Last Thursday evening, I addressed the Cambridge Union Society. To receive this invitation was a tremendous honour – I could never have imagined it a year ago.
I finally bought a dinner suit, from Savoy Tailor’s Guild on Strand, right by my office. The one I chose had a perfect lapel shape, was made of pure, light wool and had a very smart cut. The only issue is that it did not have double vents. I actually hate a single vent; I think a double looks much smarter, but to get a double I would have had to upgrade to a Hugo Boss for an additional £200, and that’s a lot to pay for a cut in the fabric.
At my hotel in Cambridge, I shaved, showered and dressed, critically eyeing myself in the mirror – in my black dinner suit and black bow tie. (If you have read Unimagined, you will know what kind of excited feelings this evoked.)
I thought the dinner before the debate would be a sombre affair, with stuffy old men, but it was remarkably relaxed. It gradually dawned on me that students are actually rather young, and the stuffy old man would be me.
In the Chamber of the Cambridge Union, I received a wonderful and very warm reception, which put me into a state of almost surreal joy.
The motion was, “This House would keep God separate from the State” and I was the primary speaker in favour of the motion. (Originally, the motion had been “This House would not let religion control the State” – which I thought would be a walkover – but in the morning I heard it had been changed at the insistence of the main opposing speaker.)
I used two examples of religions, some of whose adherents seek to drag God into the machinery of the state: Islam and Christianity.
For Islam, I pointed out that our evidence is contemporary, using the examples of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban. These are three different examples of people interpreting the will of God and acting on His behalf, but all resulting in dark societies where the human spirit is stifled.
For Christianity, I argued that we are fortunate that our strongest evidence is historical – that European history is actually a journey towards Enlightenment, and that many people had suffered over many centuries (the Spanish Inquisition, the burning of heretics, the drowning of witches etc), that we might have Liberty today. I said that freedom of thought and freedom of expression were precious rights – which we took for granted at our own peril.
I emphasised that I have nothing against people holding religious views and values, but that the machinery of the State should be based solely on reason, equality and justice, and that it should be transparent and accessible to all.
My closing remarks went like this (reproduced from my notes):
“I once again refer to those who died for our freedom. We cannot throw away their courage, their suffering, their sacrifice – that we might live in the Light of Reason and Liberty. To those who would have us live once again in ignorance, darkness, bigotry and fear, I say only this: ‘I hope and pray that, one day, ye shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall set you free!’”
The main speaker opposing the motion was Stephen Green, the head of Christian Voice. One of his arguments was that if we kept ‘God’ out of the State, then ‘Allah’ would soon take over.
During his speech, several members of the audience asked him to focus on the actual motion.
We won the debate by 109 votes to 15.
Afterwards, as I strode out of the Cambridge Union Society building, I had to walk by a group of students milling about. One commented, “He has the right lapels on his dinner jacket.” Bolstered by this, I swaggered past them, only to hear from behind, “But the single vent does rather spoil it.”
I sulked back to my hotel.