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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Big Ideas #3 - Social liberalism vs social conservatism

Our third Big Idea looks at one of the battlegrounds of modern life: social liberalism vs social conservatism.

What is the difference between a social liberal and a social conservative?

A social liberal believes:

  • We live in the world as individuals, each different and distinct.
  • We should be allowed to make our own choices about how we live; where we live; what we believe; whom we love.
  • Identities shared across national borders such as race, gender and sexuality are more important than identities based around nationality or region.
  • Change, variety and fluidity are higher goods than familiarity, similarity and community.
  • A country or region has a responsibility to accept and welcome incomers, and to allow them to preserve their identity.
  • Tolerance of different ways of life is a higher good than conformity to shared ways of life.

A social conservative believes:

  • We live in the world as part of a community defined by common values and practices.
  • We should respect these common values and practices, and prioritise them over our own personal desires.
  • National or regional identities are more important than transnational identities based on race, gender or sexuality.
  • Familiarity, similarity and community are higher goods than change, variety and fluidity.
  • Incomers to a country or region have a responsibility to adapt to their new home’s way of doing things, abandoning their own values if necessary.
  • Conformity to shared values is a higher good than tolerance of diversity.

How can you apply this clash of values to debate motions?

1. This house would abolish immigration controls

Social liberalism sides with the proposition; social conservatism sides with the opposition.

A social liberal argues:

  • Our economy depends on immigrants; they tend to be hard working and willing to do jobs natives wouldn’t do. They are also more likely to be young and fit, contributing to the country through taxes rather than using health care and benefits. (Social liberalism works better than social conservatism.)
  • Immigration has enriched our society culturally. Britain is a more diverse and exciting place because of it. (Variety and change are better than familiarity and uniformity; we should adapt to welcome incomers.)
  • We have a moral responsibility to welcome people less fortunate than ourselves. (Our responsibility is to the whole of humanity, not just our national community.)

A social conservative argues:

  • Immigrants drive down wages and take jobs from local workers. (Social conservatism works better than social liberalism.)
  • Immigration has caused Britain to lose its identity; we no longer have common values. (Familiarity and uniformity are better than change and variety; incomers should adapt to a community rather than the other way round.)
  • We need to look after our own country first. (Our responsibility is to our immediate community, not the whole of humanity.)

2. This house would make it compulsory for all schools to teach that gay relationships are equal to straight relationships.

Social liberalism backs the proposition; social conservatism backs the opposition.

A social liberal argues:

  • Diverse sexualities and ways of living enrich our society, and should be celebrated at all ages and all levels of society. (Diversity is a higher good than uniformity.)
  • What we teach in our schools defines who we are as a society, and we want to be a tolerant society. (Tolerance is a higher good than conformity.)
  • The rights of gay students to express their sexuality freely are more important than the rights of religious groups who teach that homosexuality is wrong. (Identity based on individual lifestyle is more important than identity based on shared tradition.)

A social conservative argues:

  • The family is the bedrock of society, and the best way to bring up children; there is nothing wrong with celebrating traditional ways of living above how a minority of people live. (Social cohesion is a higher good than diversity.)
  • It is not right to impose values on communities who may not share those values, e.g. making a school in a majority Muslim area teach gay rights. (Community values are more important than universal values.)
  • Religious objections to teaching gay rights should be respected, because the great world faiths have a greater depth and strength than contemporary fashions. (Tradition is more valuable than modernity.)

3. This house would ban the wearing of the niqab in public.

Social conservatism supports the proposition; social liberalism supports the opposition.
A social conservative argues:
  • Women who wear the niqab shut themselves off from mainstream British society. (Incomers have a responsibility to adapt to the shared values of the society they come into.)
  • The wearing of the niqab is a public demonstration of the oppression of women. (Sub-groups within society do not have the right to promote values that contradict those of the community as a whole; social cohesion is a higher good than tolerance.)
  • Britain’s culture is based on different values to those of Islam; public celebrations of Islamic culture threaten our national identity. (The preservation of shared values is a higher good than diversity.)
A social liberal argues:
  • People should be allowed to dress how they like. (Acceptance of diversity is a higher good than conformity to shared values.)
  • Banning ways of dress associated with certain ethnic groups opens the door to racism. (Tolerance is the highest good.)
  • British values are in fact based on tolerance and openness, and we should therefore accept and celebrate different ways of dressing. (A good society is an open society.)


I think it’s fair to say that most British people under the age of 25, particularly those either at university or likely to go to university - in other words most debaters - are more likely to identify with the values of social liberalism than those of social conservatism. That makes it all the more important to understand that there is another way to see the world, which is not necessarily stupid or evil.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Guest Post #3 - US debating vs UK debating

This week we are pleased to host a guest post from Zach Yusaf, a student at Hackley School in New York, who offers us fascinating insights into the differences between US debating and UK debating.

My name is Zach Yusaf and I am a sophomore at Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York. This past March, a group of classmates, a few teachers and I travelled to London. On the trip, we watched shows by Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre, viewed the city through the London Eye and debated in a style dubbed British Parliamentary (BP). 

I am a very competitive Public Forum debater and I go to overnight tournaments at least once or twice per month. In order to succeed in Public Forum, a large time commitment and a lot of preparation is necessary. However, debating in England could not have been more different from debating in the United States. While I am used to preparing one topic, usually about foreign relations, in immense detail for one month, in BP there is only a short 15 minute period of preparation prior to the debate round. While there are two two-person teams arguing for and against a topic in Public Forum, there are four two-person teams arguing for and against a topic in BP. Debating BP definitely pushed me outside of my comfort zone, but it was a great experience!

The first time my group and I debated BP, half of the group who were not debaters went out to dinner, while we went to meet a few debaters from the Godolphin and Latymer School at a crepe shop. After we ate our crepes, we went to the school and changed into our dress clothes. We were given a resolution (something along the lines of enabling criminals to post pictures of their crimes on social media). Each student from Hackley was paired with a student from the Godolphin and Latymer School, and we were assigned either government (for the topic) or opposition (against the topic). We were also told if we were speaking first, second, third, or fourth. This aspect is unique to BP. Not only is a debate team trying to beat the other side, but the teams are also trying to convince the judge why their argument on their respective side is better than the other team on the same side.

As my team mate and I got ready to present our arguments, we realised something that would be fatal for us in the round. Since we were Opp 2, the other opposition team could have the same arguments as us. As a result, we needed to think of more creative arguments in order to outmanoeuvre the Opp 1. However, we didn't have enough time to do so, and our worst fears were realised. We didn't have any constructive arguments of our own because the Opp 1 had already presented them! We ended up losing that debate very badly.

The next time that I debated, I was ready. My new teammate and I were Opp 2, just like the last time, but on a different topic. We created interesting and mature arguments about the perils of government censorship, and we were able to win the debate!

Overall, I had a great time debating BP in London, and I hope to go back again soon. I want to thank Mr Bell for allowing me to post on his blog and also for allowing me to debate at the Godolphin and Latymer School.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

How to make an opposition case #1


Debating is about changing the world. We've seen in our earlier post on how to build a proposition case the ways in which you can make a case for change. However, not all change is good. Sometimes change needs to be stopped. If you’re the opposition in a policy debate, your job is persuade people to reject the proposed change; your job is to attack the proposition.

This week we're going to look at a few lines of attack you can use against the proposition. Here are four to start with:

1. The problem addressed by the motion doesn’t exist. 
(There’s nothing wrong with NOW.)

2. The definition of the problem is wrong.
(NOW is bad, but not for the reasons you say.)

3. The action proposed by the motion won’t lead to a solution of the problem.
(The ACTION won’t get us to THEN.)

4. The action is impractical.
(The ACTION won’t work.)


Let’s see how you might use these lines of attack with the motion we discussed in the earlier post: ‘This house would make it compulsory for all 18 year olds to do a year of community service.’

1. The problem addressed by the motion doesn’t exist.

Young people already have a great many useful skills, which they have learnt at school and elsewhere, and will continue to learn in further study. Many of them already work with people less fortunate than themselves; most schools have some sort of charity outreach, and the very popular Duke of Edinburgh scheme has a compulsory community service unit. 93% of young people attend non-selective state schools which introduce them to a whole range of people unlike themselves. So compulsory community service would be addressing a problem which doesn’t exist.

2. The definition of the problem is wrong.

Young people are not lacking in skills and social solidarity because they don’t do community service; it’s because schools are too focused on competitive public exams, which teach a narrow set of skills and pit schools and individuals against each other to move up league tables / get university places. The exam system is the source of the problem you have identified.

3. The action proposed by the motion won’t lead to a solution of the problem.

It’s a good idea for young people to learn new skills and work with people less fortunate than themselves, but most of the community service is likely to be low skill activities like picking up litter or cleaning toilets, which will not teach them anything new or introduce them to the people they are supposed to be helping.

4. The action is impractical.

There are about half a million young people in any given age cohort in the UK. Funding them all to do community service would be vastly expensive; organising them would require paying many more people. What would be done with young people who refused to take part / didn’t turn up? Chasing them up / sanctioning them would also be time-consuming and expensive. There simply aren’t enough community service projects in existence to keep all these people busy; we’d have to create unnecessary work for them. Moreover, more privileged / well connected families would find ways to get their children out of having to do the community service, undermining the purpose of introducing more privileged young people to those less fortunate than themselves. 

There are many more lines of attack the opposition can use in a debate; we'll look at more of them in later posts.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Recommended podcast #4 - A Guide to Disagreeing Better

Disagreeing with each other is what debaters do. But disagreement doesn't have to be disagreeable. There is a way of doing it that respects the other person and can end with both sides understanding the other better. That's what debating, at its best, achieves. 

Being able to disagree better is a skill that is more vital than ever in Brexit - even in soon to be post-Brexit - Britain. Much of the 'debate' about Brexit over the last three and a half years has been characterised, on both sides, by a refusal to listen, a refusal to empathise, a refusal to understand the other side's point of view, a tendency to impute the worst motives to one's opponents, and the use of insult in place of logical argument. In other words, it's been very bad debate. Much the same could be said about Trump's America at the moment.

There is another way, though, which Douglas Alexander explores in his very thought provoking BBC Radio 4 programme, A Guide to Disagreeing Better. He talks to a British soldier who served in Northern Ireland in the Troubles and a Derry woman whose brother was killed by the British Army, who have become the best of friends. He explores how referendums on the highly divisive issues of same sex marriage and abortion managed not to tear Ireland apart, thanks to the successful use of citizens' assemblies (see my earlier post on What is democracy?). He reminds us that 'No one in history has ever been insulted into agreement'. He gives us a very useful eight tips on how to disagree better. All of this reminded me of how, as I argued in an earlier post, debating can make the world better.

Getting better at disagreeing could be one of the best New Year's Resolutions you could make. Debating will help you to do it.






Sunday, December 8, 2019

How to think about politics #3 - who should you vote for?

This is posted four days before the 2019 UK General Election. 

In the end, all elections boil down to one question; one question which we all need to think about and we all need to answer; one question which, answered millions of times over, determines our future; one question which matters more than any other.

Who should you vote for?

How should you answer that question? Even if you’re not yet of voting age, it is worth thinking about, as one day you will be.

There are actually many different ways of answering the question - and I’m not talking here about the different parties and candidates on offer. I’m talking about different reasons for making your choice. You can debate which is the most important reason (and at the end of this post there are debate motions to help you make that choice).

So, who should you vote for? Here are some different ways of making up your mind.


1. Vote for the person

This is, technically, what everyone does under the UK system. When you get your poll card you will see it refers to ‘Election of a Member of Parliament for the [name] constituency.’ You are voting for a person to represent where you live in Parliament. This is actually how Parliament started out, back in the eighteenth century, as a group of individuals (albeit all male, and all of a certain class); it was only later that they started to group into parties.

Nowadays, most candidates represent one party or another, and the name of this party will be printed on the ballot paper. However, some still stand as individuals, sometimes protesting about a particular local issue (for example a hospital closure), or in rebellion against their party if they have been expelled from it / have resigned from it (for example the Conservatives who were expelled from the party by Boris Johnson for voting against his Brexit legislation). 

This election of an individual is often held up as one of the advantages of the single member constituency system that operates in the UK. There is one identifiable person who represents your interests. A disadvantage, though, is that a lot of people (in some constituencies most people) will not have voted for that person. 

It is certainly the case that the personal merits or otherwise of an MP or candidate can, and perhaps should, be a factor. Some people will vote for a candidate whose party they dislike because she / he is ‘a good MP’. An MP who takes a genuine interest in their constituency and lobbies on its behalf to the people in power can be a real boon; one who is lazy or corrupt leaves the area unprotected. Good MPs also do a lot of unnoticed, unsung work under the radar for individuals in need. The character of the person who would represent you in Parliament is an important consideration.

2. Vote for the leader

This is more common, and how elections are mostly framed; who do you want to be the next Prime Minister? 

Unlike (for example) France or the US where there is a direct vote to elect the President, we don’t in fact elect our Prime Minister. We elect our MPs, who usually belong to parties. The leader of the largest party in the House of Commons is then asked by the Queen (not by us) to become Prime Minister. So we only elect the Prime Minister indirectly.

None the less, the character and qualifications of the leaders of the parties most likely to form the government is important. That person will be making decisions which will determine our future, so it is worth looking at them, their integrity, their skill at making decisions, their strengths and weaknesses as a leader.

3. Vote for the party

There was a time, in the mid twentieth century, when political parties were virtually hereditary. If you were middle class, you were Conservative. If you were working class, you were Labour. If you were middle class and you were looking for a husband or a wife, you joined the Young Conservatives. If you were working class and you wanted a drink, you went to the Labour Club. You got the occasional middle class professional who felt guilty about their privileges who voted Labour, and the occasional working class person who wanted to better themselves who voted Conservative, but they were outliers. 

These days it is all much more fluid, and people are more likely to see political parties as being like supermarkets or broadband providers; they are happy to shop around for the best deal, switching between the different options freely. 

That said, there is still a strong sense of identity around being the kind of person who votes Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat etc. You may feel (and feeling is more important than is usually acknowledged in politics) that you are that kind of person, that this is your tribe and you want to identify with it. 

There is another factor. The quality of the government that is formed after an election will be determined as much by the quality of the party that forms it as by its leader. Parties have characters as much as leaders, and these are worth considering. So, for example, there are many members of the British Jewish community who are strongly in favour of Labour policies, but cannot bring themselves to vote Labour because of what they perceive as an anti-semitic culture in the party; some British Muslims feel the same way about Islamophobia in the Conservative Party.

4. Vote for the policies

This is the conscientious option. If you are a really dedicated citizen, you will trawl meticulously through the manifestos, the publications which say what a party would do if it was returned to power, weighing up the pros and cons of this policy against that policy. If you have less time (or inclination) you can look at a summary like this one from the BBC, or use  an app which asks you questions and then matches you to the party closest to your views like this one

It seems the most rational approach. After all, politicians are elected to govern, and governing means doing things - so what would they actually do? And which is / are the best thing(s) to do? 

There are complications, though. No government fulfils 100% of its manifesto. The proposed actions may prove impractical; events may interfere; the government may change its mind; it may decide a particular policy is not a priority. A manifesto is not a legally enforceable document like a contract in a business deal. So then questions of character, about the leader or the candidate or the party, come back into play.

5. Vote tactically

In theory, you vote for the party you want to win. But the electoral system in the UK, whereby we vote in constituencies to elect an MP, makes it more complicated. If you live in a strongly Conservative constituency and support Labour, there is almost no chance of a Labour candidate being elected; so voting Labour will be a waste of time, and will only make it more likely that the Conservative candidate will beat his or her nearer rival, for example the Liberal Democrats, thereby making a Conservative government more likely. The same applies in reverse if you live in a strongly Labour constituency and support the Conservatives.

This situation leads many people to vote tactically. It means not voting for the party or candidate they most favour, but in a way that is most likely to lead to the outcome they want: for example, avoiding a Conservative government; avoiding a Labour government; stopping Brexit; ensuring Brexit happens. So, for example, a Labour supporter might vote for the Liberal Democrats to ‘keep the Tories out’, a Conservative supporter might do the same to ‘keep Labour out’. In the current election, where (at the time of writing) the most likely outcomes seem to be either a majority Conservative government which will deliver Brexit, or a hung parliament which may run a second referendum, many people are voting tactically on Brexit, rather than for the party whose polices they most support: Conservative if they want Brexit, whoever is most likely to beat the Conservatives in their constituency if they want to stop Brexit. There are websites such as this one where you can ‘swop’ your vote with someone in another constituency to maximise its value.

Tactical voting can require some complicated calculations and quite a bit of second guessing. Some people think it is a bit sneaky and dishonest, a kind of lying, and that you should say what you really think with your vote. Other people say it is simply common sense. It can be used as a powerful argument for the need to change the voting system to one where all votes count equally.

6. Vote with your conscience

You might just want to do what is right.

For some people, this will mean prioritising a particular issue which is important to them. So a devout Catholic might refuse to vote for anyone who supported abortion; another voter might refuse to vote for candidates who have not unequivocally supported gay rights. 

Or, you could interpret this more widely, and calculate which outcome to the election would do the most good to the most people, and cast your vote in a way that is most likely to achieve that outcome. This may require some guesswork and some compromise.

7. Vote for yourself 

Alternatively, you could be totally selfish.

You could calculate which outcome to the election is most likely to benefit you personally, financially or otherwise, and cast your vote in a way that is most likely to achieve that outcome. This too will require guesswork.




I’ve given you some advice on how to think about who to vote for.

I’m not going to tell you who to vote for in the UK General Election on December 12th, 2019.

I will tell you this, though. If you can vote, vote. It makes a difference.




Possible motions to go with this post:

1. This house would abolish political parties.
2. This house would introduce multi-member constituencies.
3. This house would vote tactically.
4. This house would introduce proportional representation.
5. This house would make voting compulsory.
6. This house would vote Labour / Conservative / Liberal Democrat etc. 

7. This house would introduce annual elections.
8. This house would make election manifestos legally binding.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Tricks of the trade #2 - Chiasmus, Dialysis and Enargia

Three more rhetorical devices this week, to add spice to your speeches ...

Chiasmus (balancing two inverted clauses)

A more sophisticated form of antithesis, in which you repeat a clause while reversing its terms, making it clear by the contrast, as in antithesis, that your version is better than your opponents’. Probably the most famous example is from President Kennedy’s inauguration speech in 1961: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ So, for example, in a debate on banning homophobic speech, you could say (for the opposition): ‘Let us not seek to protect tolerance through the practice of intolerance; rather, let us fight intolerance through the practice of tolerance.’

Dialysis (setting out two equally unacceptable alternatives)

This device seeks to show that whatever follows from your opponent’s proposal, it will not be good, by giving two possible outcomes, both of which are bad. For example: ‘If we make homophobic speech illegal, either homophobes will continue to abuse gay people openly, presenting themselves as martyrs for free speech, or they will do so anonymously on social media, with even greater venom; either way, homophobia will thrive.’

Enargia (painting a picture)


This is when you describe a place or situation, either imagined or real, so vividly that the audience can see it. It can be very emotionally powerful. For example, arguing for making homophobic speech illegal: ‘Harry comes home, goes up to his bedroom, and switches on his phone. On it are forty-seven messages, each one insulting him for being gay. He looks out of the window. He can see his brother playing football in the garden with a gang of other boys. He can hear his sister in the next room laughing on the phone to her best friend. They have friends, they are happy, but everyone hates Harry, because he is gay. Tears come into his eyes. He picks up his old, battered teddy bear, whose ear is nearly falling off, and clutches it to him for comfort. The phone beeps. He knows it will be another abusive message, but still he reaches for the phone, his hand shaking …’

Sunday, November 24, 2019

How to think about politics #2 - who gets to vote?

If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it was the title of a book by Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London. He was wrong. Voting does change things. That’s the reason one of the first thing dictators do is abolish voting. 

What is voting for, then? 

Voting is useful when we need to make a choice, but we don’t all agree. It is a simple, mathematical way to find out what people think about something: how many people support one course of action, how many support another. Everyone gets an equal say, so the result is fair.

Or is it? There are some issues … (which is handy for debaters). The first one we’re going to look at is the franchise, which means who gets to vote.

So who gets to vote in the UK General Election to be held on December 12th?

Obvious, you might think. Everyone who has a stake in the result. That’s fair, isn’t it? And the result will affect everyone who lives in the UK, so surely everyone who lives in the UK will be allowed to vote.

No they won’t.

All British and Commonwealth citizens over the age of 18 resident in the UK are entitled to vote in General Elections. (The Commonwealth is a collection of countries which used to be part of the British Empire.) So people who are not British citizens, but come from countries that used to be in the British Empire, can vote, but people who are from other countries, even if they live in the UK, work in the UK, have families in the UK, pay taxes in the UK, obviously have a stake in the future of the UK, can’t vote. Why? Is the Commonwealth vote a way of saying ‘sorry’ to all those countries for having invaded them once? Given that Brexit is one of the big issues in the election, shouldn’t EU citizens living in the UK have a vote in the General Election?

Prisoners are not allowed to vote. Why not? They may have done something wrong in the past to be put in prison, but don’t they have a stake in the future too? In some states in the US, if you commit one crime, you are never allowed to vote again. Is that fair? Is voting a privilege that can be taken away, or a right?

And why do you have to be 18 or over? Given that the next government could be in power for five years before the next election, what they do will have a big impact on people who will be adults throughout almost all that time. Even those who won’t be adults will be affected by, for example, the government’s policy on schools - does your school have enough funding from the government? - or transport - are there enough buses to get you to school? - or the economy - will your parents have a job that pays them enough to look after you?

 Does everyone miraculously acquire wisdom at midnight on their eighteenth birthday? In the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, 16 year olds were allowed to vote. But why start at 16? The distinguished Cambridge politics professor David Runciman argues six year olds should be allowed to vote, as soon as they can read. Surely, tbough, they’re too immature, too ill informed, too open to influence, have too little stake in the outcome? Professor Runciman makes the point that all those arguments were once made against giving women the vote. 

At the other extreme, there were people who said after the EU referendum that people made a bad decision because they didn’t know enough about the facts. It is certainly true that voters with a high level of education tended to vote Remain, and that those with a low level of education tended to vote Leave. Does that mean that voting Remain was smarter? Does going to university give you better judgement? Should people get more votes depending on how many exams they have passed? Then again, you’re not allowed to drive until you’ve passed a driving test, to show you know how to drive a car responsibly; shouldn’t you have to pass some sort of test to show you know how to vote responsibly?

The history of the franchise in the UK has been one of progressive widening. First no one was allowed to vote, because all power was invested in the king or queen. Then men who had a certain amount of property were allowed to vote, because they had more stake in the nation than people who didn’t have property, and more sense than women. Then men who didn’t have property were allowed to vote, to give them a taste of the power they lacked by not having property. Then women were allowed to vote, but not till they were 30, because they needed longer to think about things. Then all people over the age of 21 were allowed to vote. Then the voting age was reduced to 18, because people were picking things up a bit faster by now. Each of these widenings has involved more people in democracy, and each has been resisted. It is not a simple matter deciding who gets to vote. But it is certainly worth thinking about.

Motions connected with this topic:

  • This house would reduce the voting age to 16 / 11 / 6.

  • This house would give prisoners the vote.

  • This house would give EU citizens the vote in General Elections.

  • This house would require everyone to pass a citizenship test before being allowed to vote.

  • This house would make voting compulsory.