I thought this would be relatively simple, but I was wrong. I had intended, after giving the matter some careful consideration, to explain why I thought there was a problem with the way the UK Parliament uses the debate in its processes of government. To be sure of a sound basis for my argument, I checked in to Wikipedia, looked up its definition of “Debate”, and immediately ran into a maze of alternatives. There is a bewildering plethora of ways of conducting a debate, most of which I had never heard about before.
My own experience of debating comes from secondary education, where debates were held on occasion – primarily to teach the method of debate, nothing more. I was not impressed. Debating seemed to me to apply a set of unnecessary rules to a perfectly normal discussion, in order to give it a fancy name. What on earth could be the point of that? And after looking through the list in Wikipedia, I am still asking the same question – “What is the point of all this?” See for yourself; –
Debate between candidates for high office
U.S. presidential debates
British Parliamentary debate
Canadian Parliamentary debate
American Parliamentary debate
World Universities Peace Invitational Debate (WUPID)
Asian Universities Debating Championship
Karl Popper debate
Public Forum debate
There is a common feature running through all of these different styles. Its as if the participants are playing a game. The danger here is that there is more emphasis on playing the game than there is on getting the correct answer to the question that has been posed. Everyone wants to win. And they are more than willing to cheat to do so!
In the British Parliament, “Chanting, booing, or interrupting while another MP is speaking is banned under a rule dating from 1693, which says offenders “shall incur the displeasure and censure of the House”.”
And yet, “Conservative MPs are being sent weekly memos urging them to shout down Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, every time he rises to his feet to question David Cameron.”
See the full article at PM’s team orchestrated Commons heckling campaign
The term “Honourable” seems to be a complete misnomer when applied to Members of Parliament!
Another way of cheating is to tack a relatively small, unpopular, measure onto a larger, popular one. They both pass or fail together, and the likelihood is that they will both pass.
However, none of the foregoing addresses the two basic flaws that I see with the whole system. The first of these is that the success or failure of a motion being debated is always dependent on the expertise of the people arguing for and against it. In this case, suppose we had a motion that was obviously good for the country, but only poor speakers to support it, the motion would fail. The second flaw I see is in the choice of motion itself. Who decides that the questions being debated are the best ones for the people of the country?
For example, how would you rate the relative importance of the following three items?:-
Privatisation of the Health Service
Voting rights for prisoners
I would rate them in the order given for the following reasons:-
The Health Service affects all of the population sooner or later, and is most important.
The blanket denial of prisoners’ voting rights is declaring that prisoners are automatically sub-human as soon as incarcerated. This cannot be true.
The incidence of gays in society is about the same as those who are lefthanded – 11%. I don’t see lefthanded people grandstanding for special treatment. It would be better if gays toned down their actions, and behaved a little more like normal people.
(Now, if you want to discuss lefthanded gays, maybe we could come up with something special?)
Personally, I think we could do away with Parliament altogether. All we need is a good computer, with an expert system that will ensure that all decisions are exclusively in the best interests of the population. After all, how do you rate Cameron’s chances against the best Chess computer? Somewhere between “Poor” and “Abysmal” I would say!
Its all a matter of debate!