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Part of the union

07 December 2013

This house believes that positive discrimination is a necessary evil.” So ran the motion put to the Oxford Union last month, and against which I spoke. When the invitation arrived from the world’s most renowned student debating society, I was honoured, of course, but not a little intimidated. I would be following in the footsteps of former US presidents, British prime ministers, Nobel Peace Prize winners and not one but two former Baywatch stars.

An Oxford Union debate is intensely traditional. After drinks and dinner with the president and other elected officers, we processed into the debating chamber, where nearly 300 students awaited. The officers were in white tie; the speakers in black tie, which for me meant a long skirt and a lace top.

The formality both adds to the sense of occasion and heightens your nervousness. The speakers are called in turn, standing by the dispatch boxes to address the room. This is most far more daunting than performing at the Edinburgh Fringe: here, there are no rehearsals and far from simply knowing my own show inside out, I had to be ready for anything that was fired at me.

Every minute you’re on your feet, you are aware that you should expect a tough time. People can and do interrupt, although intervention is governed by strict protocol. No wonder that no fewer than 12 prime ministers, from William Gladstone to David Cameron, have honed their skills in this debating chamber. Two members of the current cabinet, William Hague and Michael Gove, are former presidents of the Oxford Union, as is London mayor Boris Johnson. When Michael Heseltine was president, he converted the union’s coal cellars into a bar, now a nightclub – which I thought showed his entrepreneurial skills early on.

I wasn’t expecting the experience to be so international. I was the only Brit speaking against the motion, along with Martine Wauben, a Dutch undergraduate, and two Americans: educationalist Richard Kahlenberg and former lawyer turned radio-show host and blogger Erik Erikson.

Opposing us were Toby Fuller, an outstanding student speaker; Martin Castro, head of the US Commission on Civil Rights; Ada Meloy, general counsel of the American Council on Education; and Carla Buzasi from the Huffington Post UK. I thought we were sunk when Martin practically got a standing ovation. So I tried to remind the audience that the UK has already had a slew of legislation, from the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act to the 2010 Equality Act. We don’t need more.

What really turned the corner for us, however, was not my brilliant rhetoric (just joking) but when Parit Wacharasindhu, current president of the union, left the speaker’s chair to make his own two-minute floor speech. He told the members he had a confession to make: that the four women speakers had been asked to participate not because they were the most qualified, but because the debate needed women panellists.

I felt distinctly uncomfortable, and could see that my fellow female speakers did too. Parit then said he had a second confession: his first one was untrue, but he’d used it to show how patronising and insulting positive discrimination can be.

Women, sadly, other than Martine (who’s also the returning officer) were not over-represented among the union’s officers. The treasurer, the librarian and the secretary who kept time by passing up little notes saying how many minutes speakers had left – all were men.

And it was another man, Erik, who gave a rousing eight-minute speech to conclude our argument. The result? We defeated the proposition by 142 votes to 133.

Thank goodness that next term the international flavour continues, but with a female president, Polina Ivanova. Who didn’t need positive discrimination to be elected.

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