Letter: Politics of the winning smile

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The Independent Online
Sir: Peter Popham is quite right to question the worth of the Oxford Union ("The state of the Union", 15 March). Being a Cambridge undergraduate, I can only assure you that the Cambridge Union seems, if anything, less effectual.

The disappearance of the unions' political influence, however, is more due to their style of debate than students' lack of interest in politics. It is far too easy for a classical "This House believes ... " debate to become little more than a series of theatrical performances by the main speakers, failing to engage with the full range of opinions and issues.

One sees a similar phenomenon in the House of Commons, although lobbyists do help to keep eyes focused on policies rather than the TV audience. With the current trend towards "appearance and soundbite politics", the demise of the unions' debating reflects the wider tendency to avoid serious, thinking discussion and turn instead towards empty wit, and that winning smile.