”
She reminds me of the Roman Catholic bishops of my Dublin childhood warning their congregations against impure thoughts. These days, I think, what bishops — and, indeed, Chief Whips — should be saying is that seeking to destroy people’s careers by subjecting every word they uttered in the past to the scrutiny of a censorious later generation destroys trust and spontaneity, eradicates humour from public life, enforces conformity and is one of the greatest evils of our time.
Michael Gove is a lot funnier than he used to be, and some remarks were crass and unrepeatable. But he had the excuse of youth at a glorious time when people were free to speak without fear – and, crucially, he did so within the great traditions of the university debating societies, where what you said was not necessarily what you believed, but was intended to entertain, provoke and win arguments.. My 1960s student life in University College Dublin was made magical by Saturday nights at the Literary and Historical Debating Society (L&H), founded by Cardinal Newman in 1855, which to us represented freedom from the censorious outside world.
It was where we gathered to applaud and boo the orators, particularly the iconoclasts, mavericks and wits, and through the clash of debate and argument to tease each other out of a very conservative and religious society’s straitjacket. Few women spoke – mainly because there was no tradition of debating in girls’ schools and the L&H was a bearpit peopled by brilliant, merciless hecklers — but it was nonetheless also our club, and when I attend its occasional reunions we talk of a period of absolute joy when we egged each other on to question and make fun of everything.
We relied on modest membership fees and had none of the trappings of our Oxford, Cambridge and Trinity College Dublin equivalents, but particularly because of its anarchic edge, the L&H often carried off debating trophies like the Observer Mace. I haven’t been back to speak there for some time, but from what I hear it has been struck by the contagion of the Wokery that I found at the Oxford Union where I recently made one of the worst speeches of my life. Foolishly, I was expecting debate, but the norm was prepared speeches of almost total uniformity of opinion.
Still, I’m delighted that there are still young people who want to be part of a debating society with a great tradition, and as an inveterate optimist I believe that one day the thought police will be overthrown and students will once again discover the pleasure of playing with ideas, rebelling against fashionable opinion and offending each other just for the hell of it.
Wendy Chamberlain recommended that the Prime Minister “should consider whether this is the type of person that deserves to be sat around the cabinet table. However, given Boris Johnson’s own history of disgraceful remarks, I expect this will be another shameful issue he lets go unchallenged.”
I certainly hope so.