Charles Kennedy would have enjoyed last night’s debate on Europe at the Glasgow University Union where he honed his own great debating skills.
The debate, set to become an annual event, was in his memory, and the result – overwhelming support for continuing membership of the EU – would no doubt have pleased him.
The place was full to the rafters, Scotland’s and the university’s great and good packed into the lower sections in their black tie finery, chairman Ming Campbell in splendid Campbell tartan trews, and most of students up top, standing room only.
I was there both to help judge the best speaker of the night and later to pay tribute to Charles at a dinner.
Although she did not win best speaker, SNP minister Fiona Hyslop won best moment of the night by a mile, a slip of the tongue under the heat of the pressure cooker atmosphere pushing her to say ‘to achieve all this we must stay in the U.K.’ instead of ‘we must stay in the EU.’ I found my impartial judging instincts desert me to lead a standing ovation for this conversion to Unionism. And she took it in good heart when speaker after speaker laid on her embarrassment with a trowel, including myself at the dinner, where I announced that as a result of my relentless tweeting about her I was ‘trending in Glasgow.’
Given the background to the event – Charles’ death to alcoholism – I also decided that the planned prize for the best speaker – a bottle of Scotch for Lib Dem Alex Cole-Hamilton – should instead be a note from Fiona writing out the guilty words. Later I checked and she actually wrote a ‘well done’ and a heart shape to Alex. Can’t have it all I guess.
As for the rest of the debate, when I say above that the result was overwhelmingly in favour of staying in, I mean overwhelming. When Ming asked for voices in favour of the motion – staying in – there was a cacophony of Ayes and Yeses. When he called for votes for the OUT OF EUROPE side of the argument, not a single voice was raised – not even those who spoke for it.
Now this was Scotland, more pro-EU than the rest of the U.K. perhaps, and a university too. But a 100percent vote for staying in. Fair to say the referendum will be closer.
But over the dinner, seated with pro-EU Alistair Darling and anti John Mills, the businessman and Labour donor, I suggested there was a reason that would benefit the STAY IN side come the day. And that is that the high watermark of anti-Europeanism may have passed. Here the biased anti European press may actually have played into the hands of those whose arguments they seek to destroy. The Murdoch papers, the Mail, the Telegraph and Co have been banging the anti-European drum so loudly and for so long that their negativity has been priced in. If people believed the welter of propaganda over the last couple of decades the 100percent would have been on the other side.
The referendum, like elections, will be decided not by those on the extremes, or even those who are strong and clear in their views on either side. It will be decided by people in the reasonable middle of the argument, eager to listen and to learn and then decide. And what the debate showed me was that the pro-EU side should be confident in the arguments, because they are stronger than the arguments coming from the other side.
Of course it also helped that the pro side had the better debaters. Labour MP Graham Stringer was no match for Alistair Darling. The anti side wasn’t helped either by the fact that John Mills put the business case for OUT followed by hard left sociology lecturer Neil Davidson putting the hard left case, which was all about taking every opportunity to destroy the American driven neoliberal project. He just about managed to stop himself jabbing his finger but as he spoke I understood why Jeremy Corbyn is struggling to come down firmly on the pro EU side of the argument.
Darling was excellent. Cole-Hamilton too. Scotland’s sole Tory MEP Ian Duncan spoke well and forcefully and despite her hilarious blip, so did Fiona Hyslop. And with UKIP holding their conference there was no Farage style rabble rouser to get the pulses racing for the antis. But I think one of the reasons the pro side won so convincingly was that whereas the arguments of the antis have been played out again and again, the pro case has never been made in a sustained, consistent way.
The debate gave me confidence that when the referendum happens, it will be and – almost regardless of the deal David Cameron brings back – Yes will win.
As for my speech, in addition to a tribute to Charles, I confided that occasionally I imagine calling him in the beyond to tell him what is happening in UK politics.
‘Charles, guess what? Jeremy Corbyn is leader of the Labour Party.’
‘Jeremy Corbyn? Jerrrrremy Corrrrbyn? Is leaderrrrr of the Labourrrr Parrrrty? That is very verry verrrrry interesting.’ (‘Charrrels’ was a great user of the rolled R)
Last night’s debate was part of Charles’ legacy for the university. But I called on the politicians in the room to ensure a greater legacy – the understanding that alcoholism is a disease not a choice, and not for the first time I praised the SNP government for taking a lead in some of the measures they are taking to address the problem.
My final reflection from the debate though is how much we are going to miss Charles when the referendum comes. But at least the arguments should give his side of the argument real confidence.