A series of annual debates on topical subjects was run from 2012 to 2015.
2012: Inaugural Bagehot Memorial Debate
As one of the opening events of the first ever Langport Festival, the inaugural Walter Bagehot Memorial Debate was held on Saturday 2 June 2012 at All Saints’ Church, Langport.
This was an appropriate venue as the Church boasts a fine West Window in Bagehot’s memory donated by his widow shortly after his death in 1877, and Bagehot and his family are buried in the churchyard.
Although the church is closed, and in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, it is hoped to bring it back into community use. This event was a good example of its potential as a venue. The Chancel was looking festive, thanks to a display mounted by Langport Flower Club.
The motion for the Debate, on this Diamond Jubilee weekend, was about the monarchy: “This House believes that the monarch should have greater powers.”
Despite the wet weather, and competing Jubilee attractions, a large audience attended the event, which was opened by its co-organiser Janet Seaton, Chair of the Langport & District History Society. The Debate was chaired by Somerset resident, the Rt Revd George Cassidy, recently Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham and a Lord Spiritual in the House of Lords. There was a short introduction by Barry Winetrobe, Chair of the Bagehot Memorial Fund Steering Committee, on the life and work of Walter Bagehot, Langport’s most famous citizen; Bagehot’s influential views of the role of the monarchy, and the progress of the Fund, dedicated to preserve and enhance Bagehot’s memory in Langport and beyond.
Opening the debate in favour of the motion, local resident Paul Heim, a retired senior European public servant and owner of the house in Langport’s main street in which Bagehot was born, argued that the success of the present constitutional position of the monarchy enabled a measured extension of its powers in keeping with its present role. He suggested, for example, that the monarch should be able to request a report from the Government on matters of concern, as expressed by petitions from citizens.
Arguing against the motion, local newspaper editor, Andrew Lee, said that the present constitutional role of the monarchy rested on a delicate balance of public consent, which risked being undermined by any greater actual involvement of the monarch in controversial political matters.
There followed a lively open session, with many comments and questions from the audience, ranging from the possible role of the monarchy in constitutional changes such as reform of the House of Lords and the future of the United Kingdom, to whether the present Prince of Wales should continue to be outspoken on matters of public interest if and when he becomes King.
After closing remarks by the two speakers, there was a vote which resulted in an overwhelming majority against the motion.
Refreshments were served by the Langport & District History Society, and all proceeds from the event went to the Bagehot Memorial Fund.
The speakers in the inaugural debate, and its Chairman. Left to right: Paul Heim, George Cassidy (Chair), Andrew Lee.
2013: Second Bagehot Memorial Debate
A large audience enjoyed the 2nd Bagehot Memorial Debate on Saturday, 1 June in Langport’s All Saints’ Church, where two senior political figures and two star students from the Huish Episcopi Academy’s Debating Society engaged in lively and passionate debate on the very topical issue of the constitutional future of Scotland and the United Kingdom.
Professor Tony Wright, a former senior Labour MP, and Ross McKendrick (Huish Sixth) supported the motion that ‘The United Kingdom needs Scotland’, and, opposing this motion were Chic Brodie, an SNP Member of the Scottish Parliament, and Ben Gill (Huish Sixth). The debate was chaired by Bishop George Cassidy, who served for a number of years in the House of Lords, and who chaired last year’s inaugural Debate.
In keeping with the Bagehot Debate format, the motion addressed an important current issue from the unique perspective of Walter Bagehot’s own views. Rather than just the standard ‘should Scotland be independent?’ motion, the four speakers tackled the more subtle motion that ‘the United Kingdom needs Scotland’. This is based on Bagehot’s view: “What does Great Britain not gain by the hearty co-operation of Scotch and English, and the totally different genius even of the Northern and the Southern English, in one and the same national unity?” (1870).
The speeches and the audience’s questions ranged widely, including whether people in the rest of the UK should have a vote in the Scottish referendum; whether the campaign would encourage separatist movements in other parts of the country, and how England, Wales and Northern Ireland would react to life in a smaller and different Union after Scottish independence.
The Chair of the Bagehot Memorial Fund’s Steering Committee, Barry Winetrobe, said: “We were delighted with the quality of the debate, both from all four speakers and from the Q&A session with the audience. We were proud to provide this opportunity for people in this part of Somerset to have their say on this important constitutional campaign that could affect everyone north and south of the border. There was a general consensus that this issue was not just one for Scotland. Everyone should be thinking about it, not just in the run-up to the September 2014 referendum in Scotland, but about what life might be like thereafter, whatever the outcome of the referendum.”
This year’s Bagehot Debate saw the inclusion for the first time of the local Academy and its students. The two student speakers, Ben Gill and Ross McKendrick from Huish’s Sixth Form, are leading lights in the school’s debating society, and they welcomed the opportunity to participate in this community event and debate alongside experienced parliamentarians.
Barry said: “Chic Brodie MSP, Professor Tony Wright and Bishop Cassidy all said how impressed they were by the maturity, confidence and quality of Ross and Ben’s contributions to the debate. We heartily agree, and so did the audience. Huish Academy should be justly proud of these fine representatives of its student body and its debating society. Both the Bagehot Fund and the Langport Festival look forward to a continuing relationship with the Academy in the future. Before the Debate, the Fund presented the school with a Walter Bagehot Trophy to be awarded annually to its ‘Debater of the Year’, and we hope this will both encourage the development of the debating society and perpetuate the life and legacy of Walter Bagehot within the school.”
At the end of the Debate, a vote was taken, which resulted in a clear majority in support of the motion. Representatives from the Fund and the Festival both then expressed their thanks to the speakers, the audience and to the Churches Conservation Trust for making the venue available for the event.
Barry said: “This second Bagehot Debate was a great success, and its place as a flagship event within the flourishing annual Langport Community Festival is secured. We are already planning next year’s debate. It will have a lot to live up to. We are grateful to the local community and to the local media for their continuing support.”
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2014: Third Bagehot Memorial Debate
The Bagehot Memorial Fund hailed the success of its two events held on Saturday 7 June as part of the third Langport Festival. It held a public exhibition of ‘Bagehotiana’ – artefacts, pictures and documents from its growing Walter Bagehot Collection – at Hurds Hill, the former Bagehot family home during the day, and in the evening ran the third annual Bagehot Memorial Debate at Huish Academy’s Sixth Form auditorium.
The Chair of the Fund, Barry Winetrobe, said: “We are delighted that both these events were so well received. The Fund is proud to have been involved in the Langport Festival since its inception. The Exhibition and the Debate are events at the heart of the Fund’s core purpose of commemorating Langport’s most famous citizen, Walter Bagehot, and engaging with the local community – especially young people – in so doing.”
The Exhibition was staged at Hurds Hill by kind permission of the owners, Clifford Lee and David Holmes, who are active supporters of the Fund. The items on display included portraits of various members of the Bagehot family; watercolours of Hurds Hill; books by and about Bagehot; Walter Bagehot’s travelling briefcase – the Victorian version of the laptop; various documents in Bagehot’s own hand, and examples of his wife, Eliza’s, diaries, which she kept for many years. The two diaries on display were from 1877, open at the date of Walter’s untimely death aged only 52, and 1921, her final volume, open at the date of her death, as noted in an entry by her maid.
The Debate was held for the first time in Huish Sixth’s auditorium. The motion was that “Mass communication is the enemy of truth and knowledge”, derived from an 1873 essay by Bagehot. It was proposed by Donald Shell, a noted political scientist and former Senior Lecturer in Politics at Bristol University, and Emily Lawrence, a Huish student, and opposed by Ruth Dudley Edwards, the well-known journalist and novelist, and Kate Nesbit, a Huish student.
After a spirited debate on the benefits and dangers for the quality of public debate of recent phenomena such as social media, rolling news and instant punditry, including a very lively Q&A session with the audience, the motion was soundly defeated. The debate was masterfully chaired for the third time by the former Bishop, George Cassidy.
Andrew Brooke, Assistant Principal, and Ross McKendrick, current holder of the Bagehot Trophy for the Huish Debater of the Year, both spoke about the importance of debating in the life of the Academy and its students.
After the Debate, Barry said: “Everyone at the Debate was impressed by the quality of the speakers, especially the two students, who are a credit to themselves and to Huish Academy. The School is justly proud of its developing debating activity, and, as with the two student debaters at last year’s Debate, Kate and Emily demonstrated student debating at its best. We look forward to many more Bagehot Debates in this fine venue and with equally formidable student debaters.”
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2015: Fourth Bagehot Memorial Debate
On Saturday 6 June, Langport enjoyed a stimulating debate on the need for a reformed constitution for the UK. The 4th annual Bagehot Debate, a flagship event of the 2015 Langport Festival, commemorated the 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta, with two Barons and two students debating the motion ‘It’s time for a new Magna Carta’.
The Debate was held in Huish Academy’s Sixth Form auditorium, and, as well as the Debate itself, the audience enjoyed a superb Magna Carta exhibition held by Curry Mallet, Somerset’s only Magna Carta village.
The motion was proposed by Lord Tyler (former Liberal Democrat MP, Paul Tyler) and Douglas Stephenson, Huish Academy student. Opposing the motion was Lord Norton of Louth (Conservative peer and Professor of Politics, Philip Norton) and Sarah Allen, Huish Academy student.
This stellar panel ensured passionate discussion on the pros and cons of a written constitution, and its impact on British politics and society. The audience contributed many challenging comments and questions, which ensured a well-rounded, substantial debate. A show of hands at the end produced a clear majority of the audience against the motion.
Speaking after the Debate, Barry Winetrobe, Chair of the Bagehot Memorial Fund, which organised the Debate, said: “As with our previous debates, we are extremely impressed at the quality of debate, not only from our ‘professional’ guest speakers, but especially from the Academy’s Debating Society, and in the contributions from so many of the audience. We are pleased that our annual Debate can consistently attract such a high calibre of guest speaker, and is a forum for the local community to appreciate the skills and enthusiasm of its Academy’s students. The Langport area can be justly proud that this small community can host such a unique event every year, as part of its successful Festival.”
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