Glasgow University Union is in the headlines again. The story at first sight appears typical of the petty campus rows to which undergraduates attach passionate importance but which bore the rest of the world. On closer consideration, it encompasses issues of free speech and political control that are of genuine concern.
At the recently held final round of the Glasgow University Union (GUU) Ancients debating competition, involving the older-established British universities, two female speakers complained of being heckled and booed during their speeches and of being subjected to sexist abuse. One girl was from Cambridge, the other from Edinburgh University. As a reprisal, Cambridge has announced it will not send debaters to compete in GUU in future. On the day after the event Rebecca Meredith, the debater from Cambridge, posted her account on Facebook: ‘Last night the amazing Marlena Valles and I were openly booed by a small number of misogynistic male Glasgow Union debaters and members during the final of the Glasgow Ancients competition for our presence as female speakers.’
Considering the number of women speakers who have received uproarious applause in GUU over the years, it seems unlikely the heckling was directed against their presence as female speakers. Later in the same post, the complainant referred to ‘boos at mention of female equality’, which seems more plausible. GUU members claim the booing was directed at the girls for going off-topic to indulge in feminist rhetoric (the motion was ‘That this House regrets the centralisation of religion’) and that male speakers were similarly booed if they became irrelevant. According to a pompous statement on Facebook by the debate’s chief adjudicator, the remarks complained about were overheard by women sitting behind the hecklers.
Although newspaper headlines spoke of the girls being reduced to tears, the adjudicator observed that ‘to the great credit of Rebecca and Marlena, the panel did not notice any waiver [sic], hesitancy or indeed weakness in their speeches as a result of the heckling’. The more sotto voce remarks allegedly included disparaging comments about the speakers’ looks, dresses and bust measurements. Photographs of the two finalists do not suggest they have anything to fear from assessment of their looks; as for the comments on their figures, well-poised women would laugh off the schoolboy chauvinism of male adolescents. Criticising the dresses, however, usurped the prerogative of the women members of the audience who could have been relied upon to execute a far more informed and incisive hatchet job.
A petition has been organised for the expulsion of the offending members from GUU and there is talk of creating a website where women ‘can anonymously post about their experiences of misogyny on the debating circuit’. It is obvious a smear campaign has been launched against GUU. Particularly outrageous was the comment by John Beechinor, the chief adjudicator of the debate, as reported in the Daily Telegraph: ‘The conduct displayed in the GUU Chamber is incredibly distressing and perpetuates the idea that debating is for white, upper-middle-class males from English-speaking countries.’ The slur against a union that flocked to vote for ANC president Albert Lutuli as rector of Glasgow University in 1962, when the apartheid issue was not yet on most people’s radar, is disgraceful. As for ‘upper-middle-class’, the majority of students who participated in Glasgow debating over the past half-century were of broadly working-class origin. Can Cambridge say the same?
GUU needs no lessons from Cambridge or anywhere else on the standards, skills and protocols of debating. Since it opened its doors in 1885, the Union has consistently hosted the best undergraduate debating in Britain. It won the Observer Mace trophy so often it was eventually invited to keep it. The politicians who cut their teeth in GUU’s tough debates included John Smith and former Union presidents Donald Dewar, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy. The Union’s reputation for rowdiness derives not from the debates but from the notorious lunchtime forums at which an eminent politician would be invited to address a crowd in the debating hall. Sir Edward Boyle, sometime education secretary, complained that a meat pie which struck him still had a fork embedded in it.
The debates are more disciplined but still robust. Heckling has always been a key component and a GUU debater is judged above all on his capacity to riposte instantly and wittily against a heckler. Clearly that skill eluded the two women who have complained about being heckled. No speaker in that chamber will receive more rapturous applause than a woman who produces a funny put-down of a male interrupter. The problem is today’s politically correct debaters from other unions cannot tolerate contradiction or ridicule. It simply is not in the script.
What kind of ‘debate’ is it where, as soon as feminist clichés are uttered, the discourse becomes a monologue and they must be heard in respectful silence? Rebecca Meredith complains about ‘the lack of proportionate numbers of females in competitive finals’. That is because, as with politics, fewer women want to debate. The rough and tumble of a dialectical free-for-all is not for them. That is fair enough; but to alter that reality by enforcing ‘proportionate numbers’ in competitive finals would be to rig contests, exclude able men and make a mockery of the whole concept of debating.
This ridiculous row speaks volumes about the health-and-safety, equality-and-diversity, cellophane-coated culture that is spreading its Stalinist tentacles everywhere. Political correctness, being the Frankfurt version of Marxism, cannot tolerate contradiction. That means, ultimately, that genuine debate is ‘unacceptable’. If Cambridge ‘debaters’ cannot be exposed to robust heckling, that sheltered existence will provide an ideal preparation for translation to the Westminster bubble in which our Oxbridge-led political class remains wholly oblivious to the opinions of the country at large. Glasgow University Union should place a notice above its entrance: ‘Welcome to the real world.’