Alex Massie

The Brideshead Fantasy: Union Division

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It mystifies me why so many Americans - even those blessedly untouched by any tedious Yankee Brideshead fetish - still seem to view the Oxford Union as a barometer of all that is sweet and holy upon this sceptered isle. I would suggest that, with all due respect to those friends of mine who have been Presidents or office-bearers in that splendid society, this is the most desperate tommyrot. If the Oxford Union were ever a meter by which one could measure the thinking of the great and the good (sic) then those days died in August 1914.

Nevertheless, National Review's Mona Charen complains:

A few weeks ago I was approached by the Oxford Union and asked to debate the proposition “Resolved [sic - no British debating Union uses this clumsy "Resolved" formulation] : This House Would Torture to Save Lives.” Sensing an ambush, I declined but offered instead to debate, for the negative, “Resolved: This House Would Grant Terrorists all the Protections of the Geneva Conventions.” No reply was forthcoming.

Now I see that the Oxford Union has found an even more tendentious topic: “Resolved [sic, ibid]: This House Believes that Israel has a Right to Exist.” So Israel’s presence in the world, the right of seven million people to a sovereign existence, is a fit topic for debate? Is there any other country in the world whose right to exist the privileged young men and women of Oxford would think open to question? Jordan? Her sovereignty dates to 1946, just two years before Israel. Is that up for grabs? How about Great Britain? Bangladesh? Cuba? In fact, there is no other country whose very existence is considered debatable. Now what does that say?

That the Oxford Union would have chosen this topic now is not entirely surprising. As Melanie Phillips has documented in Londonistan, and as Barbara Amiel has recounted (she quoted an ambassador at an ostensibly polite dinner party vilifying “that shitty little country Israel”) anti-Semitism has made a roaring comeback in Great Britain. It isn’t just a matter of intellectual fashion. Physical attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions are scarcely noted in the press. And every aspect of British life is colored by the BBC’s relentlessly anti-Israel reporting.

Where to begin? First, the ambassador Ms Charen quotes is the French ambassador and not a Briton; secondly  if anti-semitism has made a "roaring comeback" in Britain then that is regrettable; but the actions of a relative handful of lunatics - the BBC's reporting notwithstanding - should no more be taken as proof of a national sentiment than should the bumptious prejudices of a handful of taxi drivers or barmen such as are the reporters tried and tested and truest friends in foreign parts.

More to the point, the future of Britain - and whether it merits continued existence or not - is indeed a hardy perennial for the Oxford Union and other debating societies in Britain and Ireland. For that matter I recall organising debates myself upon the idea of whether the "Six Counties" of Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or not - a debate that, all too wearisomely turned on the matter of whether or not they deserved to exist as a quasi-legitimate entity at all. (Occasional suggestions that we should  debate the proposition that Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal be returned to Britain fell upon stony ground I am afraid to report).

(If I'd been able to muster sufficient interest on the matter I'd have been happy to organise a debate on the proposition "That this house believes Togo has no right to exist". Alas - o tempora, o mores - there were no takers...)

Equally, if physical attacks upon Jews are "scarcely noted" upon in the press that might be because a) they are actually quite rare or b) because not every mugging is an anti-semitic statement. (Are there anti-semites in Britain? Sure there are. Are they over-running the public discourse? Only in your fevered dreams, Ms Charen. Is it disconcerting that there are some signs of a more virulent anti-Semitism? Sure, but let's not get carried away and start seeing intifadas where there are none.)

In any case, as I know full well myself and from past, personal experience, one of the things a debating society needs to do is find topics for debate that are, well, controversial. That's the way you get folk to turn up. Sometimes that leads young minds to debate sensationalist topics or invite disreputable guest speakers (David Irving, Jorg Haider etc) because that's the way you earn publicity and when you're running an undergraduate debating society that's often what you think is as important as anything else...

But really, the notion that the Oxford Union matters anymore is the sort of nonsense that, with the best will in the world and all necessary charity, only an American could believe.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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