The Oxford Union has once again shown its liberal, anti-establishment inclinations. Last week’s debate of the motion, ‘This house has no confidence in her majesty’s government’ resulted in 196 votes against the government and 144 in favour. As might be expected from such a narrow margin of victory, the debate proved a compelling one, with strong and convincing speakers on both sides.
Unsurprisingly, much of the debate centred on the Coalition’s response to the continuing consequences of the 2007-08 financial crisis. Crawford Jamieson, the Union’s own Librarian-elect and the first speaker for the Proposition began with a fluent and earnest speech, claiming that it was ludicrous to hold any confidence in a government responsible for an economic recovery, which was proving “the slowest in 100 years” and during which the national debt was still rising. The second Proposition speaker, the Labour MP and current Parliamentary Private Secretary to Ed Miliband, Jonathan Reynolds, struck a similar note, decrying the government’s inability to even halve the deficit.
As with any raw data, the significance of such economic statistics lies in their interpretation. Consequently, whilst Reynolds’s humour-filled speech painted George Osborne’s budgets as scandalous, the Opposition’s first speaker, the Union’s treasurer-elect, Mayank Banerjee argued that a reduction of the deficit by a quarter is no mean feat – especially after comparison with the USA’s progress in the same three years. Similarly, Simon Hughes, Coalition MP and deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats praised the government’s economic policy, in a highly engaging speech as the third Opposition speaker. Drawing our attention not only to the fact that unemployment had dropped drastically (by a third) during the Coalition’s ministry, but also to the International Monetary Fund’s recent praise of Britain’s austerity measures, he offset Reynolds’ concern over Britain’s loss of its AAA rating this February.
Rather than the intricacies of economic policy, however, it would appear from comments made in the Union bar after the debate, that it was the revelation of the appalling extent of poverty affecting Britain today which secured the debate’s final result. Luciana Berger, Labour MP and the final speaker for the Proposition, brought this aspect of the debate to the fore. It is, indeed, despicable that for the first time since the Second World War the Red Cross are being forced to take to British streets, distributing food-parcels to the impoverished. After learning of the increasing numbers referred to food banks nationwide and hearing of the shocking standard of living for so many of Berger’s constituents, few could have been surprised by her claim that the Coalition has presided over the fastest and greatest drop in British living standards since the 1870s.
To their credit, the Opposition made no attempt to dismiss these claims of poverty or to deny the government’s responsibility to help those in such severe financial straits. Andrew Mitchell, coalition MP and former Conservative whip of ‘plebgate’ fame, began his speech to conclude the debate with a disarming acceptance: “Are we doing well enough? No. Can we do better? Yes.” The crux of the Opposition’s argument was certainly not that all is well in Britain under the coalition government, nor even that the coalition has all the answers, but rather that the government is doing the best possible in some very difficult circumstances. These circumstances were outlined well by the Opposition’s second speaker, Conservative MP, Mark Reckless, despite his somewhat joyless delivery, who cited the now famous anecdote of the Labour Ex-Treasury secretary, who left his coalition successor the note, “There’s no money left.” All the Opposition were keen to contradict the Proposition’s barely audible third speaker, Labour MP, Ivan Lewis, who claimed that since the worst off in society are likely to be die-hard Labour supporters, they could never be of any interest to a Government consisting of a Tory majority. Simon Hughes, in particular, made a strong bid to sway the Union in favour of the government, noting the government’s recent decision to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000; the current low rates of interest and low inflation; and the fact that for the first time since the 1980s, the gap between rich and poor in the UK is narrowing. Andrew Mitchell’s observation that “no credible alternative [to Her Majesty’s government] has been put forward by the Proposition” revealed an obvious weakness in the arguments of the other side of the house. However, it perhaps proved a worthwhile cost; the first Proposition speaker was thus able to maintain a broader appeal, by insisting that a vote of no confidence did not require a commitment to Labour.
In any case, to focus on what the Coalition should be doing proved to be extraneous. One suspects that all the Proposition really needed to focus on was what the Coalition had done: the Bedroom Tax, tuition fees. Admittedly, both sides acknowledged the success of the Gay marriage act. Together with the abandonment of Labour’s plans to introduce ID cards, this may be evidence of a liberal administration promoting tolerance. However, whilst Reckless found this sufficient cause to celebrate Her Majesty’s government, the Oxford Union, it would seem, does not.
Whatever one’s political leanings or interest in current affairs, last Thursday’s debate provided a valuable opportunity for all present to scrutinise Britain’s current leadership – the Oxford Union at its very best.