Importance of Debating

It is alive and well at Cargilfield

One of the prizes that we award annually at our end of year Prize Giving in the Upper School is called the Norway Cup. Not only is it a beautiful trophy but I love the wording that accompanies the cup and which I do my best to explain before making the award. I attach the full testimonial at the bottom of this article and I would recommend that you read it.

It is a prize for Debating at Cargilfield and, as you will see below, it reminds us of a key moment at the beginning of the Second World War when debate played a crucial part in defining the future of the country and perhaps of Europe and the rest of the world.

Would it be too strong a point to suggest that we have found ourselves in a place where debate has seemed equally important over the last twelve months? Certainly, the prep school that Sarah and I ran previously is now celebrating its first Prime Minister from amongst its alumni. And I am enjoying the fact that he has appointed one of my former competitive debating partners to his cabinet. Robert Buckland, the new Justice Secretary also once beat me in a college election by singing ‘My Way’ in a beautiful baritone voice at the hustings. Perhaps, as we may all suspect at the moment, it’s not just the quality of your argument that wins the day?

Debating at Cargilfield is alive and well. All children in the Upper School join our Debating Society when they join Form 6. We meet every other Wednesday afternoon at 5pm throughout the Autumn and Spring terms. Our new Form 6 cohort will have their introduction to Debating on the first afternoon of the new school year and I hope that this year we may also encourage some children from local primary schools to join us in this Society. Those children in Form 6 and above who want some more practice at competitive debating can join the Debating Club that Miss Pett and I run on Monday evenings and we will enter one or two competitions next term (albeit that we find ourselves pitched against senior school children in those competitions). We also host the Scottish Prep Schools Competition in March each year.

The strength of those competitions reflects the tradition for debating in Scotland. Certainly, some of the best university debating teams come from north of the border. This may be down to the tradition of ‘mooting’ as part of Scottish law degrees but I also believe that the best school debaters in Scotland would compete with any team down south.

As the words below suggest, the importance of arguing your case well; of being able to think on your feet and of having the confidence to speak out in front of others is something that form an important part of our education.

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On 7 and 8 May 1940 “The Norway Debate” took place in the House of Commons. Its subject: The conduct of the Second World War by the government led by the Prime Minister Mr Neville Chamberlain. What caused the debate was the great failure of the British forces’ campaign to resist Germany’s invasion of Norway. Hence, “The Norway Debate”.

The Norway Debate became a vote of confidence in the government. And the government won the vote, albeit with a reduced majority. But what was said and done in the debate, and the consequences thereof, have become an important part of history. Most notably:

Sir Roger Keyes, MP for Portsmouth, North, attended in the full naval uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet to say: “I came to the House of Commons today in uniform for the first time because I wish to speak for some officers and men of the fighting, sea-going Navy, who are very unhappy”. The impression left on the House by such words from someone so attired was marked.

Mr Leo Amery, MP for Birmingham, Sparkbrook, closed his speech with the following decisive words, directed to the government: “This is what Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: ‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.’”

Mr David Lloyd George, MP for Carnarvon Boroughs and First World War Prime Minister, was also emphatically direct: “[The Prime Minister] has appealed for sacrifice. The nation is prepared for every sacrifice so long as it has leadership, so long as the Government show clearly what they are aiming at and so long as the nation is confident that those who are leading it are doing their best. I say solemnly that the Prime Minister should give an example of sacrifice, because there is nothing which can contribute more to victory in this war than that he should sacrifice the seals of office.”

These and other speeches against the government so damaged the prime minister’s standing that, notwithstanding the government having won the vote, within two days Mr Chamberlain had resigned as prime minister and Mr Churchill was appointed in his place. The course of the war and of history was thus changed by the debate.

The Norway Debate therefore stands as a notable testament to the principles that: (i) Debates matter; and (ii) Ultimately, it is what individuals say and do in a debate that defines its true winner, and not which side gains more votes at the debate’s end on a particular day.

RT

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