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“Order, order!” ‘Spirited Discussions’ with the Liberal Democrats

"A Midnight Modern Conversation" by William Hogarth. Image credit: Wikimedia
"A Midnight Modern Conversation" by William Hogarth. Image credit: Wikimedia
“A Midnight Modern Conversation” by William Hogarth. Image credit: Wikimedia

“Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin my speech by asking the Members of the other side of the House to rein in the wanton socialism that spills out from their ranks!”

So begins a typical speech from an inebriated attendant at a ‘Spirited Discussion’, a weekly event held on campus by the University of York’s Liberal Democrats.

Held on Wednesdays during the academic terms, Spirited Discussions create a mock parliamentary setting for free and enthusiastic debate. The evenings encourage an atmosphere of free thinking, liberal feasting and vigorous debate, the latter of which is notably assisted by the near-limitless supply of gin, tequila and other spirits, all for the reasonable cost of £3.

“A ‘Spirited Discussion’ is a unique event which provides a forum in which to explore arguments, voice opinions and practice public speaking,” Catherine Yarrow, Communications Officer for the Liberal Democrats, tells The Yorker. “Each week students from across the political spectrum come to Spirited Discussions to have a relaxed debate about both serious and not-so-serious topics. It’s a great opportunity for cross party dialogue as well as simply an entertaining environment to get in a couple of Wednesday night drinks.”

Splitting a room into the Government, the Opposition and letting spectators be cross-benchers, each Discussion proceeds as a loud, explosive and hot-blooded evening of argument, disagreement and wit – much like our own House of Commons, then. The Lib Dems have few limits on the topics of debate: past motions have included the propositions for bringing back duelling, abolishing colleges at the University, replacing our democracy with a government of “benevolent technocrats,” and calling for Tim Farron MP to step down as party leader.

The debates are attended by many students interested in politics and there are no restrictions on who can visit or rise to speak. “I remember my first Spirited Discussions in which I came not as a Liberal Democrat but as a Tory,” Elliott Banks, an MA student and Liberal Democrat, recalls. “Now as a Lib Dem my love of Spirited Discussions has grown even more!”

Students from all political parties and persuasions can be found in the debating audience on Wednesdays. “You meet people from every political society on campus with all sorts of different viewpoints,” comments Ben Walker, a Discussion regular. It’s a rare opportunity to find the top campus politicos all gathered in one place, often arguing on the side of the very things they oppose in reality.

For many this could be the side of the Houses of Parliament that should be toned down, not emphasised. Seeking ‘new politics’ and a different approach to Prime Minister’s Questions when he was first elected to the leadership of his party, it’s highly unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn would come along to a Spirited Discussion and enjoy himself.

However, it is at these Spirited Discussions that students are free to discuss the pressing problems of modern politics in a lighthearted setting. Though the language can be strong at times, the debates are regulated by a Speaker. Permeating the frenzied debates is a strong sense of camaraderie; when in session, the arguments might be cutting and brutal, but stepping outside of the debating chamber, the members of the mock parliament shake hands, chat and buy each other drinks. “The drunken merriment and debating genuinely serious and not so serious things made me feel genuinely welcome,” comments Banks. “Its chaotic nature and cross party appeal really makes debate lively, if slightly squiffy.”

Above all, Spirited Discussions are intended to be exciting, entertaining and a unique way of meeting new people. “As political discourse is becoming more extreme and divisive, it’s nice to go to a place where that goes away and you can talk about politics in a free, open environment,” Walker adds. The events tend to end with jolly renditions of patriotic songs and the national anthems of many major European nations, making it a common occurrence to hear ‘Jerusalem’, ‘La Marseillaise’, the ‘Deutschlandlied’, ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’ and others, all in one night.

‘Spirited Discussions’ are held by the University of York Liberal Democrats on Wednesday evenings from 7pm.