The Sheldonian Theatre is one of Oxford’s most illustrious buildings. It is to the Sheldonian every year that each graduating student comes, bedecked in their gown, to receive a handshake and a scroll in front of all their peers, leaving crowned with success.
To the Sheldonian, after several days of mounting excitement, came the students in Balliol College, along with their peers from Queen’s, University and St Catherine’s Colleges. The purpose: to take part in the annual ORA Great Debate.
Adjudicating the debate was William, Baron Hague of Richmond. The Rt Hon the Lord Hague of Richmond has as much experience as anybody in politics, and debating, in Britain. After winning a place at Magdalen College, a short distance from the Sheldonian, he became an esteemed member of the debating community at Oxford. This experience was put to good use in his career in politics: as leader of the Conservative Party and the Opposition for four years from 1997-2001, and then as Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons, he held some of the largest roles in British politics. Debating, as he stressed in his opening speech, is an excellent preparation for public life in a democracy; and more than that, he suggested, it is fundamental to democracy itself.
It was on the topic of democracy that the debate was focused. The motion, ‘This House believes that Populism is a Threat to Democracy’, was supported by representatives of ORA in Queen’s and University Colleges, and opposed by ORA in Balliol’s very own Akunsha Batia, from India, along with Shubh Jaggi, from St Catherine’s College.
The debate was a thrilling affair. Different styles were very much in appearance: one speaker embraced a theatrical passion, with a use of rhetoric that stirred up and amused the crowd; another, speaking very quickly, put forwards nearly a whole thesis on populism and its socio-political context and implications; another drew on personal experience and case-study evidence. Akunsha, Balliol’s representative, drew intelligently on an etymological argument, accurately identifying the important role that definitions play in deciding the fate of any debate. She spoke very clearly, and the rest of the students from Balliol, sitting in the seats of the Sheldonian, applauded her loudly.
No side was pronounced the winner, but William, Baron Hague of Richmond, gave the Best Speaker’s award to Ayushman Chopra, the first speaker for the House. The debate was a thrilling affair, with a very high level of energy; but it was also very warm, with students far from unwilling to applaud every speaker, and there was no hint of animosity.
At the end of the debate, with conversation bubbling, students returned to Balliol for a night spent catching up on homework, playing ping-pong, and watching the musical La La Land.