Letter from Simon Kelner: A bastion of free speech that greets Jordan... and me


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The Independent Online

We've heard it too many times. When a government minister wants to close down debate in a particularly tricky area, he or she says only one thing: it's time we had a debate. These are completely vacuous words. Where's this debate going to take place? Who's taking part? What's the motion?

We know, of course, that this is the way a politician avoids being put on the spot or, indeed, taking a position. And in the end, there's hardly any debate at all. There may be a lot of shouting across the despatch box at the House of Commons, but you couldn't really call that a debate, and in any case there is very rarely a free vote.

Public debates, however, are having something of a renaissance, and there are now several organisations who draw considerable crowds for an evening of assertion and disputation. Over at our sister paper, The Independent, we have run many such events: I remember one night at a packed Manchester Town Hall that was utterly electric, and a debate about the Iraq war in Westminster during which emotions ran so high that a few members of the audience had to be ejected!

I mention all this because tonight I am taking part in a debate at one of Britain's most venerable chambers, the Oxford Union. I have appeared there a couple of times previously, so I know what to expect. That does not necessarily make it any less daunting an experience.

For a start, there is the weight of history. Harold Macmillan called the Oxford Union "the last bastion of free speech in the Western world" and I follow in the footsteps of everyone from the Dalai Lama to Bill Clinton, from Stephen Fry to Stephen Hawking. Churchill has spoken in the chamber, so have many foreign heads of state, a sprinkling of US Presidents and, most recently, Katie Price.

Then, there is the audience, young men and women decked out in black tie or evening dress, who bring their searing intelligence and the self-confidence of youth to the proceedings.

It is difficult not to watch the student speakers who appear on either side of the debate and think that these are the captains of industry, the government ministers or the cultural giants of the near future. Even though the audience comprises students, it can be an intimidating arena.

The motion tonight is that "This House has no faith in self-regulation of the press" and I shall be speaking in opposition. On this subject, I find myself in the unfamiliar position of being in agreement with both the editor of the Daily Mail and the Mayor of London.

All I need to do now is convince the collection of clever clogs in the chamber.