From the January 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard
Last September the Islington Branch Organiser invited Mark MacGregor, chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students, to debate against the Socialist Party As democrats we favour dealing with the ideas of our opponents in public, letting workers decide which side is talking sense. MacGregor, who was approached at his office at Conservative Party headquarters, agreed to the date, time and terms of the debate. Our Organiser then wrote to him. asking for written confirmation. The Islington branch was informed of MacGregor's acceptance, a socialist speaker was appointed, and activity was set in motion to advertise the event.
By mid-October there was no written confirmation from MacGregor, so another telephone call was made to Tory HQ. MacGregor agreed he had accepted the invitation to debate but stated that he had changed his mind and was now against the idea. Had he intended to reply to our letter? He said that he had no intention of replying. "But that would have left us proceeding on the assumption that you were going to turn up". MacGregor was told; "That would just have been too bad", he replied. So much for Tory democracy.
Having planned a debate for 14 November and gone to some trouble to publicise the event, we were not to be deterred by the undemocratic practices of Mark MacGregor (whose organisational tactics are apparently deplored by many members of his party). Derek Laud - a parliamentary assistant to a Tory MP - agreed to step in as replacement speaker and confirmed his willingness to accept the date, time and format of the debate.
On 14 November the Islington branch meeting room was packed to capacity. Fifty non-members of the Party and almost as many members crowded in to hear the two sides and to have their say. The debate was scheduled to begin at 8pm At 8.05 the chairman apologised for the late start; Laud had not arrived. By 8.15 there was obvious impatience from the large crowd. It was explained that Laud had received a letter giving him all the details, including the starting time. At 8.20 the representative of the party "making Britain efficient" rolled into the room. He apologised for being late. The socialist speaker used every second of his time, leaving his opponent more to deal with than he proved capable of tackling. Laud managed to keep going for ten minutes and then sat down. In fairness, one should not blame him entirely for the pathetic effort: he was, after all, trying to defend the indefensible.
It is a basic democratic practice at Socialist Party meetings to allow time for questions and discussion. So, after the two speakers had opened up the chairman called for questions, pointing out that these would be followed by contributions from the floor. This format had been explained clearly in a letter to Laud and he had accepted it in writing. At this point, however, he objected to having to answer questions and stated (we quote from the tape recording): "I will not answer any questions. I reserve the right to remain silent ". Obviously, Laud had about as much confidence in his arguments as most people in the room did.
The question period proceeded with only the socialist speaker answering questions — all from non-members. After a while Laud reluctantly agreed to answer one question only. Thirty minutes later he walked out — he had remembered "an urgent engagement". The explanation was dear: his ideas had been destroyed and he was left with no answers. The meeting continued for another hour and proved to be one of the best of several lively meetings which Islington branch has run in 1985.
(A tape recording of the debate can be obtained from the Tapes Committee at Head Office.)