Why are some university debating societies havens of misogyny?

The heckling experienced by female debaters at Glasgow University Union is an unwelcome reminder of a previous age where personal insults were fair game. And anyone who disagrees is a dickless baboon.

Today, the Spectator published an article by Gerald Warner, defending the conduct of a bunch of idiots who heckled female speakers during a debate at the Glasgow University Union debates. According to Warner, women should just laugh off being discussed salaciously in terms of their looks, and being booed for even mentioning feminism in a speech - his solution is that they should have derailed their speeches, and heckled back. "The problem is today’s politically correct debaters... cannot tolerate contradiction or ridicule. It simply is not in the script."

Of course, Warner misses the point - these women have advanced to the final of a national debating competition, and deserve to have their speeches heard, without interruptions from people without the intellectual capacity to get to that level. Would Warner support racist hecklers at the sidelines of the Olympics, booing Mo Farah for being black? Tell him to just toughen up, deal with it?

Gerald Warner is living in the past, in more ways than one. He seems to think minority groups just need to toughen up, to take the banter. As one of the debaters in question, Rebecca Meredith, says here, not only does the Glasgow Union regularly boo and heckle women, but ethnic minorities too - for nothing more than the temerity to be not born white and male. Is that ok, Mr Warner?

Warner goes on to lionise the rowdy, laddish banteriffic culture of the Glasgow University Union, and then goes on to tell us of the illustrious history, of competitions won, of presidents who have advanced on into politics, of 1960s occasions where ANC leaders were voted in as rector. An illustrious past does not make up for a shameful present - a quick look around the Facebook profiles surrounding the GUU swiftly uncovers that as recently as 2010, a GUU Secretary "follow[ed] tradition with a joke about raping freshers whilst blacked up. No means yes, yes means harder." I wonder what the former ANC rector would make of "blacking up to rape" gags?

It looks more like there is something sick within the Glasgow's debating society - the Everyday sexism in the GUU page makes for distressing reading. On it, anonymous commenters talk about "games" like "fat girl rodeo" - where you grab a girl in a club, tell her you are going to rape her, and then see how long you can hang on for. Board members allegedly proposition freshers with lines like "You look like a fucking slut who is gagging for it". The men who blocked women from being members of the Union are looked on as heroes. The shameful exclusion of women from the Union until the 1980s has been taken up as a rallying cry by misogynists within the Union - which might explain why it has done so badly at debating for years.

Gerald Warner's assessment of the quality of the GUU is years out of date. As he rightly points out, they used to be good. But they haven't won the national debating competition (the Mace) or even reached the elimination stages of the World Championships in over a decade. Maybe if they were less hostile to women or people of colour, that might change?

The truth is, 14 years ago, when I was regularly debating, this sort of revolting, discourteous booing and catcalling and generalised misogyny was the norm; I distinctly remember a Glasgow judge grabbing my debate partner's breasts and saying "If you'd showed more of these, we might have let you win". At the time, Oxford and Cambridge were almost as bad - I recall speeches where a Cambridge debater divided up an audience into "sluts" and "frigid girls you'd marry", and a president of the Oxford Union told me that the fact a speaker from my "toytown former polytechnic university spoke on the floor of the Oxford Union denigrated the whole institution of debating".

The rest of university debating has moved on since - particularly through the efforts of charities like DebateMate, Idea, and the English Speaking Union, debating has been democratised, and is now a much more welcoming and pleasant place. I hope that women and ethnic minorites feel welcome - indeed, women have been the top speakers in the world several times in the last few years. Contrary to Gerald Warner's assertion that "as with politics, fewer women want to debate. The rough and tumble of a dialectical free-for-all is not for them", female participation is at an all-time high - and a large part of that comes down to people refusing to tolerate misogyny, and it gradually being stamped out.

What Warner wants is a return to a misogynist free-for-all, where any insult, no matter who delivers it, counts as a valid argument to be rebutted. He laughably characterises any attempt to stand up to that culture as "Stalinist".  In which case, I'd like to say that if Gerald Warner thinks misogynist insults are a valid part of debate, then he's a paranoid dinosaur, with all the writing grace of a dickless baboon. Is that a valid argument, Mr Warner?

Willard Foxton was once the 7th best speaker in the world for "toytown polytechnic" the university of the West of England, and twice won the world's funniest debater prize.

A moody baboon. Photo: Getty

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.