Panorama Czech students enjoy a taste of Westminster in Prague
One thing that was not cultivated in communist Czechoslovakia was the art of public speaking. Anyone of a certain age will remember the endless monologues of party secretaries, but twenty years on, there is a growing awareness of the importance of public debate. Many young Czechs with an interest in politics have followed with fascination the political sparring that goes on in Britain’s parliament, and with this in mind, the British Chamber of Commerce in Prague recently organized a debate, taking the British parliament as its model. It was the brainchild of the chamber’s James de Candole:
“The idea was to think of an event that would allow us to promote British parliamentary values and also encourage the already very well developed debating society in the Czech Republic. It seems to me that public speaking skills in whatever language, but especially in English, are very, very valuable in future life for any student. So those were the two purposes.”
Do you think that public speaking skills maybe somewhat neglected in the Czech Republic?
“Well, I thought so, before we set about organizing this event, but having met the Charles University Debating Society and having discovered quite how much debating is going on, I think probably it is not neglected. It may be neglected by an older generation, but it’s certainly not being neglected by the generation at university at the moment.”
The debate involved two celebrity speakers, both from Britain, and two Czech students, who had been chosen through previous rounds of debate. The students’ performance was assessed by a panel of expert judges, including the Czech Euro-MP Hynek Fajmon, and with the Czech Republic’s Environment Minister Martin Bursík also joining in the discussion. James de Candole told me more about the topic of debate:
“We thought it would be useful to explore a risk of freedom theme. It seemed to us on the board of the chamber that this is a theme that everyone can have an opinion on, because it is so very broad. I think it is also very topical in this country, because of the role that the president is playing. It is really quite exceptional that the president of a country takes such a strong and outspoken position on a political issue. The president’s position on climate change and on the Lisbon treaty overlap with each other and both fundamentally concern the issue of risk, our aversion to risk and risk of freedom issues.”
And so the motion was…
“The motion was, ‘This house believes that the application of the precautionary principle to public policy-making is harmful.’”
In layman’s terms, “the precautionary principle” is the principle under which policy makers place themselves under a moral and political obligation to prove that their decisions will not have serious negative consequences for the public or the environment. Opponents, like Czech President Klaus, argue that excessive caution leads to stagnation – nothing risked, nothing gained - while proponents of the principle often point to our responsibility towards the environment.
The first to argue for the motion – that is, against the precautionary principle - was a veteran British debater, the retired general and former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, who during his speech portrayed the principle as a recipe for top heavy bureaucracy:
“If I want a demonstration of how that creeping legislation has increased the paperwork, I’ve only got to compare the fact that the Lord’s Prayer, which I’m sure you all know, contains 71 well-chosen words, the Ten Commandments is 210 words, the American Declaration of Independence is 470 words, and the European rules on the export of duck eggs is 27,460 words.”
“As David Ramsbotham has said, it would be fantasy to imagine that all risk can or should be squeezed out of human life, but it would be even more foolish to jettison a policy tool which is essential to managing some of the greatest threats to our complex societies today. The first question I usually ask when considering the usefulness of any public policy tool is whether it has worked before, and happily the precautionary principle has a respectable record in the two great policy processes where it has been deployed most prominently. These are the Montreal Protocol to repair the hole in the ozone layer and the decades long journey towards concensus for decisive action against catastrophic climate change.”
Lord Ramsbotham’s arguments were backed up by Martin Dubéci from the Masaryk University in Brno, and he was countered by his fellow student from the same university, Monika Hlávková. Here are short extracts from both their speeches, starting with Martin, rejecting the precautionary principle:
“We can never achieve a situation where no risk will be put upon us. There will be a risk all the time, and what the precautionary principle is doing is not solving the question of risk, but rather saying – okay, we will just substitute the risks.”
And here is Monika defending the principle:
“What I believe should guide public policy and what you should do if you are a government and are actually responsible for the lives and the safety and security of your own people, then it is not be risky, but to try to ensure the highest possible safety and highest possible level of security for your own citizens, because that is what we believe is the primary role of a government. And I believe this is particularly true in situations such as possible harm to the environment or public health, which are irreversible effects.”
The panel of judges then assessed the speakers’ debating skills and after about twenty minutes they returned and declared that they had come to a unanimous decision that Lord Ramsbotham and Martin Dubéci, had argued the better case. But Euro MP Hynek Fajmon also had words of praise for Monika Hlávková:
“Monika is on the path to becoming a good politician, because she was very persuasive, which is, I think, the most important political quality, if you want to become a politician. She knows how to be persuasive and her speech was very good.”
So after the debate I asked both Monika and Martin if they saw a future for themselves in politics.
Monika: “Well, up to now I have not considered becoming a politician, but maybe. You cannot tell what lies in front of you.”
Martin, are you considering a political career?
Martin: “Oh no…. please!”
Martin: “Well, I would like to work in the non-profit sector or maybe the public sector, but not run for public office… please! I would not like to go through that!”
As a prize you are both going to London – to Westminster – to see both houses of the British parliament at work. Obviously you have seen the British parliament at work on television. What are your impressions?
Martin: “What I like about the nature of the British parliament is that there is a real exchange of argument between the two sides. You can see the clear confrontation of arguments during the Prime Minister’s Questions, and maybe this is something different in the political systems of Central Europe.”
Monika: “I have a feeling that in Central Europe, in the Czech Republic, politicians sometimes tend to hide and not to confront their political opponents, and that is something pretty different, for example in the Prime Minister’s Questions, when you can really see that the opposition leader and the prime minister are having a very good argument on many issues and not hiding from each other.”
And finally, a couple of words from the two seasoned debaters, Paul Hilder and Lord Ramsbotham, about the two young speakers.
Paul Hilder: “They were absolutely tremendous. I think Martin was robust and creative and Monika just very, very sharp in her rebuttals. Frankly I just thought that these two young people will go far, and they have a creativity and a critical intelligence, which is really world class.”
Lord Ramsbotham: “I think the liveliness, the interest and the logic of the way they marshaled their points was to me something that’s very exciting in people of that age.”