It’s fair to say that the most recent UDS debate did not meet with a wildly enthusiastic response. There was a fear that that, after the light heartedness of the last few debates, the idea of a discussion on one of the thorniest issues in international politics seemed dry, dull. Over the past couple of weeks, a perception has grown up that the UDS is better at banter than discourse, unable to do justice to serious debates. This was a perception reinforced by the low turnout on the evening, and by the absence of any external speakers.
It was also a perception that was proven entirely wrong by the events of the evening. The UDS did not provide their usual flamboyant showmanship, or soaring displays of verbosity, or reams of specialist knowledge. What they did provide, however was a debate.
To clarify, this is not to say the event lacked drama. Second proposition speaker Gillis Holgersson opened his speech with a measured, but chilling, description of the chaos in Syria, which managed to convey the horror of a situation everyone in the room knew about in a way that still seemed fresh, while his partner and fellow Chief Whip made what one audience member called “one of the ballsiest pitches I’ve ever seen,” ending his speech by arguing powerfully that anyone who failed to back Assad was “a coward.”
To a far greater degree than in previous public debates, the speakers engaged with one another’s arguments. Wesley Garner, speaking for the opposition, argued that getting rid of Assad would be the first step to a long-term peace process in the Middle East, based around a more democratic Syria. Mr Roberts accused Mr Garner of living in “fairyland”, claiming instead that Assad’s victory was more or less inevitable, and that trying to deny this would just lead to more loss of life. Mr Holgersson then claimed that backing Assad would force him to moderate his actions by placing him back inside international society, while his opposition counterpart Sam Maybee warned of the damage that an unchained, Western-backed Assad could do to the Syrian people.
This felt like a genuine battle of ideas, rather than just argumentative comedy. This was helped – albeit inadvertently – by the fact that the speakers were all longstanding UDS members. While external speakers are arguably the point of public debates, it was refreshing to have a debate conducted by people who may have lacked the specialist knowledge of external speakers, but actually knew how to argue. It may have been the relatively low turnout, but it seemed like the audience listened more closely to the speakers than usual, perhaps to better hear four well-practised debaters show of four distinct, but compelling speaking styles: Mr Roberts fiery but forensic, Mr Garner almost disarmingly straightforward, Mr Holgersson quietly forceful, Mr Maybee terse, blunt, but eloquent.
The motion itself, despite the initial naysaying, also leant itself well to this kind of debate, allowing speakers to touch on both high moral principles, like when it is acceptable to back dictators, and more concrete discussions of the roles of key actors, from Russia to ISIS. That was excluding the floor speeches from Ruaridh Fergusson, Cameron Craig, Stewart Conlin and Ali Drabu, each one of which brought up previously unexamined factors from the role of Iran to the rise of “neo-fascism” across the world.
In short, if there were any lingering doubts in the ability of the UDS in general, and President Beckie Thomas in particular, to handle important subjects, this debate put them to rest.