This House asks: should we stay or should we go?

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Photo: The Catholic Herald
Photo: The Catholic Herald
Photo: The Catholic Herald

With the referendum that will decide the UK’s membership of the EU only a matter of weeks away, St Andrews has played host to a variety of discussions and debates over the question of Brexit (including one hosted by The Saint, which saw over 300 students attend). According to one audience member, the debate held on Friday 29 April “eclipsed everything I’ve seen so far.”

Moderated by Beckie Thomas, the Union Debating Society’s debate on EU membership was easily the highest profile event of its type held this year, and, judging by audience reactions, the liveliest. As with The Saint’s debate, the pro-EU side won by a massive margin (9 voted for the motion “This House Would Leave the European Union”, with 73 against and 5 in abstention). The result is perhaps more a reflection of the prejudices of the St Andrews student body than the quality of the speakers.

Speaking for the motion “This House Would Leave the European Union” was Mr Eamonn Butler, co-founder of the Adam Smith Institute. After a slightly shaky start, Mr Butler gave an impassioned speech in favour of Brexit, laying into the “Remain-ians” and “state funded establishment types.” He spoke in defence of a European Union which had “reduced British people to second class citizens.”

Content wise, he offered little that was new or original, basing his case on the claim that the UK had been “sold a lie” by the European Union when it voted to join “what it thought was an economic union” in 1975. Despite this, his case was given more power by his portrayal of himself as what he called an “embittered Europhile” which helped him to invigorate a somewhat familiar argument with passionate outrage.

As a demolition job of the European Union, Mr Butler’s speech was first-rate, combining denunciations of the EU’s democratic deficit, its “stultifying” effect on small businesses, and its “scaremongering, establishment-backed tactics” with a powerfully emotive delivery. It was also, however, almost entirely negative: Even when discussing Britain’s potential as an international trading power, it was in the context of how the EU was holding Britain back. Despite generally keeping his delivery serious, he also used humour to considerable effect while taking interventions from the other side, at one point telling John Edwards, in response to a point of information, “if all your research is that good, it’s no wonder your side’s in so much trouble.” Overall a strong, passionate speech, if fairly one sided.

Best line: “There is no status quo. [The EU] is an always-moving train. I saw where it was going back in the 1970s, back when we thought we could contain it, but now we know we can’t. If we don’t get out of the EU, it’s going to lead us to the abolition of nationhood as we know it.”

In direct contrast to Mr Butler’s fiery rhetoric, Mr Raghav Mehra, a masters student studying mathematics, took a somewhat dispassionate approach to the debate (his apparent lack of enthusiasm in attacking the EU can possibly be explained by the fact he voted against the motion). This, however, is not to say he was any less effective. In fact, his grasp of the technical issues surrounding the debate seemed far greater than that of the other speakers, and his forensic analysis of the EU and its failings was not robustly challenged until the floor speeches at the end of the debate.

In a speech that cited both former US Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and the Scottish Economist Adam Smith, Mr Mehra portrayed the EU far more positively than Mr Butler, not as an oppressive organisation keeping Britain down, but as a force for good that happens to have different interests to the UK. Building on this claim, he put forward the argument that the EU was currently a “halfway union”, which, having fallen victim to a variety of economic problems, needed far more integration to prevent a “catastrophic” breakup. This, Mr Mehra claimed, ran completely counter to British interests, and its history of viewing itself as separate from the EU.

Brexit was presented as the only way to rescue both the EU and the UK from the “inevitable, devastating results” of this contradiction. Despite being a far more innovative argument than Mr Butler’s, it was similarly negative, focusing more on detailing the negatives of the EU than putting forward a vision of what a post-Brexit Britain would look like.

Best line: “There’s nothing wrong with the UK’s half-hearted commitment to integration, but we have to recognise that it’s different from what the rest of the continent wants, so we can have an amicable divorce before the toxic effects of our different aspirations lead to catastrophe.”

Easily the most flamboyant speaker of the night, Mr John Edward, a spokesperson for Scotland Stronger in Europe, matched Mr Butler’s speech with an equally fiery performance that combined rhetorical flourishes with biting sarcasm, derisively referring to the Brexiter’s “plans for greatness post-EU that we’re supposed to believe they have stuffed somewhere in the sock drawer.”

The uncertainty of what would happen after Brexit was a theme that Mr Edward continually referred to, challenging his opponents to “not just to tell us we’re leaving, but where we’re leaving to, and who we’re leaving with.” He also drew attention to the wildly contradictory views put forward by prominent leave figures like Nigel Farage and George Galloway. He was most effective, however, in challenging perceptions of the EU as alien and hostile, calling the idea that “Luxemburg and Estonia agree on everything and want to hold us back because they don’t like us” … “frankly pathetic.”

This argument was twinned with an abrasively humorous attack on the Brexiters’ claims that their case was the more positive and patriotic one: “[The Out Campaign] simultaneously want us to believe that our leaders are all traitors, that we can’t be trusted to govern ourselves (within the EU) or make it work for ourselves, but that once we leave we can ride into the sunset with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

Mr Edward’s florid style of speaking also had it’s drawbacks. He had a tendency to ramble, and slightly undermined himself with an over-long Point of Intervention against Mr Mehra, but the audience seemed to take more notice of his passionate, witty takedowns of Brexit arguments than the things that would lose him points in a formal debating contest.

Best line: “They want to talk about this whole thing in terms of Us and Them, but the EU isn’t something that’s been done to us, it’s something we’ve done to ourselves. And we’ve done it for all the right reasons.”

Finally, Mr Willie Rennie’s entire approach to the debate can be summed up by one exchange with Mr Butler. The latter asked him to “stick to facts, not insults”, and Mr Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, responded, “I actually prefer insults.” Mr Rennie took a jocular, irreverent approach to the issue, which contrasted sharply with the approach taken by the other speakers. He compared the EU to “your grannie, who emits the occasional fart and doesn’t want to admit it, but who you love anyway.”

What this argument lacked in intellectual heft, however, it made up for with audience appeal. Despite being the only speaker on the panel not to be a former or current student of St Andrews, Mr Rennie has become something of a fixture at UDS debates, and got more laughs and applause than any other speaker during the night. Leaving Mr Edwards to do most of the work of attacking the arguments of the other side, Mr Rennie categorised his contribution as a “celebration of the EU” rather than a debating speech.

Though a fair amount of his speech consisted of taking swipes at the politicians advocating Leave, he was also effective at presenting the EU as a positive force in the world, stressing both the role it had played in bringing peace to the continent and the UK’s role in establishing it and contributing to its success. He also had one of the most successful and powerful deliveries of the debate, starting with a relaxed, bantering tone which built up to a finger-jabbing, table-pounding climax, which, if perhaps lacking a little in substance, was one of the most entertaining moments of the night.

Best line: “Do we want to be insular, divided, afraid of others rather than co-operative and open to trade? Come on, Great Britain is greater than that.”

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