Taru Haapala, Ph.D
Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy
University of Jyväskylä
P.O. Box 35 (Ylistönmäentie 33)
FI-40014 University of Jyväskylä
Academy of Finland research project ”The Politics of Dissensus. Parliamentarism, Rhetoric and Conceptual History” 2008-2012
University of Malaga research project “Las retoricas de la democracia: Los usos de la experiencia democratica en la argumentacion moral y politica”
Parliamentary culture of debate in the nineteenth-century Cambridge and Oxford Union Societies
Emphasising the historical role of parliamentary procedure in the formation of the parliamentary culture of debate of nineteenth-century Britain, Haapala’s study places the Cambridge and Oxford Union Societies in the wider context of the British debating societies. Though the Union Societies have since the late 1800s been considered part of British parliamentary culture, the debating practices of the Unions have not been accorded comprehensive research that would explain why this was so, even though the role of debate in Parliament also grew at the time.
The starting point of the analysis is an idea introduced by Josef Redlich (1869-1936) that a parliamentary body is an assembly of which the primary aim is not to legislate, but to debate according to certain rules. He maintained also that parliamentary bills are reducible to a series of motions, which inspires one to think that the Unions can also be seen as independent sites of a parliamentary style of politics.
Haapala chose to examine the Unions’ political activity from two distinct angles: the politics of agenda and the politics of debate. A rhetorical reading of the minute books reveals how members of the societies used the rules of debate for their own political purposes. In the analysis, she identified repeated use of certain rhetorical topoi: ‘vote of confidence’, ‘principle’, ‘character’ and ‘expediency’. In the Union Societies, these manifested as interrelated rhetorical categories that constituted the politics of the agenda. They also appeared in the politics of debate related to revising and interpreting the rules, which characteristically involved challenges to decisions made by Union Society presidents.
The procedure seems to have been the key element in guiding debates and in framing the rhetorical practices in use. It eventually linked the Union Societies to the parliamentary culture of debate. However, the societies did not just follow the House of Commons model passively, but adapted it to their own political activity. In this way the Union members trained themselves, in a very independent and creative manner, in the parliamentary way of doing politics.