It is an obvious statement that a lot can be told about an event by looking at the crowd it attracts. This piece of conventional wisdom however, is sometimes a little difficult to apply to UDS debates, as there seems to be almost no common denominator amongst the audience. Students in expensive suits and red gowns rub shoulders with their hoodie-wearing peers. Smartly turned out members of the public sit next to people who genuinely look like they could have rolled out of bed, their slovenly attire clashing both with that of their companions and the grand surroundings of Lower Parliament Hall (to be fair, I was having a rough day). This is hardly a criticism of the event itself. The diversity of appearance sums up the essence of a public debate: people go for different reasons – social, intellectual, or others.
This debate arguably summed that up as well as it could have. This is not to say that there weren’t problems, of course – those arguing for the proposition had a much rougher deal, due to the popularity that the NHS enjoys. The bias was demonstrated very clearly in the results, with 13 voting for the motion, 54 against and 20 abstaining. There was also a feeling among some commentators that this was a topic that had already been discussed ad nauseam beforehand. Despite all this, it remained a decent showcase for debating’s many facets: debating as a exercise of intelligence, as a dramatic performance and as a stand-up routine.
The main debate illustrated this pretty well. Despite the hysterical tone of debates over the NHS in the national press, this one was grounded heavily in the facts, with demographics and economics being the main points discussed. This was possibly to be expected from the proposition. Professor Cam Donaldson is an experienced Health Economist and Yunus Chair in Social Business and Health at Glasgow Caledonian University, while Dr Margaret Hannah is the Director of Public Health at NHS Fife and deeply experienced in the workings of the NHS.
The two students who made up the proposition also put forwards a nuanced and technocratic case for privatisation. While this focus on statistics might have caused a dry debate, there were also many flashes of colour, such as proposition speaker Ruaridh Fergusson’s claim that the NHS cost the equivalent of ten billion Dervish Kebab whilst his colleague Marcus Buist exhibited a passionate and flamboyant appeal to take healthcare out of government hands and “let the people in.”
The floor speeches from members of the audience were, if anything, even more emblematic of the diversity that public debates are capable of demonstrating. Audience members heard everything from verbose oratorical declarations (“The NHS is not just a sacred cow, it’s a golden calf!”), to more economic arguments about about arbitrary taxation and funding. Particularly noteworthy was the claim that the NHS was comparable to a shirtless President Obama riding up to a couple having a picnic on a beach and forcing them to redistribute their sandwiches at gunpoint (if that sounds utterly bizarre, it’s because it was). Also featuring was a passionate defence of the NHS from an audience member who ended his speech by saying the only reason he had spoken was to get the mention of the removal of his left testicle in an NHS operation into the minutes (that student was 4th year Isaac Leaver, who went on to win the traditional bottle of port for best floor speech).
In summary: Fun, intelligent, unpredictable and above all entertaining, this debate can ultimately be diagnosed as healthy.