On Friday I was privileged to be invited to the Exeter University Debating Society, to oppose the motion “This House believes that nuclear energy is unsafe”. It’s a long way to Exeter, so my hosts kindly put me up in Reed House on campus (see above), which was very pleasant indeed.
Proposing the motion was Keith Taylor MEP (Green, SE), the man who took over the seat vacated by Caroline Lucas when she went to Westminster. He’s a charming fellow, but he doesn’t seem to have the debating skills and intellectual acuity of his predecessor. He was supported by the local Green Party Chairman. On my side I had Nigel Knee from EDF Energy, an industry expert with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the industry.
The event had been publicly advertised, so because of recent demonstrations at the Hinkley Point nuclear power station in the West Country, the university very reasonably decided that extra security precautions were appropriate. We had a policeman and several uniformed private security guards.
I had done some homework, and frankly I had been astonished when I saw quite how much safer nuclear power is than other mainstream base-load generating technologies — a subject to which I will return in a later blog. But now I must describe the drama as it unfolded. We had about 150 students present, but in the front row were two members of the public. They were women of a certain age, and they were the archetypal rent-a-mob leftist green-zealot trouble-makers, strident and aggressive.
I understand that in our politically-correct environment we’re no longer permitted to describe the appearance of women (or at least not in a disobliging way), so I can say no more of them, except to note that I overheard one student describe them as “pantomime dames”. It seems that they were known to the industry as activists.
These two interrupted repeatedly. They talked across the speakers, ignored the chair, asked questions and then shouted over the answers. The chairman asked them to be quiet, and to observe the normal rules of debate, but they ignored him. The President of the debating society intervened to tell them that unless they respected the chair they would be removed. “Who are you?” they demanded rudely. “The President of the Society”, he replied, to general applause.
But they continued to shout down the speakers, and eventually the President did indeed ask for them to be removed, and the security people promptly removed them, shouting protests.
But the drama wasn’t over. MEP Taylor jumped to his feet and said “I thought this was a democratic debate. If that’s the way you treat the public, I can’t stay”. Before he left, I cut in to say “Keith, if you’d behaved like that in the European parliament, you’d have been removed too”.
So for the last five minutes and the summing up, the proposers’ side was reduced to one.
At the start, the Chairman had asked for a show of hands on the motion, and as near as I could judge it was about 50/50, or a little skewed against the motion. Taking a vote at the end, it was a decisive three-to-one against the motion, and the Chairman declared the motion lost.
I think that my side would have won the debate in any case on the merits of the argument. But I am equally certain that the antics of these green zealots inclined the audience against the motion. Their behaviour was clearly counter-productive. Long may they keep damaging their own cause.
Addendum:- I now have confirmation of the voting figures. Before the debate: 36 For; 60 Against; some abstentions. After the debate: 27 For; 95 Against.