It's PMQs, not safe spaces, which is the future for open debate


By Rachael Jolley

The idea of so-called ‘safe spaces’ is increasingly being used by those who would rather not hear people from a different side of an argument to their own. As was shown when activist Maryam Namazie spoke recently at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her critique of certain aspects of life in some Middle Eastern countries was not something that several members of the Islamic society wanted to hear. So they thought if they attended and heckled, and played various noises over her speaking so that others couldn’t hear, that would be best for everyone.

Safe spaces arguments (and the Goldsmiths’ Islamic Society had tried and failed to use safe space policy to get the debate cancelled) are increasingly used by people to argue that hearing someone else speak is difficult for them. It might make them feel uncomfortable and they might not agree with it. But you don’t need to agree. You might disagree passionately. That’s fine. You might argue that there needs to be slots for people with other positions on the same discussion to speak. That’s also fine. But close down speech and you are suggesting your arguments are weaker than theirs.

Respect for differing views is a valuable part of our politics and history. But it is not something we should take for granted. There have been growing calls for our most famous debating arena, prime minister’s questions, to be radically changed or even scrapped.

Sure PMQs can be noisy, sometimes unpleasant and always full of challenge and dissent. But there’s lots to love about this deafening rough-and-tumble arguing match in an increasingly quiet world. It’s a rare moment when the prime minister, whose public events are normally carefully controlled, steps into the parliamentary chamber and doesn’t know exactly what’s going to happen of what will happen next.

The memoirs of former PMs record how seriously they take this session. Mrs Thatcher said in her memoirs: “No head of government anywhere in the world has to face this sort of regular pressure.”

In a world where argument is out of fashion, where debate is seen (by some) as a step too far, the British should cherish the weekly 30-minute session of PMQs, and not think of it as a relic of the past, but as a tradition that is just as relevant today as ever.

Instead of seeking to neuter these exchanges, we should count ourselves lucky. If you have ever watched television footage of US politicians in Congress, you’ll know political debate there is as dull as the murkiest of dishwater. That’s why Americans are jealous of our cut-and-thrust parliament compared with their almost silent (apart from a bit of paper rustling) Senate; our punchy style in the centre of parliament and how politicians are held to account under the spotlight is something that other countries only dream of. PMQs is never staid or boring, so it’s no wonder that people tune in.

Yes, there are complaints about the frenzied atmosphere, but I would rather live in a democracy where debate is valued and allowed. Having the most senior politicians in the land standing up and tearing shreds out of each other, before walking away an hour later and being able to have a chat and a cuppa, shows that debate, even fierce debate, is a value that we believe in and a skill that it is worth learning. Debate doesn’t kill anyone. It’s so much better to listen and mull over your opponents’ opinions, than ban them.

If you want to change someone’s mind, or even hone your own argument, then you want to hear what the opposition has to say. And that’s a great lesson for kids in schools, and students in universities, particularly at a time when some universities have banned debates because they make some students uncomfortable or upset.

I grew up in a household where having a different opinion from someone else was frowned on. It was disagreement. It might create an uncomfortable atmosphere. You don’t learn much from that sort of atmosphere.

You don’t get to hear counter opinions or widen your own knowledge. And consequently argument made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t until a bit later in life that I learned to be a bit better at it. When I was studying journalism in Sheffield, one of my lecturers informed us that the in-house style guide, the format for writing up articles, meant we had to refer to women councillors as Councillor Mrs X, but men who were councillors just as Councillor Y. I was not happy. I sat down and argued with him. For some time. He sat down and listened. And at the end of the day he changed his mind. A minor victory. But one which made me realise the value of debate, and listening to different views.

Not every argument will be won, not every just opinion will prevail. But in order to win your case, that disagreement must first be heard freely and in the open.

Rachael Jolley is the editor of Index on Censorship, a global quarterly magazine covering freedom of expression issues.