14 November 2023

An elite academy for aspiring rent-a-gob politicians : 1976 : Durham Union Society

 “I’m sorry but you must wear appropriate attire to attend,” the usher told me sternly.

I thought I had been dressed normally enough, but apparently not. I was waving my club membership card, having paid the annual subscription during Freshers’ Week. Only then did I learn that it was insufficient merely to be a paid-up member. Nobody had told me I needed additionally to wear an academic gown to be admitted, one of those flimsy black material things belonging to previous centuries or ghost movies. Since my arrival at university, I had spotted a few students wafting around the streets wearing such gowns and I had considered their fashion sense preposterous, particularly in the ‘Year of Punk’. Why would I waste £37 of my Surrey County Council student full grant on such an anachronistic garment? Now, to my frustration, I was being refused entry to the society’s first debate of the academic year and had to walk the mile back to my college in autumnal darkness.

I was unaware then that Durham University was so normalised to its elite status that it even labelled its relationship with the local population ‘town and gown’. Evidently it never had considered itself an integral part of Durham, one of Britain’s poorest working-class regions, because its students were not drawn from the locality but from some of Britain’s poshest families whose offspring had proven insufficiently academic to gain admission to Oxbridge. I recall my shock during a party at fellow student John Cummins’ town centre flat when I learnt that his parents had purchased that property for the duration of his studies. Whilst processing my astonishment, I rudely fell asleep on his sofa in the midst of the revelling. Only later did I discover that such investments by rich parents were commonplace. (Despite showing little interest in the pop music with which I was obsessed, later John landed a job at ‘The Tube’ music TV show and was then appointed Channel 4’s launch head of youth television.)

Clubs had never been for me. At school, the only one I had joined was ‘Strode’s Film Club’, a sixth-form wheeze by classmate and film buff Martin Nichols to legally screen in the main hall X-rated movies such as ‘Straw Dogs’, ‘Lord of The Flies’, ‘Canterbury Tales’, ‘North by Northwest’, 'Celine and Julie Go Boating' and ‘Closely Observed Trains’. Now, as a na├»ve fresher at university, I had been told it was essential to join numerous clubs, particularly the debating society, so I had paid my money, only to be turned away from its first event. A historian had written in 1952:

“When a young man comes into residence in Durham, in seven cases out of ten he decides to become a member of the Union Society. […] And he is then in the succession of many whose first experience in oratory and official administration, gained in the Union Debating Hall and clubrooms, has stood them in good stead for the rest of their lives.”

I was unable to benefit from this ‘experience in oratory’ until later in the year when I discovered the club held one annual debate where neither membership nor a gown were necessary to attend in the Great Hall of Durham Castle. It seemed bizarre that the town’s castle operated as neither a tourist attraction nor the home of some wealthy bigwig, but as a college of the university in which 150 students had lived and studied from 1837. Apparently, between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, its oversized dining room had been renowned as Britain’s largest ‘Great Hall’. I sat at the back in my usual student-wear to quietly observe a debate dominated by white males wearing gowns.

What I witnessed stunned me. It was difficult to decide what impacted me the most. Adolescents of my age acting as if they were already middle-aged men, seemingly in imitation of their family’s upper-class characteristics. Boys confident enough to stand up and talk loudly and at length on global issues about which they displayed only the most basic understanding. Conversely, their peers not replying with factual corrections because they too were eagerly awaiting a chance to stand up and mouth their own ignorance. Overloud voices and theatrical flourishes as if the debater were the lead actor in a school play. Mob-like cheering and jeering at speakers as if it were some medieval tournament. Rude audience comments shouted out during speeches, eliciting rumbustious laughter. Loud banging of fists on tables and foot stomping like a mob of noisy yobo’s.

What proved most baffling were the moments when a participant whom I vaguely knew would stand up to argue a point of view that I had thought was the opposite of their personal beliefs. It appeared that, in this playground, moral certitude had to be sacrificed to the altar of argument purely for argument’s sake. It was an intellectual game whose purpose was to impress one’s peers with wit and verbosity rather than facts or evidence. The medium WAS the message, not the content that was being spoken … or more often bellowed. During an evening of insufferably posh accents, visions of fencing, guns at dawn and gloves smacked across opponents’ cheeks crossed my mind. It was evident that many of my fellow students must have already practised this parlour game for years in ‘debating societies’ at their private schools … while, in my parallel state school universe, I had been occupied presenting pop music programmes on London pirate radio stations.

At the event’s conclusion, I stumbled outside into the night air, reeling as if I had been returned to Earth after abduction by an alien civilisation. Perhaps you required blue blood to feel at home in there. I resolved not to renew my club membership nor to attend further debates. The academic Sir Walter Moberly had commented in 1950: “Undergraduate debates are not conducted at the deep level at which convictions are really formed.” This notion that an individual can lack personal conviction to debate or argue a point forcefully was a foreign land to me. I could frame an argument for my principles, but why would one propose a point of view that is not one’s own? Unless you never bother with ‘convictions’ and follow a path of merely blowing with the prevailing wind.

It was not until 1990 that Britain’s primary legislature, the House of Commons, allowed its proceedings to be permanently televised, following its eleventh vote on the issue during the preceding twenty-two years. The motion was opposed by then prime minister Margaret Thatcher because "my concern is for the good reputation of this House.” Initially, only close-up shots of the politician holding the floor were permitted because a wider view would have shown the public the faces of their elected representatives jeering, hectoring, desk banging and rabble-rousing during many speeches. This restriction was later relaxed, allowing the rest of the world to witness for the first time the childish habits of grown men who had never moved on from ‘bunfights’ in oak-panelled dining rooms during ‘High Tea’.

Watching those early televised broadcasts vividly recalled the one debate I had attended more than a decade earlier. I suddenly understood that Durham Union Society had been established in 1842 as ‘A Nursery of the [House of] Commons’, as noted a headline in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper. My privileged contemporaries had been in training to become politicians since an early age. Durham had merely been the latest stop on their route to the elevated roles to which they had forever been told they were entitled. Articulating this notion of ‘power’, Sir Winston Churchill had once observed at the Oxford Union: “If you can speak in this country, you can do anything.”

House of Commons rules strictly forbid members to call each other ‘a liar’ or to make an accusation of ‘lying’. As a result, just as I had witnessed in Durham, speakers are permitted to spout any old tosh that comes into their heads and get away with it. How can a critic ‘speak truth to power’ in a forum where the currency of ‘truth’ is not merely devalued but prohibited? Politicians know they can say whatever is expedient in the moment without any recourse, while the rest of us would be sacked from our jobs for what our world considers to be lying.

In my own field, the lack of, ahem, ‘conviction’ of politicians responsible for the British government’s media policy has been evident often. In March 2010 whilst in opposition, Ed Vaizey MP said “the government has set a provisional target date of 2015 [for digital radio switchover] and we are sceptical about whether that target can actually be met.” However, by July that same year and after an election had appointed him the new government’s culture minister, Vaizey conversely said that “2015 is an achievable target date and we will work to support that ambition.” Ho hum.

During the period when I seemed to be the only City analyst covering the radio broadcast industry, I would occasionally be contacted by the BBC to be interviewed for a programme. Before sunrise one day, a BBC car collected me from home to take me to the studios of the ‘Today’ programme on ‘Radio 4’ for a live item about digital radio switchover. On arrival, I was told that I would be answering the presenter’s questions and then the government minister would be introduced and quizzed. However, the minister had insisted that I not be permitted to follow up or respond to what he would be saying. It was obvious that my presence in the studio would suggest a semblance of ‘balance’ whilst not actually allowing genuine debate or argument.

I had arrived at the BBC early and spent an age waiting in the show’s ‘green room’. The minister arrived late, accompanied by a flunky, entered the room and said to me: “So you are the person they have brought here to tell me that everything I am about to say is wrong.” 

Just as I had witnessed in Durham, patronising privileged toffs like him function in a world where they insist upon immunity from contradiction or correction to the drivel they shout. Despite my anger at his comment, I followed the instructions for that morning’s appearance, but have refused every BBC invitation since. Where there is purposefully no genuine debate, what would be the point?

Is this the “honourable tradition” maintained by graduates of debating societies like Durham Union Society, the phrase attributed to the club in 1952 by its historian who suggested it:

“… should always retain at least some its present rooms as a gentlemen’s club. There may it long offer to future generations those opportunities for the making of friendships, for argument, and for training in life and thinking …”?

‘Training’ for a ‘life’ as a conviction-free politician?

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