Founded in 1815, there's an embarrassment of riches at the Cambridge Union this term. Having issued over a thousand invitations, the Speakers Committee has put together a decent party: Fabio Capello, David Blaine, Bernard Hogan-Howe, Pamela Anderson and even Lord Grantham (taking time out from Downton Abbey) have all accepted. Rather a shame that each has a different date in the diary.
Even admitting these diversions, the new Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge — Rowan Williams — is still a hard act to follow, and not just for Archbishop Welby. Richard Dawkins must have thought he'd met his match, if not his maker, at the Cambridge Union's recent debate on religion's place in the 21st century, where he had to argue against Williams.
Of course, votes should be cast entirely on the merits of the arguments presented, regardless of influence. Which is why the former prelate must have relished an unusual experience, defeat being his recent métier. For he, at least, remembered to answer the question. As Tariq Ramadan, Oxford Professor of Islamic Studies and Dr Williams' fellow opposer, noted, to describe religion as “a cop-out” was “for a scientist ... not very scientific”. That might explain Dawkins' 25 percent share of the vote. Survival of the fittest, perhaps?
Exactly a week after Dawkins’ defeat, the motion at last week's debate in the same chamber, “This House would fight for Queen & Country”, also fell. Last of the evening's six speakers, all of whom were at pains to express their non-pacifism, was The Times' defence editor, Tom Coghlan, who ably demonstrated that less is indeed more, with an argument of spare efficacy that would have done Orwell proud. Even admitting that last-man-standing has its advantages, he proved “political language” is “pure wind” with the single, and affective, argument suggesting that Queen & Country is a union made respectable only in Church: at the many funerals he attends it is the solar plexus rationale of the CO's eulogy to his fallen soldier.
If it wasn't the fine black tie-black beard combo he was sporting, then Coghlan won the assembled hearts and minds with the journalist's simple weapons of mass distraction, simplification and exaggeration. While his fellow opposers warned of dangerous -isms (national-, jingo-, patriot-) dragging “us” (no paradox there, apparently) into “bad” wars, Mr Coghlan reduced the young squaddie's rallying cry to this Wiganism: “There's not a lot of work round here”. That was seemingly a more potent tweet to his audience, on average born in 1993, than the quoted £25 billion spent by the UK in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the “influence premium” from our involvement in “the force for good decade” of the first Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone.
Still, there's comfort to be taken from last week's simultaneous and corresponding debate at Oxford's Union, that “This House would not Fight for Queen & Country”, which fell by a 63 percent majority, revisiting Oxford's famous 1933 motion and reversing its result. Perhaps the Oxford students had already attended the talk by Tony Benn, earlier in the day, or simply wanted to make their own statement 80 years on and ensure the boat race still goes ahead — not risking a repeat of Cambridge's 1933 threatened withdrawal in disgust.
Germany's new Chancellor in 1933 is reputed to have been galvanised by the Oxford vote. Germany's Chancellor today might well wonder what would happen if the Oxford Union's 1975 motion that 'This House would say 'Yes' to Europe”, carried by a majority of 84 percent just days before the decisive referendum, were similarly to be retabled. Given that the Unions at both Oxford and Cambridge do have something of a track record when it comes to future Parliamentary success — the question really being which of our former Prime Ministers hasn't held office at one or other (eleven alone first practised their debating at Oxford's Union, founded in 1823) — why wait until after the next election?