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2015 Showcase Debate - After Paris... freedom of movement within Europe still possible?

To mark the final public debate of what has been a phenomenally successful year for the club, we staged a showcase debate between three of the Founder Members of our new training programme - the Great Debaters Club - and three of the best debate trainers in the UK.
The teams included: a senior risk manager, an intelligence analyst, and a charity worker (on the members side) go head to head with a professional lobbyist, an investigative journalist, and the Director of prisoner debate training charity, Vocalise (on the trainers side). 
It is normally our custom to end the year with a light-hearted humorous debate, but after the tragic events of 13th November in Paris, we wanted to use the collection of talent at our disposal to hold an exceptional debate on how to respond to the Paris attacks, an issue that many still find very difficult to discuss while emotions are riding so high.
Why a written summary and not a video?
All public debates take place under what is known as Chatham House Rules. This means that whatever the speakers say in the debate chamber must not be broadcast to the wider world. This is because we encourage our members to speak in defence of positions they disagree with in order to stretch themselves. If they are to take up this challenge they need to know they are free to make such arguments without compromising their reputation with their employers, clients, partners, or friends.
So, instead, we make a written record of their arguments and the questions they were asked in the form of these summaries, so we can analyse what they said without directly attributing it to them. Ultimately, this also supports one of our core goals - to move the focus of debates away from the speakers and on to the arguments.
The Motion
The purpose of a debate is to make a decision when there are multiple options on the table. As such, debates have motions - a proposed belief or course of action - rather than topics - an open question up for discussion. This is why the speakers are required to take a side, so that the arguments in favour and against can all be heard and considered to allow the audience to make the best possible decision.
The motion for this debate focused on one of the biggest questions European leaders have been grappling with since the attacks on Paris: is it possible to allow complete freedom of movement between different countries within Europe without jeopardising their internal security? To properly examine this question, we needed to propose a specific motion and have our speakers go through the arguments for and against.
The motion we chose read:
The Arguments
Questions and Comments from the Audience
The Results
So we can see how many people change their minds during a debate, we take a preliminary vote - to see where the audience stands before they've heard the arguments - and a final one at the end of the debate. The audience have the option of voting in favour of the motion, voting against it, or abstaining if they are still undecided.
The preliminary vote made it clear that this debate would always be an uphill battle for the proposition team and the Q&A told us why. 10 out of the 16 questions and comments made by the audience were directed towards them and most of them were directly critical of their policy.
Proposing a policy in a debate is about proving three things:
  1. There is a problem that needs to be solved.
  2. There is a viable solution available.
  3. Implementing this solution will solve the problem without causing even more harm.
If we look at the audience's contributions to this debate, we see that they had concerns on every one of these points. They believed:
  1. Lax border controls weren't the cause of the Paris attacks and that worse attacks had happened before without prompting this reaction.
  2. Tightening borders would do little to prevent another attack from happening in the future.
  3. The policy would nevertheless cause significant harm to law-abiding citizens despite not solving the original problem it was designed to address.
All the while, the few audience contributions directed towards the opposition team were phrased as requests for more information (with one exception), showing they were still open to being persuaded.
The proposition team valiantly fought their corner during the Q&A, responding to each and every question, but they became increasingly defensive, simply denying the concerns of the audience would be realised without explaining why and accusing the opposition team of misrepresenting their arguments. The fact that the latter claim was actually true didn't help them. People don't vote for one to team to punish the other for being mean to them - they vote for the team they found most convincing.
One important disclaimer though is that it is clear the audience walked into this debate with a pre-conceived opinion on this topic, putting the proposition team at an immediate disadvantage. The result, therefore, was not so much a reflection on the quality of their arguments, which (speaking as a debate trainer) were well structured and compelling, but simply a reflection of their failure to overturn a significant handicap.
Lessons - how to win a policy debate
  • Definitions - make it abundantly clear what the motion you are defending means. Schengen Area is not a term most people will automatically be familiar with. Even the concept of free movement within the EU needs to be explained clearly, such is the length of time that British citizens have taken this privilege for granted. In this debate, the ambiguity over the definition of the motion allowed the opposition team to tell scare stories about European citizens needing to pay for visas to work in each other's countries. This was never the case, but the audience will believe it is unless it is properly refuted.
  • Comparisons - policy debates are rarely a matter of right and wrong and more often a choice between the lesser of two evils. So, when you are facing scrutiny from the audience on your proposal, you must always remember to compare the outcomes you are predicting for your own policy with those predicted by the other side. It is understandable to want to use all your time to prove your idea is perfect, but that's unlikely to happen and is unnecessary when all you need to prove is that is simply better than the alternative. 
  • Questions - debates are won and lost in the Q&A. This can be seen as a daunting prospect, but should be viewed as an opportunity to test and monitor the impact of your arguments - specifically by listening to how many of your own lines are repeated back by the audience in a form of a question or a comment to the other team. A particularly useful tactic is to finish off an answer with a rhetorical question about the other team's proposal and then see how long it takes the audience to turn it into an actual question. In addition, if the question is asked more than once, then that means the answer wasn't satisfactory, which is then your cue to zero in on this uncertainty when responding to the it yourself - one of the advantages of giving both teams a right of reply to every question.
Debates and Training Workshops in 2016
The first public debate of 2016 will be held at the Tea House Theatre on Wednesday 6th January at 7.30 pm. The motion will be confirmed closer to the time, so join our mailing list now if you want to be notified of the details when they are announced.
Our first training workshop of the new year will be a one day masterclass for beginners, which will be held at Wedge Issue restaurant on Saturday, 9th January from 10.30 am to 4.30 pm. Admission is free for members of the Great Debaters Club - you can review the full training programme for 2016 here.
Written by Tony Koutsoumbos, founder of Debating London and the Great Debaters Club training programme
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