Britain’s relationship with the European Union has been highly controversial since before it even began. Forty-one years ago after the original referendum on whether to stay in the European Economic Community, the question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” has been put to the people, to be answered on 23rd June. This has been the biggest talking point in British politics generally, and it has also been a recurring issue at Wilberforce College.
For a long time we knew relatively little about the debate. We knew that ITV Calendar would be covering it and that students were invited to ask questions, but we had no certain knowledge of the politicians in attendance. At various points we thought we might have David Davis, Karl Turner, Diana Johnson or Graham Stuart. Then we heard that we would have Alan Johnson and a UKIP MEP (we never knew which one). A few days before the debate we even heard that Johnson had “wobbled” and might pull out. The afternoon before the debate, as the atrium was evacuated and closed off to begin the conversion to a makeshift television studio, we still were none the wiser. On the morning of Friday 13th I was finally told that we had “Mike from UKIP” and subsequently I deduced that this was Mike Hookem, member of the European Parliament for Yorkshire & the Humber.
It was at 2pm that students were finally allowed into the atrium, and there we were introduced to Paul Brand, who was hosting the installment. We had all been provided with a pair of laminated cards: the first bore a black question mark, while the second was a choice between the Union Flag and the EU’s circle of stars. Several takes were expended before Brand managed not to say “Union Jack”. We were asked to hold up the image which represented our position before and after the debate. Eventually (around 3pm) we had our panellists arrive. The seating arrangement was unusual – we thought that Johnson and Hookem would be on the floor seating opposite the students on the steps, but instead they were positioned in our midst, with some other students filling up the additional seats. Nobody could quite understand this decision.
The politicians began by making introductory speeches on the merits of staying or leaving. Johnson made the emotional appeal to the European project, saying that the Union had been a safeguard against war on the continent. He questioned the use of the Union flag for the Leave vote, saying that Brexit was not the patriotic British option. Hookem dismissed the romanticism of “Remainians” and warned the students about TTIP. We noticed that he was relying quite a lot on his iPad.
I was the first to ask a question, which was whether Brexit would revive Hull’s fishing industry. I seem to always end up on that topic when appearing on television. Other questions followed on immigration (naturally), terrorism, commerce and the obligatory quip that “You can’t go back to the British Empire.”. Throughout the debate it became clear that the two contestants were not evenly matched – Johnson had spent many years on the front line of politics including a period in the cabinet, whereas Hookem was a fairly obscure figure whose career in the European Parliament did not even stretch two years. He was rather obviously out of his depth during much of the debate and struggled to maintain a smooth flow of words when giving answers – whereas Johnson had spent decades polishing his speeches, Hookem often communicated in short, fragmented sentences.
The debate ended with a reprise of the flag display. By this point, Johnson had clearly proven the more effective debater as there had been a clear swing from Leave to Remain among the students in attendance. Six days later, the college launched its own referendum on-line, with the result that 63% of respondents preferred to remain. The result of the actual referendum (including for the Hull area) are likely to be much different.