If They Can Do It, So Can You
It is always an interesting experience to do something a little different at school, outside the normal rhythms of each term, so the chance to host a hustings event for the parliamentary candidates for the Twickenham constituency offered the prospect of a fascinating evening on Wednesday. I even found myself getting a bit giddy, thinking for reasons that now completely escape me that I had seen Chuka Umunna signing in at reception. Several colleagues went to verify my claim and all returned disappointed. Time for a trip to Specsavers, methinks!
We did welcome three of the four candidates – in alphabetical order, Isobel Grant (Conservative), Ranjeev Walia (Labour) and Munira Wilson (Liberal Democrat) – but Stuart Wells from the Brexit Party was not present. As well as Radnor parents and pupils, our open invitation to the event generated an audience of well over a hundred people from across the local community. National journalists Iain Martin and Quentin Letts, who both currently write for The Times, were here, with the latter hoping to find something more authentic and local to record rather than the usual events with the tight control of the spin doctors.
John MacLean, our Director of Sixth Form, opened proceedings by highlighting the results in the constituency in the last few elections, the significant vote in favour of remaining in the EU in 2016 and, perhaps most interestingly, the fact that Twickenham had the highest turnout in the country at the 2017 election, with 79.9% of eligible voters taking part.
I remember a speaker at a conference once reminding his audience that questions should be no longer than one sentence and they should have a question mark at the end of them. It might have been useful to have made that point as the debate got under way, but John deserves enormous credit for the way he chaired the event, reminding everyone of our core value of respect and doing his best to turn some of the political posturing from the audience into coherent questions to which the panel could respond.
For the first fifteen minutes, there was a sense of genuine excitement. It was clear from the direction of the questioning and the volume of applause for the answers that the Labour candidate had brought along a lot of supporters. In contrast, Tory fans were conspicuous by their silence. Not for the first time, the Liberal Democrats were somewhere in the middle, but for a few precious minutes it looked like it was going to get really interesting.
But then, like a slow puncture on a bicycle tyre, the excitement began to drain away. The answers from the candidates seemed to lack bite and they struggled at times to remember policy details, too often reverting to some of the trite mantras that anyone with any political awareness has heard too often. Why are we still arguing about events ten years ago and who was to blame? It serves no purpose to blame Blair, Brown, Cameron or the Coalition when the crisis is here and now.
The vocal Labour supporters seemed to lose a little faith in their candidate, the Conservative struggled to achieve a positive audience response for anything she said and the Liberal Democrat seemed rather uncomfortable that her party’s policy on Brexit had limited her room for manoeuvre.
When I pulled rank as the Head to ask them about the importance for effective leaders to display consistent levels of honesty and integrity, it felt like I had hit a particular nerve because none of them seemed to have a convincing answer. I do not think it cuts it to say that Jo Swinson has only been in the role for a short time or that Jeremy Corbyn’s radicalism excuses his failure on anti-Semitism. And what message does it send to our young people when audiences laugh out loud at the Prime Minister and his flexible relationship with the truth?
My message to the pupils has been consistent in recent months, that they should not be afraid to stand up and be counted. Our children should never think that they can’t make a difference and they should never lack the confidence to have a go. Whatever their relative inexperience, they should be able to look at what happened on Wednesday and think that they have a valuable role to play in the future of both our country and the wider world.