Society Focus: GUU Debating

Paul J. Baird
GUU Debating Convenor 2014/2015

GUU Convener of Debates, Debating at Glasgow University Union has been a staple part of life on campus here at Glasgow University for many years. One of the original founding members of GUU in 1885 was the Glasgow University Dialectic Society, which ensured that debating was to run through the very fabric of why GUU existed on campus in the first place. In the beginning, when GUU called the John McIntyre Building home, vociferous debate and argument took place in the large chamber-like room which now doubles as an impressive lecture theatre. Since 1930, the GUU has hailed from its current address at 32 University Avenue and debating takes place in the iconic Debating Chamber on the first floor of the building.  Throughout the last 130 years, GUU and its debating cohort has seen success, failure, tragedy and scandal. With the changeover of the Board of Management for 2015/2016, another page in the Union’s history book is turned with the next generation of authors getting ready to pen their own little piece. It is apt, then, to consider GUU and its debating; what we get up to; what we can do for students at Glasgow; and why debating is such a key part of life here on Gilmorehill.

First and foremost, GUU likes to boast of its competitive record when it comes to the quite incredible university debating scene across the UK and beyond. Indeed, we changed the make-up of university debating in 1981 when we founded what was to become the largest and most popular debating competition for students in the world: the World Universities Debating Championships (WUDC). The initial tournament took place at the GUU itself in the December and January of 1980 and 1981, with a small but hardy bunch of teams from around the world.  Now, the competition attracts literally hundreds of teams and forms the pinnacle of the university debating calendar. More recently, WUDC was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Chennai, India. The last time it was held here in Glasgow was in 2001. Founding WUDC isn’t GUU’s only contribution to the world debating scene, though. We have won the tournament five teams ourselves, with an appearance in the Grand Final in 2014 and an Octofinal appearance in 2015. Closer to home, though, we hold the record of wins of the John Smith Memorial Mace in the UK with a total of fifteen wins throughout the years and have appeared in the final of the competition for the last few years running. Competitive debating at the GUU is alive and well and demonstrates the fabulous community spirit that lives on with our current members and our life members as well.

When our A team went on their magnificent run to the WUDC Grand Final in 2014, even the likes of Andrew Neil, a former GUU debater and Board Member, couldn’t stop themselves from keeping tabs on things on mediums like Twitter. It is this spirit that the current crop of debaters, from the Convener of Debates; the Committee; and even just regular attendees, seek to perpetuate and enhance. With our regular Speaker Training sessions which take place on Tuesdays from 6pm, we seek to train our members in the art of persuasion and rhetoric with the goal of sending teams across the UK and beyond to take on the best that the world has to throw at us. The contingents that we send are all fully funded, inclusive of transport and accommodation, whether it’s a trip to KCL in London or Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Many, many other debating unions across the world cannot, or will not, offer their debaters such access. We strive to enable our members to realise their ambitions within debating and thus put access at the top of our agenda when welcoming new debaters to our community or sending them to represent GUU. We have an affirmative action policy in place which governs selection of contingents as well, meaning that a fair balance of all genders, insofar as they identify as belonging to a particular gender, is sent to represent our Union. This, coupled with the Board of Management’s incredible financial support of the debating project here at GUU, ensures that whoever wants to become a world champion debater, or even just hone their basic presentation skills for academic presentations or interviews, can get what they want and need from debating here at GUU.

It isn’t just competitive debating that we excel at either. We recognise that even hardy Glaswegians need to take a break from the rough and tumble of it all sometimes. That’s why we continue to put on our famous ‘Parliamentary’ Debates. Parliamentary Debating has been the jewel in the crown of GUU for over one hundred years. In the 1960s, the likes of John Smith, some say the best Prime Minister Great Britain never had; Donald Dewar, Scotland’s first ever First Minister and ‘Father of the Nation’; and Menzies Campbell cut their political and rhetorical teeth on the very floors that our members speak on in 2015.We also count the likes of Charles Kennedy; Andrew Neil; Sarah Smith; and even the current First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, as prominent former members who walked through our doors and played their part to some level in the life of the Union. The GUU was the scene of the last ever duel in Scotland, where blood was spilled over the Rectorship, and one of the swords that was deployed in that particular fight used to be displayed in our magnificent trophy cabinets and on our green baized tables during rowdy Parliamentaries. In time honoured GUU tradition, though, another pesky debater seems to have managed to smuggle it away from us. We suspect that might be karmic justice in return for the exploits of GUU debaters who removed the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1950, though…

Most importantly, though, this is where we’d like to take this opportunity to extend to you all an invite to join us on the floors of the GUU Debating Chamber and in the convivial surroundings of our libraries. Debating at GUU has been one of the friendliest, most helpful and inspiring communities I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of. It has most certainly been the most incredible and, dare I say it, instructive part of my University experience since I arrived here on Gilmorehill in 2010. Whether you feel that you could conquer the world at WUDC someday; have your name engraved on one of our trophies as a Parliamentary Club Champion; or even just fancy brushing up your public speaking skills for every day academic presentations and job interviews, we’d love to welcome you to 32 University Avenue sometime.

If you have any questions about debating here at GUU or fancy finding out more, please feel free to email the Convener of Debates at debates@guu.co.uk or even just drop in and chap the Conveners’ door, located on the first floor, for a friendly chat and a cup of coffee. We hope to see you soon!