What are the differences between American and British Parliamentary styles of debating? Northeastern students prepare for the global stage

Isaac Moloney wearing a suit and speaking into a microphone at the World Universities Debating Championship.
Isaac Moloney of Northeastern University London competing at the World Universities Debating Championship in Madrid this year. Courtesy Photo

One of Isaac Moloney’s favorite movies is the critically panned “Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties,” so it was a bit of a challenge for him during a recent debate tournament to argue against the rise of sequels and remakes of popular media franchises. 

Moloney, however, likes the challenge.

“My interest in debating is that it gives you a platform to think of novel reasons to support things, and encourages you to consider things from both perspectives,” says Moloney, who is pursuing a master’s degree in global investment banking at Northeastern’s London campus where he is the head of the campus’ debate society. 

First-year undergraduate student Meera Shukla, meanwhile, joined debate in middle school because she has “always been into arguing.”

“I loved arguing with my parents, so they said ‘we should put you in debate,’” Shukla recalls, laughing.

But Moloney, who is from Ireland, and Shukla, a New Jersey resident, bring very different styles of debate to the London campus. 

“We’re used to American debate rules — partner vs. partner or teams vs. teams, very simple, a predetermined topic usually given well in advance,” explains Shukla, secretary of the debate society. “Here (in British Parliamentary style) there are two teams for each side, you have to get used to thinking of multiple aspects for both sides because sometimes you have to argue against your own team.”

Moreover, in British Parliamentary style, there is no lengthy preparation in order to, say, argue the merits of a certain lazy, orange, lasagna-loving cartoon cat. 

But as a global university, Northeastern prepares students for the global stage — which includes the debate stage.

“I’ve met so many people with different worldviews, so many people from different walks of life, it’s provided me with a different perspective,” Shukla says. “It’s different from high school when you know everyone from your own neighborhood, it’s much more global,” Shukla continues.

Moloney resurrected the debate society on Northeastern’s London campus this fall, and the club has grown to about a dozen or so active members. 

Most of the members are American, however, who have “a bit of a learning curve,” Moloney says.

Joshua Li, a first-year undergraduate student from Plano, Texas, and member of the debate society, agrees. 

Li explains the differences between the American and British Parliamentary styles of debating as they were explained to him by a judge in a recent tournament. 

“In British Parliamentary style you have a logic chain as to why A causes B and why B causes event C and then why C causes D, and all has to be logical,” Li says. “If you have a clear logic chain, it’s harder to break that logic chain because it makes sense to you and the judges.”

“The way we would do it in America is that A leads to D because of some sort of logic, and we can see that from evidence,” Li continues. “But any time you use evidence in British Parliamentary style, the judges kind of throw it out the window, because it could be attacked as specific to one part of the logic chain and your opponent could find ways to say the evidence doesn’t apply.”

Li says exposure to a different European debate style, however, has prepared him well for his studies in international business.

“If I’m communicating with people with any different background or understanding than me, I understand that I have to be more mindful of the way I communicate with them to be sure there are no miscommunications,” Li says. “I feel like I would have learned that eventually, but it’s nice to learn it now so I will be more mindful of any interaction I may have later.”

Shukla also sees benefits in the club, saying the experience has improved her intellectual dexterity and public speaking. 

“You have to think on your feet and have to be able to think from multiple positions, rather than being binary — black and white,” Shukla says. 

And although familiar with the British debating style from his high school and undergraduate days, Moloney has also learned from his experience with the club — especially from his fellow debaters during tournaments.

“It’s a fun event where you get a lot of experience debating, you get lots of feedback from judges about what you can do better, and you get to talk to students from all across Europe who are studying and doing a wide variety of things,” Moloney says.

Moloney also thinks that his skills in public speaking will serve him well as he begins a career in global investment banking. 

“Going into investment banking, it’s something that’s quite valuable if you can stand up, give a pitch about a company and carry yourself and convey yourself well,” Moloney says. 

And all three students praised the society as an opportunity to travel in Europe. 

“Even if these tournaments are just two-day events, it’s a nice way to get exposure to Europe,” Moloney continues. “And you get it relatively cheaply given that for most of these tournaments you’ll just be sleeping on somebody’s floor.”

Cyrus Moulton is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.moulton@northeastern.edu. Follow him on X/Twitter @MoultonCyrus.