Last Thursday, 29th October, the Southampton University Debating Society ran a debate on the motion ‘this house believes that Fiscal Austerity has been detrimental to the UK’, with special Guest Speaker Sir Vince Cable, Former Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.
The second speaker for the proposition was James Edwards, with the opposition Robert Morrow, a Masters student and Matthew Cowley, a first year Politics and International Relations student, dubbed a ‘keen fresher’.
The debate began with Cable, who proposed the idea that opinions on austerity are not dissimilar to showers – to have to choose between ice cold or scalding hot water is silly and illogical, much like being absolutely pro or con austerity is. The recent past, according to Cable, has had too much ‘cold water’ unnecessarily and cause damage.
The opposition led with a severely economic viewpoint; that we had to look at austerity in terms of our goals and the enacted systems. If we have a system (austerity) that we can see ‘working’ (reducing the deficit), then it must be working, while needing continuous improvement, unlike goals which we cannot see working at the time, only with hindsight. The general consensus seemed to be from the opposition that if the IMF, Conservative Party, and Financial Times believe austerity is working then the ideas that the coalition government were ‘expected to try out’ were not terrible, despite the affirmation that some are expected to be.
The proposition seemed to focus more on the social implications than the opposition, with the opposition looking at austerity in terms of mere numbers and statistics. Other countries were cited frequently, with Canada being a favoured example of having a similar process which was ‘far more Draconian than ours, everything was cuts’.
The opposition touching on the etymology of the word ‘austerity’ brought up its original Greek meaning: bitter and unpleasant. Many definitions of austerity were used by both sides, with both recognising that the cuts can have adverse effects on people.
As previously mentioned, the proposition and particularly Edwards provided a ‘passionate defence’ of austerity, how the coalition government provided the people who voted for their economic policy with reckless cuts, five years of high unemployment and limited growth, despite the claim from Alistair Darling that it would take seven years to clear the structural deficit. The coalition, it was claimed, had not focused on what was best for the people of Britain but instead ‘what [was]best for [their]rich friends in the City’.
Their statistics brought out the social implications of austerity: the legal aid cuts, the necessity for sufferers of domestic violence to need proof before receiving legal aid, the 7,000 less nurses, and the 1,500 less beds for mental health patients, not to mention cuts to Accident and Emergency services and tuition fees. A main point of the proposition seemed to be that austerity is not a compassionate measure. An example from Cable on the current topic of tax credits was that three million families each losing £1,000 a year is ‘cruel and unnecessary’, with the tax cuts being a result of austerity.
The opposition brought about the idea that the media have corrupted the understanding of the meaning of ‘austerity’, to make people believe that it is a word for everything wrong with the right-wing, stating ‘if you’re Jeremy Corbyn you can say austerity is to blame for everything’. The Corbyn mention was never explained, however the opposition failed to properly look at the effect of austerity in any way other than numbers. At one point, there was a mention of food banks being a way of people supporting each other without the supported person ‘losing all of their food and money’; the opposition did recognise that it could be harmful in the short term, however certainly did not look at austerity in as much of a social way as the proposition.
The debate was well-ran and certainly gave way to a multitude of questions, from food banks to comments on the HS2. The proposition certainly seemed to argue that there needed to be a balanced way of fixing the deficit, allowing Britain to be a country that can compete on the world stage economically as well as morally, while the opposition urged people to not be ‘drawn in by [anti-austerity parties] fantasy utopia’ and that ‘we have an obligation, nay a duty [to future generations]’ so they ‘don’t have to deal with the kind of debt crisis like we’re seeing in Greece’, that austerity helps in the long-term.
The outcome showed a definite swing from those who abstained, with the proposition increasing their votes from 62 to 64 and the opposition from 23 to 28. While the opposition gained more votes from the abstainers, the result was definitely more in favour of the proposition.
Debating Society President, James Edwards says,
It was a fantastic atmosphere at the debate, and it was an honour to have Vince debate this issue. His interesting and nuanced view on the issue enthralled the audience.
After the debate, we caught up with Vince Cable, check out the interview here.