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Sunday, October 10, 2021

Think like a debater #9 - immigration


This week we continue with an old thread, renamed.  The thread formerly known as ‘How to think about politics’ is now rebranded as ‘Think like a debater.’ That’s because I believe it is more important to focus on the process of thinking than the subject. 

So how does a debater think? She doesn’t jump to conclusions. She doesn’t find out which side her ‘tribe’ is on and make sure she aligns with it. She doesn’t accept anything, no matter from what source, without questioning it. She works hard, finding out as much as she can about any subject, gathering the facts. She makes sure she understands both (or, more often, all) sides of a case. Then she analyses. She asks: why do some people think this? Why do some people think that? What does this issue boil down to? On what basis are the differences of view founded? What is the hinge on which the disagreement turns? What, in other words, is the point of clash

Once she knows that, she will really understand the issue, and be ready to debate it on either side. What’s more, she will understand the world better. We all function better when we are understood, and the world is no exception. Learning how to think like a debater will help you make the world a better place. 

This week, we’re thinking (like debaters) about immigration.

Roads blocked by cars snaking for miles out of petrol stations … half-empty supermarket shelves … pigs reprieved from slaughter. The supply crisis in the UK over the last few weeks has many causes, but a significant factor has undoubtedly been immigration; or, rather, the lack of immigration.

Following the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, free movement of people within the European Union (EU) was established. That meant that anyone from any country within the EU could travel to any other country, not only for tourism but also to work, at any time, without any need for a visa giving them permission to enter. In 2004, the EU significantly increased in size, admitting ten more countries, most of them from Eastern Europe; this was followed in 2007 by the addition of Bulgaria and Romania. One consequence of this enlargement was that very large numbers of EU citizens, particularly from Eastern Europe, came to work in the UK. They were drawn to the UK by the prospect of more work opportunities and higher wages than they could expect to find back home. 

Resentment at high levels of immigration was a very significant factor in the vote to leave the EU in the referendum of 2016. When the UK finally left the EU on January 30th, 2020, the rules around immigration and the right of people from EU countries to live and work in the UK changed. As a result, many of them left the UK. A lot of them drove lorries, delivering petrol to petrol stations and food to supermarkets, or picked fruit, or slaughtered animals in abbatoirs. Businesses have struggled to replace them with British workers. Hence shortages of petrol, strawberries and bacon sandwiches. Good news for pigs at least. But is restricting immigration good news for anyone else?

The argument boils down to two points of focus: economic and cultural.


The free movement of people in the EU meant that UK businesses had a vastly wider pool of labour to choose from. Workers from Eastern Europe were eager to come to the UK. They were willing to work hard for comparatively low wages, because prospects in the UK were so much better than in their own countries. This meant that businesses could provide goods and services at much lower prices. These immigrants paid tax on their wages, which helped to support the services we all depend on, such as schools and hospitals. Because they were more likely to be young and healthy, even single and childless, they made few demands on education and health services, and so they actually put more into British society than they took out.

But … it didn’t feel like that if you were a British worker who saw the job they used to do taken by an Eastern European worker, prepared to do it for less money. It looked like those workers were undercutting your wages and were taking work from you. Statistics about contributions to tax weren’t much comfort when you couldn’t get a job, or when the job you could get was badly paid. Those statistics were also not a lot of use if you saw places at your children’s school or appointments at your GP taken by people who weren’t here a few years ago, even if their taxes were paying for those services.

To put it very simply: immigration is a good thing if you need a cleaner; it’s a bad thing if you are a cleaner.


Life is not just about money. It is also about how you feel, not least how you feel about yourself, your sense of identity. People who are in favour of liberal attitudes towards immigration are likely to think of themselves as open-minded and tolerant, willing to accept a diversity of cultures and lifestyles, excited by the multiplicity of people. They may be well travelled, and want their children to have the same opportunity to travel. They are more likely to live in large cities, places which favour autonomy and anonymity over community. (The biggest votes for Remain came in the most diverse areas of London, itself one of the most diverse cities in the world.) They may think of themselves not so much as British, but as ‘citizens of the world.’ When the UK voted to leave the EU, many of them felt they had lost something important about their country.

Those who want limits on immigration also have a strong sense of their own identity. They are more likely to value stability over diversity, security over openness, solidarity over individualism. Many of them live in towns with very low levels of racial and cultural diversity. They were described by the writer Matthew Goodhart as ‘citizens of somewhere’. 

They didn’t recognise where they lived any more; it wasn’t the place they had grown up in. When they voted Leave, they may have felt that they had already lost much of their identity because of the way in which immigration had changed their communities. When the UK left the EU, they felt as if they had got something back about their country.

The point of clash

Economically, the clash comes down to this question.

Which is more important: the flexibility of businesses to hire who they want and pay them what they want, with the resultant prosperity for the economy and the more ready availability of cheaper goods and services? Or the security for British workers of having their jobs and conditions protected, even if that means higher prices and less variety of goods and services?

Culturally, the clash comes down to this question.

Which do you value more: variety and openness, even if that means having to tolerate people who are not like you? Or security and community, even if that means excluding people who are not like you? When you walk into your local pub or cafe, do you want to see people who are like you and understand you, or people who don’t know you and who will let you be whoever you want to be?

There are big ideas behind these clashes. These big ideas have been covered in these earlier posts:

Freedom vs Security. Freedom is likely to be pro-immigration; Security is likely to be anti-immigration.

Social liberalism vs social conservatism. Social liberalism is likely to be pro-immigration; social conservatism is likely to be anti-immigration.

What is a nation? How people think about nations will influence how they think about immigration.

Motions that go with this topic

  • This house would reinstate the right for EU citizens to work in the UK

  • This house would remove all immigration controls.

  • This house would only admit skilled workers to the UK.

  • This house believes that immigration is good for the UK.

  • This house would rather be a citizen of somewhere than a citizen of the world.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

How to get better at debating #1 - rebuttal

This week we start a new series,
How to get better at debating. These posts are aimed at debaters who have already mastered the basic skills of debating, but want to find ways to take their performance to a higher level. They offer practical suggestions for debaters and their coaches on how to do this.

Rebuttal is one of the most basic and essential skills of debating. It reminds us that a debate is not a series of speeches, but is rather a contest between two different ways of seeing an issue. This contest involves verbal combat. While speeches are long range bombardment, rebuttal is hand to hand fighting. Your debating life may depend on being good at it.

So how to get better at it? We’ve already covered the basics of how it works and how to do it in this earlier post.. This week we’re going to look at practical ways in which you can become a better rebutter, by engaging in various exercises in your debating club, with or without a coach.

  1. Warm ups

These exercises are the equivalent of an athlete doing stretches before a match or a race. They warm up your rebuttal muscles.

Rebuttal tennis - singles

Put yourselves in pairs. One person thinks of, or is given, a controversial statement (the more controversial the better), e.g. ‘No one should be allowed to own more than one house.’ The second person says, ‘You’re wrong because …’ and gives their reason for disagreeing. Then the first speaker says ‘You’re wrong because …’ giving their reason for rebutting what their challenger said. Carry on doing this for as long as possible, like keeping up a rally in tennis. Keep a note of how many times each person speaks; the winners are the pair with the longest rally.

Rebuttal tennis - groups

Stand in two lines, facing each other.

One person says a controversial statement, e.g. ‘No one should be allowed to have more than one house.’ The person in the line opposite her says, ‘You’re wrong because …’ Then the ball passes to the person to the left of the first speaker, then back to the person to the left of the second speaker, and so on down the line. When you get to the end, come back in the opposite direction. The aim is to keep the ball of argument in the air for as long as possible.

Pre-debate warm-up

This is to help you to prepare for a specific motion, in either long or short prep. Do this at the very end of prep time, after you have agreed all your main arguments. 

One debater fires objections to the other debater’s arguments, points of information style. The first debater has to respond as quickly and concisely as possible. Then switch it around. 

This exercise will both sharpen your rebuttal muscles, and will also help you to anticipate likely lines of attack by the other side. If you are doing short prep, it will have to be done very quickly, perhaps even as you are walking to the room. If you are doing long prep, you can take your time more, but keep up the short, sharp pace.

  1. Analysing your performance

If you write an essay in English or History, a teacher can mark it, giving you feedback, and you can take out the essay again to look at the feedback when you’re about to write your next essay, or are preparing for an exam. Debates aren’t like essays; your words disappear into the ether once spoken, and it can be hard to look back on what you did and reflect on how to improve. However, there are ways of doing that kind of detailed scrutiny of past performance; here they are.

Track the rebuttal

Set up and run a debate in the usual way.

Debaters in the club who are not taking part in the debate are tasked to make detailed notes on each point of information. Who won the point? Why? They share and discuss their findings with the coach after each speech.

Slow motion speeches

Set up and run a debate in the usual way. 

Sooner or later, there will be a point of information. When there is, the coach (or another debater) presses ‘pause’. They talk through the point of information, discussing what went well, and what could have gone better. Who won the exchange? Why? Then the coach presses ‘play’ and the debate resumes.

The coach / other debaters do the same with the rebuttal at the beginning of a speech.

Video analysis

Set up and run a debate in the usual way, only this time film it.

Replay it immediately, pausing where there are points of information to discuss who won them and why. Also pause after the opening rebuttal in each speech to analyse how it was done. 

Alternatively, the coach takes some time away from the session to watch the video, focusing on analysing the use of rebuttal in each speech. In the next session, she replays the speech, pausing and analysing at each moment of rebuttal, giving individual targets for each debater.

All of the above exercises depend on having and sustaining an atmosphere in your debating club which is mutually supportive and encouraging, while at the same time committed to honest reflection and continual improvement.

Obviously when analysing and reflecting on your own or someone else’s performance, you need to know what you are looking for. What exactly makes good rebuttal varies according to the context and the moment of the debate, but here are some general principles. 

Good rebuttal

  • Is thorough, in that it addresses the weakness in the opposition argument fully, but also concise, in that it does so in as few words as possible. A successful debater needs to find the sweet spot between too much engagement and not enough.

  • Identifies and exposes bad arguments. There are many of these. See our thread on Bad Arguments for what they are and how to dismantle them.

  • Moves the debate back on to the speaker’s ground, so that the debate lands on her side of the point of clash.

If, for example, the debate is on ‘This house would use direct action to raise awareness of climate change’, the point of clash is likely to be between whether the principle of maintaining the rule of law is more important than a pragmatic willingness to break the law for a higher good. If the proposition argue, for example, that blocking motorways is justified because climate change causes far more disruption than any such protest, you can rebut this argument by saying that once we allow the rule of law to be disregarded by environmental protesters, it will be very hard to make a stand against anti-environmental protesters; what can we say to people who block roads to prevent the construction of wind turbines? Now you’ve moved the debate onto the problems caused by allowing people to break the law, which is where you want it to be.

You can continue to practise your rebuttal skills away from your debating club by thinking up and offering (in your head) rebuttal to what people are saying when you watch discussion programmes like the BBC’s Question Time, or when you listen to politicians being interviewed on TV or radio. You can also do this when you are reading opinion and editorial pieces in newspapers or magazines. I don’t recommend doing it in everyday conversation, though; you might end up with not many friends.