The elephant in the room

Published

Ian McIver
Few institutions can boast as proud a debating pedigree as Glasgow University Union. In 1981, the GUU founded the World Universities Debating Championships, the WUDC, more popularly known as “Worlds”. Speakers trained in the GUU have gone on to win the tournament a record five times, tied only with the University of Sydney.

To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Worlds, the Union is to play host to a special display debate on November 19th, at 6.30pm. STV have confirmed that a live, online broadcast through stv.tv is being discussed.

Speaking in the debate are eight notable Glasgow alumni, seven past World Champions, and the eighth, the former Convenor of Debates Clark McGinn, under whose leadership the WUDC was founded. Since graduating, these speakers have become successful businessmen, advocates, politicians, news presenters (John Nicolson of ITV), and even international, after-dinner Burn’s speaker (Clark McGinn).

The GUU president Chris Sibbald will occupy the Speaker’s chair, whilst the current Convenor of Debates, Gavin Tulloch, chairs an equally illustrious judging panel, consisting of other notable alumni – the Rt. Hon. Charles Kennedy, Rector, former Lib-Dem leader, and winner of the Observer Mace tournament with McGinn in 1981; two peers, Lord Derry Irvine and Lord Jimmy Gordon; Glasgow’s two Worlds’ finalists of 1999; the Hon. Sarah Smith (Channel 4 News, Business Correspondent), daughter of the sadly deceased Labour Leader, and alumnus, John Smith; Gerald Malone, former Conservative Minister of Health; and journalist Andrew McKie.

The motion is ‘This House Believes in Scottish Independence’, and with an SNP majority in Holyrood, the issue has never been more pressing.. Moreover, one can expect sparks to fly with 1994 winner, Duncan Hamilton, a former Nationalist MSP, and adviser to Alex Salmond, participating. At the very least one can only hope that his debating partner, Manus Blessing, will reprise, in Hamilton’s words, his 1994 ‘impersonation of a catheter, by taking the piss out of the opposition.’

The Elephant  - awarded to the winners of the World Debating Championships

The Elephant - awarded to the winners of the World Debating Championships

This event celebrates Glasgow’s historical success in debating. Not only have Glasgow speakers won five times at Worlds (Princeton, 1983; U.C. Dublin, 1987; T.C. Dublin, 1992; Melbourne, 1994; Stellenbosch, 1997), gaining not only trophies but a highly prized recipe for Yakka, a delicious and deceptively alcoholic cocktail; but the GUU has also hosted the competition three times, most recently in 2001. The very first tournament was held in Glasgow in 1981, an event also notable in that a team representing the QMU reached the final, for the first and last time, losing out to the University of Toronto.. That debating culture is so ingrained in the GUU is perhaps unsurprising, given that the institution was itself partly founded in 1885 by the Dialectic Society, which is set to celebrate its own 150th anniversary since it was formally re-instituted in 1861. There are however claims that the society existed in some form since 1451; the earliest surviving records date from 1770.

But what about Glasgow’s debating future? This year’s Worlds tournament is to be held in December at the demonstrably more exotic De La Salle University in Manila, Philippines and expects ‘more than 1400 participants, from more than 70 nations’, testament to the impressive growth of the tournament over the last thirty years – 1981 saw 43 teams from 7 nations compete. Due to the financial costs associated with travel and accommodation, the GUU will be sending just one team to compete in the championship; these speakers are to be selected near the time of writing. However, when the WUDC goes to Berlin next year, the Union intends to send the maximum possible three teams, as well as three judges. Those chosen certainly have a great legacy to live up to.

If you have yet to collect your free ticket to the GUU’s Grand Show Debate, hurry to the Porter’s Box as there are still some left. Said ticket entitles the bearer to a free drink – a reminder, if ever one was needed, of alcohol’s presence in the lifeblood of Glasgow debating. Otherwise, keep your eyes peeled for the possible STV broadcast on the night.

GUU Speaker Training is open to all students and takes place Tuesdays at 6pm. “This House believes in Scottish Independence” November 19th 2011, GUU Debates Chamber. Free tickets available at GUU reception.