Last week I took part in a debate in the Oxford Union. Not having been at Oxford University myself, this was a pretty amazing experience. Drinks, dinner, photos and finally the debate… We entered a packed chamber, surrounded by busts of past debaters, such as Gladstone, Roy Jenkins, Michael Heseltine and Edward Heath.
The motion was ‘This house believes positive discrimination is the best solution to an unequal society’ and I was on the side speaking for the motion. Both sides of the debate were introduced by students who began the focus on getting into Oxford University, which was to be a feature of the debate to follow. They both touched on gender and race issues and also social background. It was then my turn to speak.
I was asked to speak about disability and was a lone voice on this group. I talked about the how disabled people were half as likely to be in employment in the UK as non-disabled people, saying that prejudice, lack of funding and lack of role models were amongst the reasons why this was the situation. Paul Maynard MP, who has cerebral palsy, said in parliamentary debate how shocked he’d been by the prejudice he’d experienced in the workplace and I was able to quote him directly. In Kenya legislation requires 5% of all jobs in both the public and private sectors to be filled by disabled people and I suggested that maybe this could be applied in the UK.
I was followed by the most controversial speaker of the night, Katie Hopkins, who perhaps needs no introduction as a writer for the Mail Online and has been a contestant on both the Apprentice and Big Brother. She suggested that there is nothing wrong with an unequal society and that people not born into privilege just needed to ‘suck it up’! This immediately prompted many lively interventions from the floor and many laughs as she chose who could interrupt her.
There was then a break in the speakers to allow time for floor speeches. There was more than one American speaker who spoke about ‘affirmative action’, the American term for positive discrimination and its pros and cons.
The final summing up speeches on either side of the debate were then made by two other external speakers. Kate Kinninmont is the Chief Executive for Women in Film and TV, in addition to being a TV producer. She spoke for the motion and talked about how the number of women MPs has grown enormously in recent years, largely because of all-women shortlists. There were complaints that this would bring in a lot of mediocre women. But the fact is that it’s brought in many good ones. And as Clare Short said: “We’ll know we’ve achieved true equality when we have as many mediocre women as we have mediocre men in this House!”. She also talked about how in 2011 a woman called Anna Serner became boss of the Swedish Film Institute and made a decision to divide the funding 50/50 between men and women, shocking everyone (it had previously been ¾ men ¼ women). At the year’s film awards 2/3 of the awards were won by women, proving the good work women could do given a chance.
Kate was followed by Sunny Hundal, a journalist and lecturer who writes for the Guardian. He spoke about how white men benefit from positive discrimination already, which was helpful to our side of the discussion!
Once the debate was over the audience was asked to vote on the motion by walking through either one door (the Ayes) or another (the Nos). Unfortunately my side was not successful in convincing the students to agree with positive discrimination and the vote went against us. However, it was an interesting discussion that really got the students engaged and it was great to have the opportunity to ensure disability was included.