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A Political Debate

Updated on July 13, 2013

A Little Bored

Durham University is made up of individual Colleges. My College was and is a self governing College originally intended to turn out High Church vicars for the Church of England. It also provided an environment for people who wanted to study in a Christian environment. Sadly the profession of vicar was becoming less popular, and the number of Christians was declining. The College had had to lower their entry standards to the point where they let me in. Since then the College has much improved and it now turns out a higher proportion of First Class Honours degrees than any other College at Durham University.

So there I was, about 19 years old and full of vim and vigour. I had a socialist friend visiting from another College. We discusssed politics generally and we bemoaned the low level of political discussion at the University. One can safely say that Durham University was not a hotbed of socialist ferment.

We decided we would go out looking for a political argument.

The Durham Union Society

The nearest bar open was the Durham Union Society bar. The older universities like Durham have student run Union Societies which are debating clubs. They also have bars and guest accomodation. The Durham Union Society also served a mid-morning breakfast, useful for those of us who failed to get up in time for breakfast in our Colleges.

The bar was popular with many of us who were politically minded. The beer was good, and cheap. We found an empty table next to some Monday Clubbers.

The Monday Club was a right wing group within the Conservative Party. They were anti-immigrant, wanted very low taxes, and were quite happy to have no welfare benefits or state pensions. Some of the wilder ones wanted heroin legalised because they objected to the nanny state.

Sitting next to them achieved our first aim, which was to find opponents to engage with.

Benn's Plans

Tony Benn was (and is) an interesting political character. He badly wanted to be Labour Party Leader and Prime Minister. He was well educated, intellectual, had inherited wealth, but in my view he was a fellow traveller rather than a committed socialist. He had decided to be the leader of the Left and was staking out that territory.

A Labour Party committee he chaired had proposed nationalising the top twentyfive companies. I was quite happy with the concept of nationalisation, but why these companies? Why 25 instead of 24 or 200? One sensed that the 25 was a nice round number rather than the result of any great thinking.

Labour in 1945 had nationalised the Railways, Coal, Steel, Water, and Power. These were already effectively state run during the war, The State had invested huge amounts of money into these industries because in wartime they were key to the nation's survival. Labour had nationalised "the commanding heights of the economy" and many of these were still owned by government in the early 1970s.

There was no pattern or logic in this proposed nationalisation. It wasn't for efficiency or for their strategic economic value. If an industry was important then nationalise it, but why nationalise only one company in it? It didn't make sense.

The "25 companies" was a hot issue, so if we discussed it the Monday Clubbers on the next table would soon join in. I condemned the plan because we were going to pay compensation. If we were nationalising for ideological reasons, it was because the capitalists were exploiting the working class. If you manage to wrest a stick from a bully, why give him the money to purchase another stick?

My colleague said that 25 companies was too timid. We would still have a capitalist society at the end of the nationalisation, so there was no obvious point in doing it. We should find another method of selection or we should be looking at maybe 2,000 companies.

The Monday Clubbers Join In

It was not long before the Monday Clubbers joined our conversation. As we had both condemned the "25 companies" proposal we were not obliged to defend it. The conversation developed into a free ranging discussion of the differences between the socialist supporting party and the capitalist supporting party.

My friend and I were like tag wrestlers. One of us would argue with the three or four Monday Clubbers while the other went to the bar and got the beers in. Then at an appropriate moment the beer carrier would step in and the other would go to buy the next round. The Monday Clubbers were particularly weak around the National Health Service. The Conservatives had opposed the creation of the National Health Service. The NHS was enormously popular and every Conservative Party manifesto since the creation of the NHS promised to protect the NHS. From the Monday Club libertarian viewpoint the NHS should be disbanded but even the Monday Club dared not say that. We really had them on the ropes over that.

As I was carrying the beers to our table I noticed there were nearly thirty students gathered around our table listening to the debate. One said to me as I was carrying beers "I have never heard a debate like this!"

The Debate Finishes

We had had a good session of debate, wide ranging and purposive. The Right had been routed. I noted that those opponents never tried to argue with me again. Sadly my friend spent the following academic year abroad so we never met up again.

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