Our A level Politics pupils got a fantastic opportunity to attend a lecture/Q&A conference in London to hear a range of excellent speakers. Each speaker addressed the hall for between five and ten minutes and then answered questions from the floor. The theme for the day was supposed to be ‘Britain at the Crossroads: what about strength, stability and the future?’ but, given the events of this week and next, perhaps unsurprisingly most speakers focused instead on Brexit.
The day’s lectures began with Rt Hon John Bercow MP giving us an idea of his job and its trials and tribulations before the floor was opened to pupils to ask questions; the first of which was ‘given the recent allegations of bullying against you, do you feel that it is right for you to continue in your job?’ Certainly no punches pulled there then! We also heard from Jess Phillips MP, who focused very much on feminism, drawing much applause from the hall; Sir Alan Duncan MP, who focused on Britain’s place in the world and equality for minorities; Rt Hon Emily Thornberry MP, who gave no speech but chose to answer questions instead, the highlight of which was ‘would you agree that Jeremy Corbyn is an advocate for terrorists?’ at which she attacked the hapless Sixth Former who had dared to pose the question, repeatedly crying ‘how dare you?’ By common consent among our Sixth Form pupils, Sir Vince Cable MP was a relative disappointment, speaking without the enthusiasm or sheer chutzpah of most of the others; Nicky Morgan MP fell into the same bracket. Thoughtful contributions were made by Dr Phillip Lee MP, the first minister to resign over Brexit.
The loudest reception was reserved for the two arch-Brexiteers, Nigel Farage MEP and Jacob Rees-Mogg MP. Farage in particular was mobbed, literally, as he left, with pupils demanding a selfie. One pupil began his question from the floor with, “Mr Farage, thank you for coming. I’m a big fan,” and Farage responded to the huge applause and almost equally loud – but more isolated – booing with a barnstorming performance which almost certainly reinforced people’s opinions of him, whichever view it is you happen to take. Rees-Mogg gave a more considered performance, effectively answering questions which addressed his traditional views on issues such as abortion, but also perhaps surprising a few with considerably more liberal views on immigration than may have been expected. Given the demographic of the audience, it was perhaps a surprise to hear the rapturous response given to the two Brexiteers, which perhaps suggests that, for yesterday’s crowd at least, the pull of celebrity is greater than the pull of principle.
Arguably the star of the show was Chuka Umunna MP, who spoke persuasively and entertainingly on Brexit and the Labour Party. He segued from a quip about politics (‘it’s just showbusiness for ugly people’) into an impassioned defence of Labour’s record in government on welfare, equality and education before addressing head-on a question from the floor about Labour’s response to anti-Semitism in the party; he said he was ‘ashamed’ and that far more had to be done to regain people’s trust, and currently that was not being done. Overall, he gave a very impressive performance which won over even some of the more right-wing elements among the Bethany Sixth Form.
This was a fantastic opportunity for our pupils to hear from some of the nation’s leading political lights and I hope that it will become a staple of our calendar for many years to come.