Reading and Analysing Political Debate in Debating Societies

Debating societies include a variety of different types of organisations. Some are more club-like and accept new members only by invitation, while others are more public-oriented and organise open debates and other events. In this case study, ‘debating societies’ refer to organisations, usually founded by university students, that discuss current issues with the aim of providing training, as their members often tend to pursue public careers.

What makes debating societies politically interesting? Is it because they tend to form political elites? It is important to note that the activities of debating societies are not necessarily ‘political’ even if they are somehow linked to parliaments or the political elite. The associations offer fruitful material for political analysis in so far as they apply parliamentary procedure or other rules of debate that create controversy and adversarial argumentation.

It will be argued here that the political aspect of debating societies derives from their politics of debate. The politics of debate in debating societies is closely related to the interpretation of the rules by which the debating is conducted. Especially in Britain, debating societies have been known for their formal debates since the eighteenth century (cf. Fawcett 1980). Historically, debating societies are arenas that have been constituted for a variety of civic purposes. In Sweden, a debating society at Uppsala University, for instance, was created to allow students to get acquainted with then-current practices of eloquence (Burman 2012). The oldest student debating society in the UK, the Historical Society of Trinity College in Dublin, was established to provide a platform for those who wanted to obtain practical knowledge of how to speak and act in public fora (cf. Samuels 1923). Both still exist and operate, but with the aims and requirements of our current standards of political life.

Debating societies, just like parliaments, are deliberative assemblies that adapt to their times. The major difference between debating societies and parliaments, however, is that societies are not representative, national assemblies. They rarely have urgent issues to discuss that have a bearing on the nation as a whole. The issues they vote on do not have legislative relevance outside the societies themselves. But if we consider the debating society as an extension of parliament in terms of procedure, we can find distinct similarities in their political debates. Redlich (1908, 215) argued that a ‘parliamentary body’ is essentially based on debate, not legislation. This means that debating is the primary function of such a body. He further maintains that a parliamentary bill is a series of motions. It then follows that the aims of political activity in a ‘parliamentary body’ are twofold: firstly, to persuade what kinds of motions are put onto the official agenda, and secondly, to debate those motions that are successfully put onto the agenda. Some debating societies, such as the Oxford and Cambridge Unions, have the basic features of such deliberative bodies: they operate with motions and resolutions. According to Redlich, the aim of a deliberative assembly is to ensure the fair treatment of issues on the agenda with certain rules for the benefit of the majority, but without forgetting the rights of the minority to express their opinions (ibid.). In short, a motion is treated as a matter of debate before it is turned into a resolution by the majority of the House.

There are multiple ways to conduct a political reading of these societies. It is possible to attend live debates, for example, in the Oxford and Cambridge Unions or other academic debating societies, listen to recorded debates available online, interview participants, or read ‘frozen’ debates from various sources such as minute books or autobiographies. As discussed in Chapter 1, ‘live’ debates differ from ‘frozen’ ones only in the practical sense: the ‘live’ debates can only be attended during the researcher’s own lifetime. However, the analysis of debates is always a matter of interpretation, and therefore, it does not matter whether the researcher is present in the audience or reading the transcripts, as long as she is aware of the limitations of the situation.

To give an example of a case study based on a researcher’s personal experience, a detailed account will be given below of how to analyse ‘frozen’ debates from the Oxford and Cambridge Unions’ nineteenth-century archives. It will be based on a study of the Unions that focused on their early practices of debate (Haapala, forthcoming 2017, esp. Chapter 5).

Concentrating on nineteenth-century sources, of course, meant that the sources for the study were quite limited. It was only possible to interpret the debating practices through the surviving minute books and rule compilations.

When the researcher (TH) first visited the archives of the Oxford and Cambridge Unions (after receiving permission to do so), she was given catalogues of all the materials that were available. The catalogue lists included, among other things, the minute books, rule compilations, select committee diaries and private correspondence. Her first task was to decide which material was pertinent for the study. She chose to concentrate on the minutes and the rule books as they would reveal the debate topics and the debating rules. While going through them she found that the minute books contained all the proceedings in chronological order, with hardly any indexes or page numbers. Taking copies was not possible due to the fragility of the records. However, she was allowed to take digital photographs, which helped a lot in the later stages of the study.

The minutes were handwritten and sometimes hard to follow. The proceedings provided a minimal amount of information about the debates: the topic under discussion; when the debate took place; who had been for and who against; and the result of the final vote. After the names of each speaker, the records also mentioned the colleges they represented. The proceedings of the private business meetings gave somewhat more information regarding the contents of the debates. They showed, for instance, debates on rule changes and on Union members’ initiatives.

The initial stage of the study was to acquire as much research material as possible. When the researcher started reading through the proceedings, the aim was simply to see if it was possible to get a sense of what the debating practices were like. But it soon became clear that without a detailed plan of what to do she was not going to get to the stage of the analysis proper. The amount of the proceedings was staggering, and though the researcher kept on taking copies and photographs of the minutes, she was not sure whether she would need even half of it.

She also needed to narrow down her research question from ‘What is political about the Union debates?’ to ‘What kind of politics was conducted in Union Society debates?’ At this point, she started to realise that the proceedings would not provide answers unless she understood how the debates were conducted. In order to analyse political action in the minutes, she had to make sense of the rules that framed the debates. And this led her to the discovery that, in fact, the rules in the Unions were constantly changed and amended. Why was this so, and who did it benefit?

A closer examination of the minutes showed that rules were changed after confusion or deliberate misuse of the rules. As rules provide legitimi- sation for the actions performed in the Unions, the position of the Union president caught her attention because it included acting as the head officer of the society, as well as being both the chairman in the debates and the chief executive of the standing committee that ultimately decided all the items of the agenda. The powers of the president were so extensive that it is no surprise that the other Union members made several efforts to try and diminish them.

The printed rule books became important for the investigation as they, unlike the debates themselves (which the researcher was reading from the minutes), revealed the ‘outcomes’ of the debates. During the midnineteenth century, the amended Union rules were printed almost every year for the use of their members. It was clear that the rules were debated in the Unions’ private business meetings, and the results of the debates were seen in the rule changes. During the investigation, the researcher became especially interested in the rules of debate, as well as in the powers the rules gave to various actors inside the societies. Even the slightest change in the rules could mean a marked shift in the debating practices. So she concentrated on finding all the changes in the rules. She was then able to use the rules as a key to open up the political meanings of the Union proceedings. For example, a change in the rule that gave the Union president more power might catch her attention. To understand what triggered the change she would then consult the minute books and take notes of the debates on that particular rule. That seemed to be the most fruitful way of finding out how the original rule had been challenged and what kind of interpretations of it were presented.

The analysis of rule interpretation that was then conducted focused on rhetorical strategies. As explained in Chapter 3, rhetoric has traditionally been seen as the study of persuasion in public assemblies. To follow this tradition, the study concentrated on the rhetorical aspects of the Oxford and Cambridge Unions’ debates. The main intention was, first, to show what kind of rhetorical skills the Union members learnt as they debated, and second, the ways in which they challenged or interpreted the rules for their own political benefit (Haapala, forthcoming 2017, esp. Chapter 5). It was shown that the rhetorical skills were learnt through the conventions and rules of debate, which had been adopted from Westminster’s parliamentary procedure and applied in the Union debates. But the skills learnt were used for the Union members’ own political purposes.

To give an example, the limitation of precedence-setting was the main rhetorical strategy related to the interpretation of rules in the Oxford Union. The rhetorical aspect, as discussed in Chapter 3, derives from the idea that any form of language use that addresses an audience and tries to make it to accept, reject or modify what is under debate can be considered a form of rhetoric. In that sense, the strategy used in Oxford Union involved persuasion for limiting the Union president’s powers of rule interpretation.

One such incident took place in 1856 when treasurer of the Oxford Union took the initiative to amend a rule that gave any member the permission to propose adjournment and the chance to speak prior to others: ‘That in Rule LXIII,2 after the words “all other speakers” the following to be added “But no Speaker on any motion for adjournment shall introduce any matter not bearing solely on the question of adjournment”’ (OUS minute book vol. VIII, 2 December 1856). The rule was amended accordingly. It is crucial to note that the debate preceding the rule change had involved a controversy where the Union president had given a member who had proposed adjournment unlimited permission to speak. The treasurer had intervened by points of order, but to no effect. By proposing an amendment to the rule the treasurer’s rhetorical aim was to persuade the audience to limit the president’s vast powers in this respect.

As rules are often ambiguous to begin with (see Section 1.4), it is difficult to provide a non-controversial judgement in the first place. In that regard, the politics of debate in Oxford related to the intentional creation of a controversy between precedents. At the same time, the increased ambiguity of the rules also augmented the likelihood of creating more occasions for debate. Since the rules of debate were so difficult to interpret, it was more than likely that someone would question their application at some point. As a rhetorical strategy, this was an excellent way of assuring that no motion was left to a vote without first having undergone extensive deliberation.

At Cambridge, the main rhetorical strategy used was reformulation of the existing procedure. Ultimately, the intention was to make the rules as explicit as possible in order to limit the president’s interpretative latitude. The same aim can be read out of the fact that the Cambridge Union rules were called ‘laws’. The idea behind this was that someone who was interpreted as acting against them could be accused of illegal conduct.

In the Cambridge Union laws, it was stated that the president’s decisions could be appealed through a requisition signed by at least one hundred names: ‘If a requisition of One Hundred Members, with their Names and Colleges affixed, be presented to the President, it shall be incumbent on him to appoint an early day for a Committee of the whole House, to inquire into the propriety of any decisions from the Chair’ (CUS laws October 1848, 16-17).3 This was used as a means to reclaim from the standing committee the initiative to make procedural changes. To offer an example, in 1868 a requisition was declared in a Union private business meeting. It was claimed that the president had acted against the rule that allowed Union members to question the standing committee regarding the ‘interests or management of the society’. After a chairman had been appointed, the members present proceeded to discuss the claim that the Union president had failed to allow a member to ask a question ‘relative to the Interest of the Society’. According to the motion proposed this had been contrary to the laws of the society, which had been ratified only a day before the incident (Kemplay: CUS minute book vol. 19, 14 May 1868).

The minutes state that the debate on the requisition went on for two hours before one member proposed an adjournment. After a short discussion ‘the motion of adjournment was put to the House and lost’. The ‘House’ then voted: ‘When the numbers were for Mr Kemplay’s motion 134, against it 166. Majority against the motion 32. The motion was declared lost’ (CUS minute book vol. 19, 14 May 1868).

The key point is to recognise that the critiques against the Union president were meant to shift some of his powers, even if just for a moment, to other members of the society. In other words, it is crucial to focus on the political intention behind the actions against the president. The intentions, however, must be contextualised. In the previous example, the context of the debate was that the rules had been changed only recently, and the Union president was, therefore, caught acting against them. This allowed the other members to move a motion that gave them the chance to challenge the president.

To conclude, the politics of debate that was practised in the Oxford and Cambridge Unions derived from an interpretation of the rules. Some of the rules had parliamentary references. However, it seems to be irrelevant where those rules derived from as the actions themselves had political intentions. In other words, the rules themselves are not political, except for constituting the Unions as polities based on fair debate; however, the use of the rules can be interpreted as political. The participants in Union debates can try to apply the rules for their own advantage, just like in any institution or organisation that deliberates and makes decisions based on formal conventions. Ultimately, it is about the persuasive use of language, or rhetoric, which enables political action to become legitimate. The analysis conducted by the researcher shows just how skilfully Union members were able to act politically when they were aware of the rules and how they could be interpreted. Their persuasive skills were shown in the controversies read from the minutes with a special focus on rule interpretation. In other words, the researcher did not only read the minutes, but also analysed them by paying close attention to the framework of the rules in which the political action was conducted.

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