British Parliamentary
Style Debating

(Notes prepared for the 2001 Crime Prevention Debating Competitions)

 

 

 

Patrick Delaney and Harry Greenwell

September 2001

  1. A New Style

The Crime Prevention Competitions are conducted in the British Parliamentary style of debating. This style has many similarities with the ‘Australian style’ that is used in the Ford, Murray and Douse competitions. Speakers are still marked on matter (40 marks), manner (40 marks) and method (20 marks) and they are still expected to introduce positive material (their ‘case’) and engage in rebuttal of the opposing arguments. There are also some significant differences that can seem overwhelming to begin with but the principles behind it are easy to learn and apply. With a little background information on British Parliamentary style it can become a great deal simpler and this information sheet seeks to aid this process.

2. The Basics

The first and most notable differences about British Parliamentary style are that there are four teams in a debate, and two people in each team. This four-team debate reflects not only the Government/Opposition structure of British Parliament but also the different factions within these two sides. For example, in Australia, the Coalition Government comprises the Liberal and National parties whilst the Opposition parties include the Labor Party, the Democrats and the Greens. Thus, in British Parliamentary debating, there are two sides (Government or Opposition) but four teams (or factions):

GOVERNMENT OPPOSITION

1st Government Faction 1st Opposition Faction

2nd Government Faction 2nd Opposition Faction

Each team has a ‘Leader’ and ‘Deputy Leader’ so the debate proceeds as follows:

GOVERNMENT OPPOSITION

1st Faction Leader 1st Faction Leader

1st Faction Deputy Leader 1st Faction Deputy Leader

2nd Faction Leader 2nd Faction Leader

2nd Faction Deputy Leader 2nd Faction Deputy Leader

Continuing with the example of the Coalition Government, two things are worth noting. Whilst the Liberal and National parties work together and present consistent arguments in favour of their policies, they also try to differentiate themselves to win votes for their parties. The same principle underpins British Parliamentary debating: the two factions must present consistent arguments but the faction that wins will be the one that has presented the best positive arguments and rebuttal for their side.

3. The Roles of the Teams

The guiding principle of 4-team parliamentary debating is that, to win, a team must maintain relevance throughout the debate. How each team does this depends on their position in the debate and so the roles of the speakers are best considered in terms of first and second factions.

1st Factions

The role of the first factions is fourfold. They must:

  1. define the issue of the debate;
  2. present their case;
  3. respond to the key arguments introduced by their opposing first faction; and
  4. use points of information to maintain relevance in the debate.
Definitions

The First Government faction has a stronger right of definition than in ‘Australian-style’ debating. This right, known as a ‘semi-divine’ right of definition, essentially means that the definition cannot be challenged simply because it is slightly unfair, or because it is not the best possible definition. It can only be challenged if it is:

  1. a truism (something that cannot be argued against); or
  2. if it is patently unreasonable.

Since it is highly unlikely that any team will define so badly as to fail one of these criteria, the general rule of thumb for First Opposition factions is do not challenge a definition. However, with this right of definition comes a responsibility – First Government factions must not abuse their power of definition.

If a First Government team does present an unusual or unexpected definition, adjudicators are likely to penalise that team and, by contrast, give more leeway to the First Opposition for having to deal with a difficult definition on the spot. Ultimately, First Government teams should define the topic as fairly as they possibly can, as it is in their best interests to do so as well as the interests of the debate as a whole. For similar reasons, it is in the best interests of First Oppositions not to challenge a definition, even if it is unexpected.

The role of the definition is to establish the issue for the debate. Debaters often define topics word-by-word, even using a dictionary. Occasionally a discussion of key words in the topic may be useful but this should only occur to the extent that it helps clarify the issue for debate.

Example One. On the topic ‘That Australia should become a republic’, the affirmative might elaborate on the key word ‘republic’ so that the issue of the debate is argument where the affirmative will support the replacement of the Queen and governor-general with a head of state elected by two-thirds of parliament.

Example Two. On the topic ‘That we should swim against the tide’ the affirmative is likely to identify the issue as non-conformity. They may then try to create the issue at a general level – that is it better not to conform. Alternatively, they may choose to narrow the topic to a topical issue of non-conformity, perhaps whether Australia conforms to international norms. Thus, the issue would be revolve around the affirmative’s argument that Australia should, in several specific ways, ignore or reject various international norms whilst the negative would argue that Australia should embrace those norms. (Note: this example is more sophisticated than what we would expect from any school debater.)

Case Material

First teams should not try to cover all the issues in the debate because teams only have two speakers and if they try to cover every issue single-handedly then they probably won’t end up covering any of them as well as they should. First Factions should limit themselves to a few main issues, which they elaborate thoroughly. That way, there is enough material left in the debate for the later teams to use. Focusing in on a few arguments also tends to make them more powerful arguments, because they have been given the time they deserve, and they also tend to last longer in the debate. In particular, the First Opposition faction speakers should not try to cover too many issues as they must engage in more rebuttal than the First Government.

The first factions of both sides need to maintain relevance throughout the debate to gain the greatest marks. This is achieved by:

  1. establishing their key arguments as the main facets of the debate; and
  2. the use of points of information (discussed further below).

If the arguments presented by the first factions are side-tracked or forgotten then those factions are likely to lose relevance to the debate overall. Though the advantage of going first is the ability to set the grounds for the debate, the disadvantage is that by the end of the debate it has been some time since a first team speaker has spoken, and this must be overcome through points of information.

 

2. Second Factions

The role of second factions is fourfold. They must:

  1. introduce a ‘case extension’;
  2. use points of information to maintain relevance in the debate;
  3. respond to the key arguments introduced by the first factions; and
  4. respond to the case extension of their opposing second faction.
Case Extensions

For the National Party to win votes in its own right, it must differentiate itself from the Liberal Party. Consequently, it must make its own distinct contribution to the policy debate. Similarly, in British Parliamentary debating the second factions must make a distinct contribution to the debate – this is called a ‘case extension’. Both second factions must introduce a case extension.

By introducing their case extension, teams should seek to cover an aspect of the debate not yet covered. The simplest and most common form of case extension is just the introduction of a new argument. For example, if a first faction had discussed the social and economic sides of an argument, a second faction could discuss the environmental issues of a debate. In this context it is also legitimate to take an underdeveloped argument from the first team and argue it to its full potential. However, the point must be underdeveloped otherwise the case extension will seem repetitive and derivative. Alternatively, a case extension could come in the form of an analysis of an underlying issue in the debate. For example, a debate on the success of feminism could have a case extension discussing the aims of feminism, and how these have changed. A third possibility is to use an in-depth case study to form a case extension. An example of this could be examining Indonesia in detail in a debate about third world development.

The case extension must be consistent with arguments produced by the first faction. In other words, it must follow on from the first factions arguments, yet also cover new territory in the debate. It is not permissible to contradict your first faction, for example, by changing the definition or coming up with an entirely new model.

Whatever the final choice of case extension, it cannot be too long. Only the Leaders of the second factions can cover extensions, as the Deputy Leaders must confine themselves to rebuttal and cannot introduce new material. A few strong arguments or one central issue is all that is required to constitute a case extension. Given the significance of having a case extension it is usually preferable to argue it prior to rebuttal if you are the Leader of a second faction. This ensures that it is not missed or covered too quickly, and also gives the other second faction team time to prepare rebuttal on the point, which would otherwise be difficult.

Second factions should also seek to engage with each other. Rebuttal should not simply be confined to the first team’s arguments, but should also respond to the case extension of the other side. Failing to do this allows your opposition’s case extension to go by unquestioned and unrebutted.

Maintaining Relevance in the Debate

Like first factions, the second factions must also maintain relevance throughout the debate and particularly the first half of the debate. Points of information provide the means to achieve this. Second factions should seek to enter the debate as soon as they can through points of information. If at all possible second factions should use points to introduce their case extension early in the debate. Even if the case extension cannot be developed through points of information, the second factions should nonetheless offer many points in the first half of the debate. This is necessary to make their presence felt in the debate as early as possible.

4. Points of Information

Many debaters will already be familiar with points of information through the Murray and Douse competitions, but since they are of paramount importance in British Parliamentary style debating they warrant further attention. Points of information are particularly important in British Parliamentary style because they are the crucial means by which first factions can remain relevant in the second half of the debate and they are the crucial means by which second factions can gain relevance in the first half of the debate. Without effective points of information a team can be forgotten for significant parts of the debate. By contrast, well-used points of information can ensure that a faction is heard throughout the debate and that its arguments are given the priority they deserve.

Formalities

Points of information are only offered to opposing speakers. To offer a point of information the ‘offerer’ should stand in her/his place, say ‘point of information’ and wait. The speaker will either:

If a point is accepted, the offerer has roughly 10 seconds to make a point that is short, pertinent and possibly witty. Most importantly, it should be short. Points of information afford enough time for one or two sentences only so a significant skill is being able to get a powerful point out briefly. This really is the same skill as the politician’s ten-second sound bite.

Speakers should usually accept 2 points of information during their speech (more will than two usually interferes with structure, timing and therefore method; less than two will usually look cowardly and may affect matter). Debaters should offer at least 2 points per opposing speech. There is no maximum except for politeness – offering too many points too quickly will be interpreted as badgering and may lose manner marks.

Typical points of information

Points of information can be used in a number of ways. Because they have greater importance in British Parliamentary debating, they must be used more strategically. Thus, in this style, points are more often used to preface a case extension (for second factions) or to reiterate a case (for first factions). Of course, points can still be used in a variety of other ways. For example:

5. Conclusion

British Parliamentary style can be quite different from the standard Australian style in a number of ways, but for the most part these differences add to the experience of debating. This sheet has been designed to help give a quick outline of the basic principles of British Parliamentary style to help make the debating experience easier and more entertaining.