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When is a debate not a debate?

2010-04-17

I have to declare an interest on this one: I have expressed support for the work of Tom Watson MP (Labour, West Bromwich East). He voted against the Digital Economy Act which I’m strongly opposed to. I’ve met him at numerous events and have been involved in briefing him about the Semantic Web and microformats when he was a government minister. But problems with political rhetoric cross all party lines.

Tom Watson MP, then, in a question to the Leader of the House (Harriet Harman) on the 14th January 2010:

The United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asked the Chinese Government to explain themselves after a tech company, Google, revealed that its internal systems had been hacked into with a view to looking at the e-mail accounts of Chinese dissidents. Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that we need a debate on cyber security, so that we can applaud Google’s brave corporate decision to end the censorship of its search results and encourage other tech companies, such as Microsoft, Yahoo! and Apple, to follow suit?

A debate where the primary stated goal is to applaud Google and encourage other technology companies to copy Google’s decision to pull out of China? Anyone want to put forward an opposing argument and argue that technology companies ought to collaborate with the Chinese censorship regime more? That’s really not a debate if we’re using the word in its traditional sense. ‘Celebration’ may indeed be more appropriate! We can have a debate, but Tom Watson’s statement makes it seem like the reason we ought to have a debate is to applaud Google’s decision in China. Is that a good enough reason to have a debate?

Though slightly jarring, there is nothing egregiously wrong with Tom Watson’s statement. There is a possible equivocation at work with the word ‘debate’. When someone attempts to make political hay out of having a debate on some issue (“Thanks to my interventions, we had a much-needed debate on [x]!”), that may mean that they are actually having a substantive and meaningful exchange of views, or it might mean that two MPs turn up at quarter-to-midnight for an adjournment debate wherein they make some platitudinous remarks and strongly agree with one another. When politicians use the word ‘debate’ they may be using it in the same sense one might use it in a sentence like “They had a big debate about the cider tax in the pub last night”. Or they might mean there was a session of the House of Commons on that topic. In the former, you kind of need to disagree with one another, while in the latter, you can have a debate where no substantive discussion actually takes place.

Debate as celebration is something one finds peppered throughout Hansard. Here is the opening statement Andrew Selous, the Shadow Work and Pensions Minister, made in a Westminster Hall debate from the 11th March 2009 on Christianity in Public Life:

My main reason for securing the debate is to celebrate and put on record the incredible contribution of the Christian community to the life of our country in every one of the 646 constituencies, particularly the work that it does to serve the poorest, the most vulnerable and those in the greatest need. We do not always recognise that work enough, so the debate gives us an opportunity to celebrate it and to say thank you to the many people who do fantastic work, without which we, as Members of Parliament, know our constituencies would be worse off.

Even the most ardent anti-theist will agree that many Christians and the Church do great work – they may dispute the motivations or point out that they don’t necessarily require their faith to do so, but few would really dispute that plenty of religious people “do fantastic work”.

So where is the debate? It turns out that a debate does indeed happen about the old chestnut of the status of religion in public life (a particular bug-bear of mine: debating what role something should have in ‘public life’ or the ‘public sphere’ conflates a lot of issues by being tremendously vague – people will have different opinions as to how involved the religious community should be in any particular part of the ‘public sphere’).

But if you actually want a debate on that, why not just have it? There is a valid debate to have on religion and secularism in public institutions (and charity law, employment regulations, the bishops sitting in the Lords and so on), and on cyber-security (and Chinese Internet regulation) – why does the hook for such debates need to be a big hoorah for Google’s stance on Chinese censorship or on the general niceness of many Christians? At best this is just that – a hook, a starting point for discussion – but it can be worse. It can end up being a way of framing the debate.

As salesmen and opinion poll writers know, you can get whatever answer you want if you frame the question right: nobody is “pro-abortion”, they are pro-choice. But the anti-abortion crowd are “pro-life”. The pro-choicers are then, by contrast, anti-life. Supporters of California’s Propositon 8 – which banned same-sex marriage – described themselves as “protecting marriage” and the opponents were responding to “hate”.

In a deliberative, Parliamentary procedure like ours is supposed to be, could it be done any other way? Is there any way to make sure that Parliamentary debates don’t start with fawning congratulations and get to the substance of the issue quicker?

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