Democracy on a Friday night

This is a photo with Sir Edward Leigh, conservative member of British Parliament since 1983. He was in Durham last night to attend a debate on Iraq war. The motion of the debate was ‘This house believes that the invasion of Iraq was a blunder not a crime.”  Sir Edward was on the opposition side. He gave an eloquent speech against the motion. Although I disagreed with him, and asked him a question in a form of a somewhat long speech on why removing Saddam was the right thing to do, I was amazed by the organized, well-thought and strong points he made in opposition to the proposition. The other speakers were all very good in delivering their thoughts, but Sir Edward stood out among them.

The debate was organized by Durham Union Society, a student society which is thought to be the oldest of all Durham University student societies. It has the most expensive membership as well compared to the other societies. I am only two weeks old as a member of the Union Society. They seem to be the most active as well with their debates, speeches and events which are attended by MPs, ambassadors and public figures. While I am no foreigner to debate, the experience here was very different. For example, as the voice of ‘Ay’ and ‘Nay’ voices could not show clearly which side had won the debate, the president of the Union asked attendants –which were many given it was a cold Durham Friday night and many would be going for clubs and not debates- to go out from the chamber from two different doors based on the vote. So, the ‘Ay’ voters would go out of the hall from the left door while the ‘Nay’ voters went out from the right door.


Anyone who asks a question gets a card from the secretary taking minutes of the debate. The card is an invitation on behalf of the president of the Union for a chat and drinks with the speakers after the debate. As we were walking down, I discovered that Sir Edward had a different personal view on the motion but he was required at the last minute to debate against the motion. So, that eloquent opposition was not even something he believed in. Answering one of the students about that dilemma, he said that in real parliamentarian work he would argue for things he believes in but due to the long years of debating and public speech, he has acquired the skills to debate for or against the motions.

At the café, I had great talks with old MPs and young British students who, despite the clear difference in knowledge and experience, were equally interesting. I talked to Chris Mullin a journalist from Northumberland not far from Durham. He had very good information about Kurdistan and the political difficulties there especially the internal power struggle of the Kurdish parties. He also thought my question and speech was very good and was wondering if I wanted to be president of Kurdistan, of course jokingly, because he knew how the system works back there.  I also had the chance to discuss a wide range of issues related to Middle Eastern politics and UK’s position with British students who saw me representing an ‘original point of view’ because I was coming from Middle East itself. Clearly that had an influence on me having more insider knowledge about the complicated divisions of the region which might not be as clear to an outsider, but I had to respect the seriousness I witnessed on their part to put forward opinion based on information and research. 

 Sir Edward had been president of the Union himself when he was a student at Durham University in 1960s. The picture right behind his head is from the time he was president for one term. He is sitting in the middle. He introduced some people that were in the picture with him and some had passed away. While he was explaining, his dog never stopped playing with him and others. It should have felt nostalgic for him to come back as an MP and debate at a chamber he used to be its president decades ago.

The Union elected its president for Easter term on Friday and the result was announced just before the debate. He was elected uncontested in an online vote which only members of the Union could vote. I did not because I did not know the candidate and it was an uncontested election. But I was happy to see young Brits practicing, debating and enjoying democracy on a Friday night. Democracy is not only about big ideas, or big institutions. It is about the daily routines, and the decentralized small institutions as well.  Democracy should not be something of a periodical presiednential or parliamentary elections, but the mores of the society.  Ideas debated, people in public positions questioned and spaces created for practicing democracy at all levels makes a sudden change to despotism impossible, and rise of populism very hard.