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World Speech Day at The Oxford Union

Guest Blog by Sam Billington

Gina Miller addressing the Oxford Union

The Oxford Union was once discernibly referred to (by former PM Harold Macmillan) as ‘The Last Bastion of Free Speech in the Western World’. It has famously hosted three former Presidents of the United States, five former Prime Ministers, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, and Michael Jackson. More than anything else it provides the chance to question these speakers, to exchange ideas and promote freedom of speech. The jewel in the crown of The Oxford Union is its Thursday evening debates, which have taken place at the Society since 1823.

However, for the majority of events at The Oxford Union, priority is given to members - who in turn are most-likely current students or alumni of the University of Oxford. This makes sense, given that it is such an integral part of Oxford life. However, World Speech Day, a day for reaching out to #unexpectedvoices, seemed the perfect time to open the Union’s doors and bring people together who may not normally come through its doors.

On Wednesday 15th March, The Oxford Union hosted a debate on the motion ‘This House Believes that Recent Efforts to Delay Brexit have been Anti-Democratic’. This is a topic which has permeated the media for months with the Supreme Court Judges, the House of Lords, and Nicola Sturgeon all decrying it as acting against democracy.

An audience of pupils from comprehensive state schools, competitive Oxford debaters, Oxford Conservative Association Officers, local school pupils, and Gina Miller - who brought a legal 

challenge against the Government regarding the activation of Article 50 – all came together to discuss this issue. With half of the main participants (and the majority of floor speakers) being under the age of twenty, this was a great chance for the youth to have their say.

Gina Miller opened the afternoon by giving an overview of her own experiences - how she felt that the result went against everyone’s expectations and that nobody had planned what would happen next. She criticised the Royal Prerogative as something historically used for beheading one’s enemies, and that allowing it to be used to bypass parliament would destroy everything that has been fought for in the UK for 400 years - turning the clock back to autocratic government. She stated that her case was fought in the interest of preserving democracy.

With the stage set, Emily Barret (a pupil at Bicester School, and a ’19-year-old farmer’s daughter’) explained why she voted Brexit, and that she thought certain people were trying to ‘ignore the voice’ of those who had voted to leave. She felt that the unelected lords delaying the process were an example of her being ‘failed by the democracy’ she was living in.

Branwen Phillips, a 1st Year Oxford Student and Disabilities Officer for Lincoln College (and fiercely vocal about gender equality and mental health issues) opened the debate for the opposition. She provided more information about what she felt ‘Brexit’ meant, and argued that delaying Brexit actually made it more democratic - by arguing that all the levels of scrutiny, whether by Parliament, the Lords and the Law Courts are ‘a continuation of the democratic process’.

Tom Freeman, a 17-year-old pupil at Didcot School, continued the debate. He argued that delaying the process of the activation of Article 50 by nine months was not democratic and against promises made during the campaign. He argued that it presented the opportunity for the media to propose compromise, and prevented Cabinet from making an informed decision on Brexit negotiations.

As the debate continued, Jim Brennan, Political Officer of Oxford University’s Conservative Association and a 1st Year Geography students, argued that while there were forces attempting to overturn the vote, the process of delay was actually all part of legitimate democratic procedure - and improved and strengthened the quality of Brexit. He believed that emotional and political instability had been alleviated by the proper process being followed - and all the relevant bodies being behind Britain leaving. A half hour floor debate followed, where a variety of teachers, school pupils and Oxford students all had the chance to have their say!

Once their views had been aired William Rees-Mogg, President of Oxford University’s Conservative Association, closed the debate for the proposition. He pointed out that while Parliament and the Lords could propose all sorts of amendments as to what they believe the British people want, the only thing we know for sure is that the majority British people want to leave the EU. He argued that therefore any debate in parliament was one of the elite, who are trying to carry off a Brexit that suits them best.

We were all now eager to see what Gina Miller would say as she closed the debate. She began by noting that the quality of every speaker had been excellent, and better than the quality of some of the debates she had seen in both Houses! She questioned the social construct of ‘elite’, noting that with regards to athletes, it is something we should aspire to; whereas it is now increasingly being used as a negative. She argued that at this moment in time, it cannot be anti-democratic to follow the processes of democracy as they stand, in line with the constitutional requirements of the United Kingdom. In addition, she noted that the only formal ‘timeline’ was a self-imposed one by the Prime Minister, and one which had not been delayed. She said that time is not an enemy - it is a clarification; a sunlight to the processes that must be followed. She concluded by saying that democracy is rocking from left to right, and that the only way it can be steadied is by listening to the people - and although that could lead to the consideration of more direct democracy, that could only be achieved through legal, structural and political reform to support that direct democracy.

Michael Li, President of The Oxford Union, then closed the afternoon as a whole, reiterating World Speech Day’s purpose of promoting remarkable ideas from unexpected voices through speeches - saying that this was something The Oxford Union does on a daily basis. In particular, it was something it had continued to do, by hosting this event on the 15th March.

On World Speech Day, I was lucky enough to be part of an event which brought together a community within a city of students and locals, of old and young, of ‘elites’ and everybody else. Many of these people are already influencing the world around them through the power of speech and debate, and many more will go on to do so. This is what the day is all about - and the talking and reflection will most-likely continue long after we've all left the debating hall.

Sam Billington with Gina Miller

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