Words by Carenza Bramwell, Photography by Carenza Bramwell and Ben Webber.
Brexit. It fills our waking and sleeping moments. With the deadline slowly, but surely creeping up on us like a zombie waiting to get someone, it’s a hot topic of conversation. The UWE Debating Society kick started the year with a State of Brexit debate. A representative for each party (Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Labour) attended and for around an hour, argued about the future of our country.
I arrived at the lecture hall, expecting a packed room full of people with lots of opinions, instead I was greeted with a small handful of people. Throughout the course of the debate, only eleven people attended, four women and seven men. When I announced I was there to write an article, it was met with some resistance from some of the candidates. Every time I made a note or took a photo, I was glared at.
The debate started with opening statements from each party member. Up first was Tom Wyatt, represented the UWE Liberal Democrat Society which he is the president of. Sticking to party policy, Mr Wyatt stated that the Liberal Democrats views were that they would “stop Brexit” and that “this all started with the people, let it end with the people”. Next, we heard from the Conservative representative, Robert Graham. I was surprised to hear that UWE didn’t have a Conservative society and that Mr Graham was in the process of starting one. After stating that he was a “Brexiteer” and that he was “glad that Boris Johnson had been elected”, Mr Graham’s opening statement was much shorter than his predecessor. Finally, we heard from the Labour representative. Amina Collins, a member of the UWE Labour Society and the only woman on the panel. Ms Collins challenged her other panellists by saying that their positions were “undemocratic”.
The first half an hour of the debate was dedicated to a discussion between the panellists, with the chairman, Peter Mellish of the Debating Society, asking them questions. What I witnessed was half an hour of people being unwilling to agree or compromise on everything. It was filled with constant snipes at the other party members. Mr Wyatt said that he felt a change to the electoral system would be beneficial to the government to which Ms Collins landed him a blow by pointing out we’d never have a majority government and that coalitions never work out well, referring to the 2010 coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
One of the main discussion points was the “ten years of austerity”, according to Ms Collins, we have had under Conservative leaderships. Mr Graham replied to this by claiming that “ten years of austerity was necessary” and was “extremely important to cutting the national debt”. He was shot down by Ms Collins, “austerity was nonsense”. Another point in discussion was how the public felt about Brexit and the facts we were told in the lead up to the vote. Ms Collins maintained that “one of the reasons people voted for Brexit was that they felt disenfranchised”. The topic then turned to the infamous “Brexit Battle Bus” and the claim it had pasted on the side. As Mr Graham put it “on the Leave UK Battle Bus, we’ll get £350 million more”. There was then a lengthy disagreement over this statement, with Mr Wyatt piping up “Well that proved to be a lie”.
Another contentious issue surrounding Brexit was the NHS. As it was during the referendum, the topic was heated. Mr Graham maintained that the money we would gain from leaving the EU would go to “creating 40 new hospitals”. At this point the debate over privatising of public services surfaced. Mr Wyatt said, “the whole police things really grinds my gears” to which Mr Graham countered that “he (the PM) is putting money into tackling knife crime”. Ms Collins to the time during this particular topic to say that Labour’s policies on this particular issue were the “most democratic option”. This led to an argument between the Labour and Liberal Democratic representatives, in which Mr Mellish had to step in and break the argument down.
It is to be expected when discussing such a colossal political issue as Brexit, that the opportunity to take digs at various party leaders cropped up. Mr Graham attacked the Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, by saying that “Jeremey Corbyn’s they should scrap Brexit is unconstitutional and undemocratic”. He then took it one step further by saying “I think that if Jeremy Corbyn won a general election it would be a disaster”. Ms Collins quickly put him in his place by saying “Boris seems to have made a bit of a mess of things” and in a rare moment of agreement, Mr Wyatt added “well Labour’s right there”.
Throughout the debate, I observed a sense of panic over the topical issue. This sense of panic came in particular from the Conservative representative, who seemed to be unprepared for the debate. In a rather lacklustre statement, Mr Graham asserted that “the Prime Minister does believe that Brexit is an important issue”. Ms Collins then called the current parliament a “chaotic government” and reiterated her point that “what Labour is offering is the most democratic choice”. The half an hour round table ended with Mr Wyatt saying that he didn’t “understand this idea that democracy died on June 23rd 2016”.
After listening to a desperate attempt at political power play, the floor was opened to the public. One of the first issues discussed was the issue of the Irish border, which Mr Graham boldly claimed, “wouldn’t be anything like separating Protestants and Catholics”, which was meat with some offence, especially from an Irish member of the audience who described the way the candidates were discussing Ireland as “lacklustre”. During Labour’s and the Liberal Democrats thoughts on the issue, Mr Graham repeatedly rolled his eyes and was called out by a member of the audience. It was at this point that the Chairman, Mr Mellish, reminded the panellists that they should respect each other and members of the audience, following “little bits of jabs at each other”.
Once again, during the question session, the topic turned to the NHS. It was at this point that the Conservative representative was backed into a corner by an audience members question about his earlier statements. He stated that “the services I would privatise would be because they’re not needed” and when asked what qualified as an unnecessary procedure, Mr Graham appeared to panic and claim services “such as physiotherapy” were unnecessary. This claim was not received well by the audience. Ms Collins seized the opportunity to criticise the Conservatives by saying “this speaks to the great lie of Tory privatisation” and “when you ask them to identify waste in the system, they are unable to do so”.
It was finally time for closing statements. As the debate had started with a statement from Mr Wyatt, closing statement began with him. The Liberal Democrats closing statement was “no deal, no clue, no Brexit”, indicating to the other parties present. Next was Mr Graham, who had no idea that the panel was ending, and said “fingers crossed it will be done by October 31st”. Finally, we heard from Ms Collins by saying “they know what they’re voting for”.
The panel then ended, somewhat earlier than had been advertised. Members of the audience milled around to talk to the panellists. I noticed that the Conservative representative did not linger to talk, having blustered his way through the panel. To me, there was no clear victor on the State of Brexit. It felt as if I had just watched a bunch of children arguing over something trivial and there had been no clear winner. Brexit is not a trivial issue, and yet after three years of constant media attention, the public is growing tired. Whatever the outcome, a break from Brexit will be met with open arms. And with that, I left the lecture hall, my head still mulling over what I had witnessed.
Featured image: Ben Webber