Dr Tim Squirrell is a writer, broadcaster and researcher. He focusses on internet culture and extremism, specialising in the far right and misogynist extremists.

Two problems with British Parliamentary debating

I have a lot of Hot Takes About Debating that I need to put out there. I’m trepidatious, because in writing a commentary about debating you open yourself up to the criticism (often unspoken) that you’re setting yourself up as someone important who thinks they’re in a position to make a critique. I’m not someone who’s finalled at Worlds, and nor have I won enough other competitions that you’d consider me to be a Great Debater. Moreover, I just haven’t done hugely well at competitions in the last half a year. So when I level critiques at trends I see in the game that we’ve made a significant portion of our lives, there’s a big risk that I’m seen as bitter or not entitled to make them, or even just ignored.

Now, there’s obviously an enormous problem with the idea that we as a community only listen to critiques when they come from one of the handful of people we consider to be incredible debaters, as though they are the only people qualified to find fault and make suggestions for improvement (introducing gender pronoun policies and stricter equity policies are the two examples I can think of off the top of my head, but there are likely more). But that’s a take for another time.

Instead, here are a couple of trends that I think I’m noticing in British Parliamentary debating right now. It’s entirely possible they are limited to the IONA circuit, but I’d be delighted to hear input from people elsewhere. I have more, but i’ll start with these two.

N.B. When I use the term “good teams” here, I’m referring to teams who have a reputation for being good, rather than all teams who are good at debating. This is because there are a great many speakers and teams who aren’t recognised by judges as being as good as they are, and the points i’m making here are often about teams or speakers being able to get away with things as a result of judges’ perception that they’re good.

The slow, sad death of taking a point of information in back half. 

Good teams are able to get away with neither asking for, nor taking when offered, POIs, particularly in extension speeches. Even when they do take one, if they take it from Closing then they’re unlikely to ever be penalised for not sufficiently engaging with Opening. They will often deliver debate-winning material which deserves a response, but never give anyone the opportunity to engage with that material. They are invariably not penalised for this. That obviously encourages it, because why would you waste a solid minute of your speech taking and responding to a point of information when you could just fit in another minute of uninterrupted analysis?

Not to be a “back in my day” bore (especially because I only did BP sporadically during my first degree) but when I began debating there was a guideline often given in speaker and judge briefings that teams ought to take three POIs over the course of their two speeches. They would not necessarily be penalised for not doing so, but judges were advised to take into account that failing to take POIs might indicate a lack of engagement, or willingness to engage with the arguments of the other teams. Moreover, if it was obvious that a team was trying to offer a POI in response to material that might be debate-winning (whether that be constructive material, or rebuttal to that team) and the speaker refused to ever take them, then we should probably assume that the POI contained a good response to that material. It was also quite seriously looked down upon to not take a POI from an Opening team if you were in Closing. This was meant to be a way of ensuring sufficient engagement between all teams. 

Now, it seems acceptable for a good team to refuse to take any more than one POI, and because they only really need to take one, they’re rarely if ever penalised for taking it from Closing rather than Opening. That means that they can effectively lock out an Opening team without any kind of repercussions. I probably don’t need to explain why this makes the quality of debate substantially poorer, but let’s do it anyway. Closing half teams often rely on a reframing of the debate or bringing new material that is a bit Out There by comparison to the Opening half. It’s often unpredictable what they’ll come up with. Sometimes the extension will be something that legitimately was missed by the rest of the debate and is pretty important, but often it’s something that hasn’t been said because it’s actually kind of wacky or only tangentially related to the debate. Obviously there’s another team in Closing who can rebut them, but if they’re incompetent or incapable of doing so, then the only way it’s going to get pointed out is in a POI from Opening. The net effect of this is that Closing teams are able to get away with things they shouldn’t, but also judging the clashes gets a lot harder. If Closing didn’t engage with Opening through a POI or give them a chance to respond, then how you adjudicate that clash becomes significantly more subjective. If you don’t penalise Closing for not taking the POI, then that gives them a big advantage.

I probably also don’t need to explain that this problem disproportionately benefits teams who are already perceived as good, because they can get away with not taking POIs when other teams can’t. Judges either assume that they would have a good response to the POI, or just that the POI would add very little to the debate, and as such they choose to disregard it. But that means that good teams have a whole extra minute (or even two!) in their two speeches to be able to add extra analysis. It’s not just that they don’t have to engage with a tough question, it’s also that they get a bunch of extra time to make their case stronger.

It’s really unfair for some teams to be able to get away with this, but it’s also a trend that makes the quality of debating on the circuit as whole worse. Judges need to start hardening up and punishing teams who shut out the Opening half, because there’s no other way that this will change. If they didn’t take two POIs in total - one in each speech, or two in one - then we need to assume that the POI would have been a robust response to their case or their rebuttal and adjudicate accordingly. It sounds harsh, but outside of the Manchester EUDC “compulsory POI” rule I don’t see any other solution.

New (rebuttal) material in the whip.

This is likely controversial. There’s what I think is a growing trend of Closing teams backloading all of their responsive material into the whip speech. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this per se, after all the whip is meant to be entirely for framing and rebuttal. However, I think there’s a significant caveat to that: the whip should not include any new material. Given that we consider rebuttal in the extension to constitute a substantive contribution to the debate, it’s inconsistent from a judging philosophy standpoint to not consider new responses in the whip to also be new material.

How do we resolve this conundrum? It’s pretty simple. The whip is for whipping the debate. That means that responses should be using your partner’s case to beat the rest of the debate’s material. That can include weighing the impacts, framing their case out of the debate, showing how your partner’s case means that theirs can’t be true, etc. It is in my view entirely unreasonable for a whip speaker to be the first person to respond to something that came out in Opening Government with an entirely new response, for them to then not take a POI from OG to try to rebuild (because often the response will be a strawman, or something that could be rebuilt pretty easily), and for that to be enough for CO to beat OG. The reason we say that you can’t bring new material in the whip isn’t because of some weird conception of what kind of role each speaker has in the debate; it’s because nobody has the chance to respond to it. There is no meaningful difference between bringing new constructive material and new rebuttal in the whip. Use your partner’s case to beat the other teams, but don’t make the whip speech entirely a set of new responses which nobody can then engage with. At the very least make an effort to make it look like you’re using your partner’s analysis as rebuttal.

Again, the solution here is for judges to be a lot harsher about what constitutes new material from Closing. It’s not hard, but a lot of us (myself included) are guilty of the lazy thinking that says “well, they responded to it, and it sounded convincing, so I guess they won that clash”, and that should probably be fixed.

Episode 1 of PhDigital is here!

Episode 1 of PhDigital is here!

Debunking the Blackpill Part Two: "Looks matter more than anything"

Debunking the Blackpill Part Two: "Looks matter more than anything"