Cambridge Union Society

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Not to be confused with Cambridge University Students' Union.
Cambridge Union Society
Cambridge Union Society Arms.png
The coat of arms of the Cambridge Union Society.
Formation 1815
Type Student Debating Union
Headquarters Cambridge
Location 9A Bridge St Cambridge, CB2 1UB
Mr Michael C. Dunn Goekjian, Trinity
Affiliations World Universities Debating Council

The Cambridge Union Society, commonly referred to as "the Cambridge Union" or "the Union", is a debating society in Cambridge, England, and the largest society at the University of Cambridge. Founded in 1815, the Union is the oldest continually operating debating society in the world. Additionally, the Cambridge Union has served as a model for the foundation of similar societies at several other prominent universities, including the Oxford Union and the Yale Political Union. The Union is a private society with membership open to all students of Cambridge University or Anglia Ruskin University, and is completely separate from the Cambridge University Students' Union. The Union became a registered charity in May 2010.[1]

The Union has hosted political and other figures in its chamber, both state- and international-based, including the Dalai Lama, President Ronald Reagan, Professor Germaine Greer, Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, and Clint Eastwood. Speakers from the 21st century include academic Richard Dawkins, former British Prime Minister John Major, former President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf, comedian Dara Ó Briain, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Olympic legend Lord Coe, violinist and songwriter Diana Yukawa,[2] and actor Sir Ian McKellen.

History of the Union[3][4][edit]

The Cambridge Union was founded on 13 February 1815. Several years after it was founded, on 24 March 1817, the Union was temporarily shut down by the University. In 1821 the Society was allowed to reform, under strict guidelines.

The Union Society.
The Union Society

The Union's Bridge Street premises (52°12′31″N 0°07′10″E / 52.20861°N 0.11944°E / 52.20861; 0.11944) was designed by Alfred Waterhouse (who went on to design the Oxford Union Society's building) and formally opened on 30 October 1866. An additional wing was added several decades later. The future radical Liberal politician, Sir Charles Dilke, was the President chiefly responsible for construction. Included among the building's many rooms are the debating chamber, a dining room, bar, snooker room, the Keynes Library and various offices.

A debate at the Cambridge Union Society (c. 1887). There is no longer a dress code for members attending debates today.

Although Cambridge escaped virtually undamaged from the widespread bombing destruction of World War II, the Union's building was hit by a bomb dropped during one attack. The explosion caused extensive damage to the Society's library.

The Union is legally a self-funded society that owns and has full control over its private property and buildings in the Cambridge city centre. It enjoys strong relations with the university, and allows other student societies to hire rooms for a nominal cost. Guests are often admitted to Union events and they are sometimes open to all students.

The Cambridge Union Society debating chamber during the 2011 Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

After nearly 200 years, the Cambridge Union is best known for its debates, which often receive national and international media attention. The top members of its debating team compete internationally against other top debating societies. The union also organises talks by visiting speakers and a wide array of events throughout the academic year.

The Cambridge Union is sometimes confused with the Cambridge University Students' Union, the student representative body set up in 1971; consequently, the term 'President of the Union' may cause confusion. Although the Cambridge Union Society has never functioned as a students' union in the modern sense, it did briefly affiliate to the UK's National Union of Students in 1924.

Membership of the Society[edit]

The Cambridge Union receives no formal funding from the University and raises funds for event expenses and building maintenance through membership fees. Membership is open to students at the University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University.[5] Members are able to bring guests to certain functions. Some events are open to the public free of charge, others through the purchase of a ticket.

The society awards honorary memberships to particularly distinguished individuals and maintains reciprocal membership policies with similar societies such as the College Historical Society and the Oxford Union Society. Recently, Sir Ian McKellen was awarded honorary membership when he addressed the Union Society in January 2011, as were Lord Coe in May 2010 and former British Prime Minister John Major in April 2010.

Past speakers and debates[edit]

The Union puts on a wide variety of events for its members, but is best known for its Thursday night debates and individual speaker events. In both of these, leading figures from public life are invited to discuss something of interest to the membership.

Individual speakers have included British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and John Major. US Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, the first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, the first democratically elected President of Iraq Jalal Talabani,[6] Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, the last President of apartheid-era South Africa, F. W. de Klerk, spiritual leader of Tibet the Dalai Lama, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, actress Judi Dench, former head of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn,[7] chat show host Jerry Springer,[8] actress and model Pamela Anderson,[9] magician David Blaine,[10] and actors Bill Nighy,[11] Clint Eastwood, Roger Moore[12] and most recently, Russell Brand.[13]


The Standing Committee, the Union's primary day-to-day managing body, consists of the current President, Vice-President and Officers, the President-Elect and Officers-Elect. The Standing Committee also appoints positions in the society including the Secretary, Head of Event Management, Head of Publicity, Head of Audio-Visual and Press Officer, all of whom are entitled to attend the committee without voting rights, along with the Bursar.[14]

The Board of Trustees, currently chaired by Sir Richard Dearlove, is responsible for overseeing the long-term development of the Union's finances and property. Whilst the Trustees are not intimately involved with the day-to-day running of the Society, they maintain ultimate legal responsibility for the organization, its assets and status as a registered charity.

Elected officers[edit]

  • President: The President serves as the Chairman of Standing Committee, Debates, and Members' Business Meetings (the Union's governing body). They are ultimately responsible for the organisation and implementation of their term's programme of events, from debates and speaker events to open-mic nights and yoga sessions. Term in office is one academic term plus its preceding vacation (about 14–23 weeks).
  • Vice President (VP): The VP has general control of the business and premises of the Society. The VP is also responsible for overseeing longer-term planning within the Society, and is essentially a permanent secretary. Term in office is one calendar year (July–June), appointed by vote of the Standing Committee the preceding March.
  • Executive Officer: The Executive Officer is responsible for managing the Thursday night debates and implementing the decisions of Standing Committee, particularly if they do not fall clearly under a specific officer's role. They also receives feedback from members. Term in office is one academic term plus its preceding vacation (about 14–23 weeks).
  • Speakers Officer: The Speakers Officer is responsible for organising their term's series of speaker events and planning longer-term speaker events. Term in office is one academic term plus its preceding vacation (about 14–23 weeks).
  • Treasurer: The Treasurer is responsible for raising sponsorship funds, maintaining relations with corporations and local businesses (creating 'Treasurer's Treats' which provide discounts for members in local shops and restaurants), running merchandising operations and investigating the financial implications of decisions made by committees. However, the Bursar is the officer primarily responsible for monitoring the finances. Term in office is one academic term plus its preceding vacation (about 14–23 weeks).
  • Social Events Officer: The Social Events (known as 'Ents') Officer is responsible for organising the term's line-up of social events such as the Evening Balls, the Union Garden Party, aerobics sessions and many others. Term in office is one academic term plus its preceding vacation (about 14–23 weeks).
  • Debating Officers: This position is jointly held by two individuals who are responsible for organising the Society's activities in relation to competitive debating. The Debating Officers are considered members of Standing Committee and maintain a full vote each. Term in office is one calendar year (March–March).
  • Secretary: The Secretary is responsible for minuting debates, meetings of the Standing Committee and Members' Business Meetings (the Union's governing body). They are also technically responsible for the Society's records. Term of office is one academic term, appointed by vote of the Standing Committee, and the Secretary may serve multiple terms.

Termly elected officers serve a term (and its preceding vacation) as "officer-elect", prior to entering office, during which time they are voting members of the Standing Committee. This time is to be used to plan their term in office.[15]

In addition to these posts the Society also maintains an employed staff consisting of a Bursar, responsible for overseeing the long-term health of the Society, Office Managers and a Bar Manager. The Society also holds contracts for catering, cleaning, building maintenance, property management, IT services and legal advice.

Past officers[edit]

Notable past Presidents and Officers include:

In addition to the long list of real life distinguished individuals that served as officers of the Cambridge Union during their time in Cambridge, Will Bailey, a fictional character on The West Wing, a US television drama series, claimed to have been a "former president of Cambridge Union on a Marshall Scholarship", as well as MacKenzie McHale, a fictional character in the hit US series, The Newsroom.


The Cambridge Union is famous within the University for having a very long and complicated constitution; it is a common rumour that the constitution is longer than the entire Constitution of Canada. With the introduction of a new constitution from 2010, this is no longer the case. This was in fact untrue of the old constitution, but only just: a quick count puts the old Union constitution at 31,309 words[16] while the complete Constitution of Canada is 31,575 words long.[17] If the University's rules on Single Transferable Voting are included, then it is indeed longer than that of Canada. These rules are referenced within the constitution, but are not contained. By comparison, the rules of the Oxford Union Society total over 45,000 words, not including the Standing Orders and Schedules.


On 9 May 2011, the Union launched its online public video service 'CUS-Connect', whereby recordings of past events and interviews were uploaded for free viewing—these have since been transferred to a YouTube channel titled 'The Cambridge Union Society'.[18] The Union occasionally live-streams popular events, with the first ever live stream held on 12 May 2011, in which Stephen Fry debated Radio 1 DJ Kissy Sell Out on the motion: "This House believes that classical music is irrelevant to today's youth". The Union also live-streamed Russell Brand's interview in January 2014.[13]

The Cambridge Union Society café and bar in June 2014

See also[edit]



  • Cradock, Percy (1953). Recollections of the Cambridge Union 1815-1939. Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes. 
  • Parkinson, Stephen (2009). Arena of Ambition: A History of the Cambridge Union. London: Icon Books. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 52°12′31″N 0°07′10″E / 52.20861°N 0.11944°E / 52.20861; 0.11944