Great Debates: When politics gets gladiatorial

As the leaders of Britain's political parties limber up to take part in an unprecedented series of TV discussions, John Walsh explores the history of oratorial combat, from the deadly logic of Socrates to the killer charms of JFK
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One day next month, at an unspecified location in the North-west of England, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Party, will rise to his feet in front of three other men, a gaggle of studio technicians and an audience of 200 hand-picked members of the public, and will take a stab at political glory.

He will be the first of the UK's three main political leaders to deliver a 60-second Opening Statement, to kick off an unprecedented series of live debates with Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

Preparations for these ground-breaking colloquies have been the work of faceless members of a "joint broadcasting panel" who have thrashed out the details, exhaustively. Each debate will last 90 minutes. Each will have a theme: first, domestic affairs such as law and order, second, international affairs, and third, the economy. Each will be filmed at a different venue – after the Northwest, it's the turn of the South-west, then the Midlands. The party leaders tossed a coin to decide who goes first – after Clegg, it's Brown, then Cameron. The participants may shake hands, but only at the end of a debate, presumably so they cannot psych each other out, like boxers glaring at a weigh-in.

The debates will be broadcast (first ITV1, then Sky, then BBC1) on weekday evenings in the final three weeks of the election campaign, although the exact dates must wait until the election is called. After columns of newsprint nominated Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys and Nick Robinson, among others, as chairman, the three chairs were revealed as, respectively, Alistair Stewart, Adam Boulton and David Dimbleby. Audience members will be allowed to ask questions, but only ones that have been pre-vetted by the panel. They may applaud at the beginning and end of debate only, and must refrain from heckling. Answers to audience questions must not run beyond 60 seconds. The viewing public can write in and suggest questions for the chairman to consider. It will be a good, clean fight. No fighting or eye-gouging, no mention of babies, no weeping, no bringing on of wives...

You may think an awful lot of energy is being spent on a pretty simple multiple interview. But this is an important moment of political history. It's Britain's first live election debates between party leaders, along the lines of US presidential debates. And it's the culmination of a 2,400-year tradition: debate.

From the Socratic dialogues of Plato, through the dialectics of Marx to the eloquent disputatiousness of Radio 4's The Moral Maze, we have long been entranced by the employment of argument and counter-argument, the head-to-head gladiatorial contest that uses logic and reason rather than sword and trident. Generations of 20th-century political scholars learned that the truth might be found, not in the assertions of vested interests, but in a simple mantra: Here is a thesis. There is an anti-thesis. Somewhere between the two is a synthesis, which we can trust to be true.

Debate is the human face of theoretical logic. Debate gives us courtroom dramas such as Twelve Angry Men and TV's Perry Mason, where analytical logic and remorseless argument freed the innocent and nailed the bad guys.

Presidential debate gave us last year's exchanges between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, to which 63 million Americans tuned in, then Obama vs John McCain. The latter was full of knockabout stuff: Obama squirming under enquiries about his former pastor, and his opponent invoking what turned out to be a bogus man-of-the-people, called Joe the Plumber. Years earlier, in 1988, viewers witnessed a delightful moment when Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen crushed the Republican Vice-President Dan Quayle. Explaining his qualifications to be President, Quayle made the mistake of saying, "I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency." Bentsen coolly replied: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy!" It was hardly forensic logic, but it scythed the legs from the upstart Quayle, and deep-sixed his chances of winning.

Debate can be earnest or knockabout, philosophical or passionate, but it can sometimes be a revelation of the truth. Throughout history, the forum of debate has been the crucible in which enormous new ideas were forged. In 1550, a Spanish bishop was appalled by the cruel treatment visited on the natives in Spain's colonies in the Americas. His complaints came to the ear of the king, Charles V, who called for a junta (or jury) to discuss the contrasting rights of slaves and their colonial masters. What started as a plea for mercy turned into a debate on the fundamental question of human existence: Are all men equal? Should they all be treated with equal respect and dignity? If so, what could justify the economic exploitation of a whole people by an invading force?

Suddenly a whole world of received wisdom is turned on its head because of a question that one person asked another. After the English Civil War, the first steps towards defining a new constitution were taken during a debate between rival factions of the New Model Army. Some wanted full (male) suffrage; but the posher elements thought the vote should be only in the hands of landowners – people with a vested interest in solid bits of England. It took some subtle and moving arguments to persuade the landed classes that the vote should be available to all; or at least, all who served in the army, no matter how lowly, or how little land they could lay claim to.

British democracy has hung in the balance in many debates, never more calamitously than the night of 7 October, 1831. The Whigs had won the general election with a huge popular mandate for reform. The Tories were defeated so soundly they were left with little more than rotten boroughs. When the Reform Bill was brought to the House of Commons on 2 October, it was passed by 100 votes. It then went to the Lords, where the majority of the noble incumbents were against it. Surely they wouldn't vote against what was clearly the will of the electorate? Indeed they did. Through five dramatic nights of heated debate, peers and bishops ganged up on the bill – and finally rejected it by 199 votes to 158. This was democracy? Uproar followed.

Rioters in Nottingham set fire to the castle housing the Duke of Newcastle. Rioters in Derby attacked the local prison and released many felons. Rioters in Bristol took control of the city for three days and set fire to the Bishop's palace and the Lord Mayor's mansion. It was astonishing. The mere deployment of words arguing against reform and overturning the will of the Commons provoked a crisis that brought Britain to the brink of revolution.

It's mildly shocking to discover that an early discursive classic of ancient Greek literature, Plato's Symposium, doesn't emulate the high seriousness of the author's political masterpiece, The Republic. It's a positively frivolous discussion about forms of love, with special reference to the transcendent love between a mature man and a "just-bearded" youth. Its casual endorsement of paedophile sex, amid discussion of less contentious forms of human connection, is still controversial today, as we listen to half-a-dozen Greek voluptuaries chatting through the afternoon at an Athens drinking party. This is debate as cultural exchange, rather than political argument, but it has its place.

Today we hope that debate, such as the series of three-sided discussions that faces us next month, will do more than lay out party manifestos. We hope to see cracks of light between the mostly interchangeable policies of the parties, some gleam of passion that doesn't appear pre-scripted by acolytes and pre-digested by polished performers.

But if we don't concentrate on every word spoken by the warring debaters, we shouldn't blame ourselves too much. Some debates in history have been won simply because of the visual appeal of the speakers, rather than the gravitas of their words. When John F Kennedy met Richard Nixon on TV in 1960, the victory went to the one who looked fitter, handsomer, more tanned and confident. It's appalling to think that the debate has evolved through history as an intellectual clearing-house, telling us how we should think about war and peace, slavery and freedom, God and man, religion and evolution, patriotism and independence, only to wind up debased into a beauty contest. But of course that's only a point of view. There are loads of people out there who would argue, passionately, that the reverse is true.

Debates that shaped the world

Plato's Symposium

Socrates, Phaedrus, Alcibiades et al

400 BC

On the nature of love

More of a drinking party than an earnest debate, the Symposium is a key text from ancient Greece about love. It's not always clear whether the discussion of eros concerns sexual love, or a more generalised, communal love, as for family, friends, country etc. But the by-product of the speeches is a discussion of the nature of knowledge. The Symposium takes place at the house of Agathon, an Athenian playwright, who invites six guests to take part in a philosophical dialogue. Phaedrus argues that Eros is the oldest god, and the most powerful spur to gaining honour, inspiring men to acts of bravery to win the admiration of the love-object. Pausanius, a lawyer, counters that the love that most deserves praise is male love for an intelligent youth, and explains how Athenian law condones the pursuit of a boy by an older man, so long as the boy surrenders out of a desire for wisdom and virtue. Eryximachus defines love as something medicinal and therapeutic, a force that regulates the body's "humours" and as the source of all happiness. Aristophanes, the great comic playwright, makes an absurd speech explaining that humans used to be doubled bodies with their faces and limbs turned away from each other. When they tried to storm heaven, Zeus retaliated by chopping them in half – which is why humans roam the earth looking for their "other half", to make themselves whole. Agathon claims that love is the youngest of the gods, hates senility and creates justice, moderation and courage. Socrates quotes a woman philosopher, Diotima, who believes that love, as the child of Resource and Poverty, is full of artifice. The last speaker, Alcibiades, is a handsome, drunken youth who explains how he wanted to submit to Socrates sexually in order to learn everything he knew. But when Socrates never made a move, Alcibiades fell in love with him. Thus is the search for knowledge fatally compromised by promptings of love.

The Leipzig Disputation

Johann Maier von Eck vs Martin Luther and Andreas Karlstadt

June-July 1519

On the supremacy of the Pope

Though it sounds like the title of a Robert Ludlum thriller, the Leipzig Disputation was a debate with a chasmal consequence: it led directly to the Reformation. Defending the Catholic position was Dr Johann Maier von Eck, a peasant's son who rose to become a leading theologian and ferocious orator. Holder of the chair of theology at Ingolstadt, he made the university a redoubt of ultra-Catholicism. In 1517 he became friends with Martin Luther, but they parted company over Luther's 96 theses. Luther argued that it was absurd to claim you could buy a reduction of your sentence in Purgatory, or any such freedom from God's punishment for sin, with money. He taught that salvation comes not from good works, but through having faith. He challenged the Pope's authority and didn't consider the papacy as part of the Biblical Church. There was uproar across Europe when the Theses were printed and disseminated, and Johann Eck was determined to expose the heretic in a public forum. He called for a debate with Luther's friend Karlstadt, then invited Luther himself to speak The key moment came when Luther argued that nothing in the Gospels gave popes the exclusive right to interpret scripture. Eck and Luther disputed papal supremacy, Purgatory and penance for 23 days. The University of Leipzig theologians decided that Eck had won by forcing Luther to declare himself against the Pope. But when Luther was excommunicated a year later, it was the beginning of a schism that couldn't be healed.

The Valladolid Debate

Bartolomé de las Casas, Bishop of Chiapas vs Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda


On the human rights of indigenous peoples

During the Spanish colonisation of the Americas and Philippines, a labour system was used called encomienda, in which the Crown gifted to a landowner a number of natives, to be taught Spanish and introduced to Catholicism; in return, the landowner could exact labour or produce from them. It was, basically, slavery. A papal bull, Sublimus Dei, officially banned slavery, but without effect. The Laws of the Indes (1542 ) tried to end the encomienda system, but failed. So in 1550 the King of Spain, Charles V, called for a "jury" of theologians in Valladolid, to hear arguments for and against slavery, and to issue a ruling once and for all. The King had been influenced by Bartolomé de las Casas, the humanist bishop of Chiapas, in southern Mexico, who had been working for years to expose abuses there. Las Casas took the natives' side in the debate, arguing that they were owed the same rights as other free men. Speaking for the colonists and landowners was Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, like las Casas a Dominican friar. Invoking Aristotle, he argued that Amerindians were barbarians who were naturally disposed to be slaves, and therefore to enslave them was merely following natural law. Las Casas countered by saying that the indigenous Americans weren't barbarians, but rational beings who could be made good Christians. In the event, both sides claimed to have won, and nothing much changed in the treatment of natives – but the arguments for and against colonisation and slavery reverberated through the next 200 years.

The Putney Debates

Agitators, Diggers, Levellers etc

28 October – 11 November 1647

On how a parliamentary system can work

For two weeks in 1647, in the aftermath of the First Civil War, members of Cromwell's New Model Army debated no less than the ground rules for England's democracy. The army was headquartered in Putney, now in south-west London, and the debates took place at the church of St Mary the Virgin, which still stands, beside Putney Bridge. On one side were the New Agents, elected by the army's five best cavalry regiments. They wanted to see authority vested in the House of Commons rather than the Lords and the monarchy, and suffrage for all men. Other rights they wanted for all Englishmen were equality before the law, freedom of conscience, and freedom from being pressed into the armed forces. Ranged against them was Henry Ireton, Cromwell's son-in-law, who with other army officers, known as the Grandees, didn't believe in 'one man, one vote'. They argued that only landowners should be able to vote. "No man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom," said Ireton, "that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom." On the contrary, retorted Thomas Rainsborough, "I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he." It was a very much a battle of army minds, and ended in compromise. All soldiers would be allowed to vote – but not servants or beggars.

The French Revolution Debate

Robespierre, Saint-Just etc

14-22 May, 1790

On who should make foreign policy

We may think of the French Revolution as a most bloody episode, but before the Terror, before the guillotining of the King, a remarkable debate took place. The revolution had no wish to fall out with other nations, but trouble arose when England and Spain were embroiled in a violent row, in spring 1790, over the ownership of the Nootka Sound, off what is now Canada. Spain expected France's help in the event of war, and in the revolution's National Assembly the Jacobins suspected that a minister at the court of King Louis XVI was intriguing to insist on such an alliance. Robespierre, Saint-Just and other revolutionary leaders tried to veto a request to rig 14 ships to fight the English navy. This turned into a key debate about where the power of declaring war or making peace should lie. The Jacobins lost the argument (the initiative remained with the King) but won a significant concession – a decree which proclaimed: "The French nation renounces all wars of conquest and declares that it will never use force against the liberty of any people." As we know, carnage, mayhem and war were all to follow. But it was a significant landmark in the history of pacifism.

The Slavery Debate

William Wilberforce, William Pitt, Charles James Fox, Henry Dundas.

2 April 1792

On whether trading in slaves is acceptable

William Wilberforce was an independent MP, an evangelical Christian and an eloquent orator when he met the cabal of anti-slavery campaigners led by Thomas Clarkson in 1787. Inspired (and urged) by them, he became leader of the abolitionist cause. In that decade, the slave trade accounted for 80 per cent of Britain's foreign income – Britain supplied slaves to French, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese colonies as well as to its own holdings. The "middle passage" of shipping, from Africa to the West Indies, saw upwards of one million people die in the cramped ship-bound conditions. Clarkson's friends were appalled by reports of the savage treatment meted out to the captive Africans at sea and on the plantations, and wanted Wilberforce to plead their anti-slavery case in Parliament. The MP himself saw it as a call from God, and in 1791 joined the Society for Effecting The Abolition of the Slave Trade, whose phenomenally successful campaign in consciousness-raising revealed massive public opposition to the slave trade (and was the first grassroots human rights movement). The same year, Wilberforce introduced his first bill on the slave trade, but it was voted down. Opponents argued that Africans were lesser versions of humanity and benefited from being enslaved. Wilberforce and his friends argued that they had the same rights as everyone else, and were capable of organising a well-maintained society. The big anti-slavery debate came a year later. Wilberforce, Charles James Fox and William Pitt all spoke for it. Unfortunately, the then Home Secretary, Henry Dundas, suggested a compromise and the Commons settled for "gradual abolition" over a number of years. The slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1807 – but slavery itself not until 1833.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Illinois, August-October 1858

On whether African Americans should have full citizenship

Seven election campaign debates were held, in seven towns across the state of Illinois, for a seat in the American Senate. The debaters were the incumbent senator, Stephen Douglas (Democrat), facing up to his Republican rival, the State's former House representative Abraham Lincoln. The main theme of the debates was slavery and its aftermath – specifically, whether to grant full citizenship to "negroes". Feelings ran high on the subject of black integration, and massive crowds attended each debate. Newspapers sent shorthand typists to take down every word (and carefully edited their copy to show either Douglas or Lincoln in a favourable light, depending on the paper's sympathy, while publishing the other man's words in their raw, unedited vernacular.) At each debate, the first candidate spoke for 60 minutes, the latter for 90, before the first speaker returned to sum up his position. Lincoln argued for the "self-evident truth" in the Declaration of Independence, that every man is born equal. Douglas argued in favour of "popular sovereignty", meaning the right of voters in every state or territory to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. "I, for one, am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form," he declared. "I believe this government was made on the white basis." Lincoln ringingly retorted with his view of 'the negro': "I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in any respects – certainly not in colour, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every living man." After the debates were over, Abraham Lincoln published his speeches in book form. They were very popular and led directly to his nomination for US President in 1860.

The evolution or creation debate

Oxford, 30 June 1860

On Darwin's theory of evolution

Seven months after the publication of On the Origin of Species in November 1859, a number of prominent British scientists and philosophers met at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History to hear a paper by Professor John Draper of New York, on the intellectual development of Europe with special relation to Darwin's theory. The paper was pretty dull, but afterwards the chairman asked for other contributions. What followed wasn't an organised debate but a heated discussion in which TH Huxley, a friend of Darwin and his main champion, locked horns with the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce. (Darwin himself could not attend, due to ill-health.) Wilberforce spoke for half an hour "with inimitable spirit, ugliness and emptiness and unfairness" according to Darwin's friend, Joseph Hooker. The bishop asked, jocularly, if Huxley would prefer to be descended from a monkey on his grandmother's or his grandfather's side. Huxley retorted that he would much rather be descended from an ape than from a man who used his prodigious speaking powers to try and conceal a discussion about the truth. A brilliant reply in an otherwise unremarkable performance, for Huxley was unable to project his voice to command a large audience. After him came Admiral Robert FitzRoy, Darwin's captain on the voyage of The Beagle, who denounced the Origin of Species, lifted a Bible above his head and told the audience to believe in God rather than man. Last to come was Hooker, whose words have been lost, but who claimed to have won the debate as a major victory for the Darwinians – but so did Wilberforce, and so did Huxley, who claimed, "I was the most popular man in Oxford for a full four-and-twenty hours afterwards."

John F Kennedy vs Richard M. Nixon

US TV, 26 September, 1960

On the best man for the White House

The first-ever televised presidential debates – four of them – were watched by 70 million Americans. It was the first opp- ortunity the US electorate had to inspect their political representatives close-up. JFK, a handsome, Irish-American Massachussetts senator, was taking on the seasoned, politically tricky Vice-President Nixon. The gladiatorial rhetoric wasn't, in fact, all that exciting: each man made similar noises of concern, in the first debate, about domestic issues such as law and order, and unemployment. Later they disputed the likely fate of two small, US-owned islands off China, then (in the last debate) turned their attentions to what to do about Cuba. Far more fascinating were the voting patterns among TV viewers and radio listeners. Kennedy was just back from campaigning in California. He had acquired a becoming tan, and looked fit and healthy (and wore TV make-up). Nixon, by contrast, had been in hospital with a bad knee for two weeks. He looked thin, unshaven and unwell and refused stage make-up. To the radio audience, who obviously couldn't see the disputants, it was clear that Nixon had won the first debate. To the TV audience, the battle between Mr Handsome and Mr Haggard was a clear victory for the former. It was an early sighting of the unfair power of a visual medium. In opinion polls, more than 50 per cent of voters said they'd been influenced by the debates. Soon everyone got in on the act: in Germany, Sweden, Finland, Italy and Japan debates between those vying for national office became commonplace. And they've been a fixture in US politics since 1976.

The King and Country Debate

Oxford Union, 9 February 1933

On whether to take up arms against Hitler's Germany

The Oxford Union Debating Society has a reputation for dealing in mischievous motions and controversial invited speakers. Their most famous debate, held just 10 days after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, may have had an effect on the drift of nations to the Second World War. The motion was: "This House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country." Kenelm Digby of St John's College proposed it, KRF Steel-Maitland opposed, with contributions from Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham) and CEM Joad, of the Brains Trust. Digby, a callow tub-thumper, argued that the previous war had been waged as "a war to end war". If it wasn't true, then it was a dastardly lie; if it was true, then why should anyone oppose the motion? Hogg said Digby's attitude was more likely to lead to war than prevent it. Joad argued that war could no longer be justified because the potential scale of destruction was so great. Soon after the motion was carried, by 275 votes to 153, the repercussions began. English people were profoundly shocked. The British press were furious: "Even the plea of immaturity, or the irresistible passion of the undergraduate for posing, cannot excuse such a contemptible and indecent action as the passing of that resolution," said The Daily Express. Cambridge threatened to pull out of the Boat Race. Churchill condemned "that abject, squalid, shameless avowal". A Liberal MP told the House of Commons how a leading Nazi asked him about the Oxford debate: "There was an ugly gleam in his eye when he said, 'The fact is that you English are soft...'" In July the following year, Oxford's professor of international relations, Alfred Zimmern, wrote to the Union president: "I hope you do penance night and morning for that ill-starred Resolution. It is still going on sowing dragons' teeth. If the Germans have to be knocked a second time, it will be partly your fault."