The Oxford Union was the scene of a heated and topical debate on Scottish independence last Thursday. Despite impassioned pleas from the proposition that Scotland should be an independent country, the opposition won the debate. The debate itself, however, was somewhat overshadowed by the scandal overhanging the union at the moment.
Acting President Mayank Banerjee addressed this issue before the debate kicked off, pointing out that “…we live in a country with a legal system where a person is innocent until proven guilty. Ben Sullivan has not yet been proven guilty, this may change in the future and if it does I sincerely hope that he is punished with the full force of the law.’
He then urged the Union to turn its full attention to what proved to be a heated and interesting debate. There were two major bones of contention: one, the problem of an unrepresentative government, and two, the potential economic fallout from independence.
The proposition was quick to incite “Tory-hatred” and annoyance that they are being run by a coalition which they did not vote. Anne McGuire MP pointed out that she, as a Labour MP, did not vote for David Cameron or Alex Samond, but that that is how democracy works – a claim which won the approval of the chamber.
The other major topic discussed in the debate was the economic costs or gains of independence. The opposition was emphatic in its argument that independence would ruin the Scottish economy, but was hampered by a lack of evidence.
The proposition, however, stated that Scotland would be far better off as an independent country; indeed, Tasmina Ahmed-Skeikh stated that Scotland would be the fourteenth-richest country as opposed to England as the eighteenth. However, slightly tired economic arguments were supplemented by fears of radicalism, and proposition speaker Robert Harris argued that it could trigger a resurgence of Irish nationalism.
Pat Kane turned the angle of the debate to culture, and spoke of an independent Scotland thriving by going back to its own heritage. He suggested a return to the Gaelic language as a means of returning to nature – and even as a potential solution to overcoming the difficulties faced by global warming.
The audience was clearly refreshed by this after an hour of economic slanging matches. The Union was in danger, in this debate, of disintegrating into a shouting match as members from the floor engaged in heated exchanges. This undermined the proposition, making them seem desperate to win points without real argument. Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Wallace of Tankerness had to contend with an objection from the floor: cries of “no evidence!” left the politician temporarily speechless.
A controversial and memorable movement in the debate was the first speaker from the floor for the proposition.
He gleefully stated that he couldn’t wait for independence as he thought, after socialism had failed, Alex Salmond would come crawling back to the UK, making the Union stronger than ever.
The proposition in general highlighted some intelligent and thoughtful arguments, often going further than the tired arguments so often wheeled out in the debates for Scottish independence.
However, its arguably extreme language – claiming that the UK sees Scotland as a “colony”, for example – was reminiscent of the “Punch and Judy politics” that Ed Miliband is so keen to avoid in the House of Commons. They were unlikely to convince what seemed from the outset to be a largely pro-Union audience, and so it proved.
Proposition: Georgina Barker, Tasmina Ahmed-Skeikh, Colin Fox, Michael Gray, Pat Kane
Opposition: Robert Harris, Anne McGuire, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, John Dunsmore