Cambridge Union Society

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Not to be confused with Cambridge University Students' Union.
Cambridge Union Society
Cambridge Union Society Arms
The coat of arms of the Cambridge Union Society.
Formation 1815
Sponsor Deloitte
Type Student Debating Union
Headquarters Cambridge
Location 9A Bridge St Cambridge, CB2 1UB
President Timothy Squirrell, Churchill
Vice-President Nick Wright, Trinity
Executive Officer Frederick Dyke, Sidney Sussex
Speakers Officer Christof Epaminondas, Trinity
Treasurer Oliver Brecher, Selwyn
Social Events Officer Eloise Oakley, Murray Edwards
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. The Cambridge Union has served as a model for the foundation of similar societies at several other prominent universities, including the Oxford Union, Studentafton 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] and entered into a 3 year partnership with professional service providers Deloitte in November, 2013.[2]

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,[3] and actor Sir Ian McKellen.[4]

History of the Union[edit]

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

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.[5][6]

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.[5][6]

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.[5][6]

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.[5][6]

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.[5][6]

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.

Partnership with Deloitte[edit]

In November 2013, the Union entered into a 3 year partnership with Deloitte in order to address increasingly high running costs. Such issues had notoriously plagued the Oxford Union several years earlier,[7] and had resulted in financial issues at both historic societies. The President at the time stated that the partnership would also enable the Union to access Deloitte's professional services and technical expertise.[2] Addressing concerns that such support would jeopardise the Society's independence, the Union stated "Deloitte will not be choosing the speakers or debate motions and the Union will remain a society dedicated to free speech, which prioritises its members’ interests".[2]

2015 Celebrations[edit]

The Union will celebrate its 200th Anniversary in 2015. The Union has put together a specialist committee composed of former and current Officers to organise a range of events to mark this occasion, including special debates, dinners and parties in Cambridge and, for the first time in its history, in London.

The Union has declared that the stated purpose of its anniversary is to allow "members of the Union from across different generations to come together and celebrate 200 years of free speech and the art of debating", and will begin the year's events (which will occur alongside the Union's regular termly program) with a Dinner and Debate with former Officers of the Union at Cambridge. Later in the year, the Committee is planning a Garden Party; and a special debate in London.[8]


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 and sponsorship. Membership is open to students at the University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University.[9] 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.[10]

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. One of the Union's most famous debates in recent years was between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams in February 2013, on the motion, 'This House Believes Religion has no place in the 21st Century', which was rejected by the assembled members.[11] The Union's debates regarding religion have also created several controversial incidents, including in October 2014, when Peter Hitchens, speaking in favour of the motion 'This House Regrets the Rise of New Atheism', appeared to break the rules of the House by physically intimidating Baron Desai after a heated exchange[12]

Individual speakers have included British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher 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,[13] Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, the last President of apartheid-era South Africa, F. W. de Klerk, spiritual leader of Tibet the Dalai Lama, academic Germaine Greer, economist Ha Joon Chang, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, actors Brian Blessed, Judi Dench, Clint Eastwood, Roger Moore[14] and Bill Nighy,[15] former head of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn,[16] chat show host Jerry Springer,[17] actress and model Pamela Anderson,[18] magician David Blaine,[19] and most recently, comedian and political activist Russell Brand, TV personality and actor David Hasselhoff and American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson.[4]


The Cambridge Union Society is an organisation that was founded and is headed by students. Each term is planned and carried out by a mixture of elected officers and appointed student staff, with support from the organisation's non-student staff and trustees. The governance of the Cambridge Union is mandated by its Constitution.[20]

Standing Committee[edit]

Standing Committee is the Union's primary day-to-day managing body, which consists of the current President, Vice-President and Officers, the President-Elect and Officers-Elect. All Officers of the Union are elected by its membership on a termly basis, with the sole exception of the Vice-President, who is appointed by Standing Committee on an annual basis. Officers of the Union are elected a term in advance, allowing them to serve one term as an officer-elect to prepare for their following term in office.[20]

  • President
  • Vice President
  • Executive Officer
  • Speakers Officer
  • Treasurer
  • Social Events Officer
  • Debating Officers

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.[21]


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. To maintain the link between the Student management and the Trustees, the President of the Union is traditionally appointed as a Trustee for the duration of their term in office.[20]

  • Sir Richard Dearlove KCMG OBE (Chairman)
  • Dr Nigel Brown OBE
  • Mr Andy Swarbrick FCA
  • Dr Nigel Yandell
  • Mr Nick Heath FRICS
  • The Hon Daniel Janner QC
  • Janet Turner QC
  • Tim Squirrell, President, Michaelmas 2014

Review Committee[edit]

The Review Committee of the Cambridge Union is a committee of former Officers appointed by Standing Committee under the guidance of the Vice President. It is responsible for handling all disciplinary matters of the Society and may also be called upon to adjudicate on electoral malpractice. No member of Review Committee may serve as an elected officer for the duration of their term.[20]

  • Julien Domercq (ex officio President, Michaelmas 2009) - Chair
  • Joshua Blanchard Lewis (ex officio Vice President, 2008-9)
  • Jan Jonathon Bock (ex officio Senior Committee Member, Michaelmas 2009)
  • Lauren Davidson (ex officio President, Lent 2011)
  • Joel Fenster (ex officio President, Easter 2013)
  • Alessandro Forzani (ex officio Vice President, 2012–13)
  • Rahul Mansigani (ex officio Treasurer, Easter 2010)
  • Sophie Odenthal (ex officio Speakers Officer, Lent 2012)

Every term, Standing Committee is also responsible for appointing a variety of positions within the society including the Secretary, Head of Event Management, Head of Publicity, Head of Audio-Visual and Press Officer amongst others, all of whom are entitled to attend Standing Committee meetings without voting rights, along with the Bursar.[22]

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 the Cambridge Union on a Marshall Scholarship", as well as MacKenzie McHale, a fictional character in the hit US series, The Newsroom.


The Cambridge Union was 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. This was in fact untrue, but only just: a quick count puts the old Union constitution in question at 31,309 words[23] while the complete Constitution of Canada is 31,575 words long.[24] If the University's rules on Single Transferable Voting are included, then this Constitution was indeed longer than that of Canada. These rules are referenced within this old 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.

A new draft of the Constitution of the Cambridge Union Society was drafted and approved by the Union's Standing Committee, and approved by Trustees on Tuesday, 29 April 2014. It came into force on 1 July 2014.[22]

CUS Live[edit]

At the end of the 2013/2014 term, the Union announced that as part of the 2015 celebrations, the Union will also be launching a permanent live streaming service, to be integrated with a new automatic multi-camera rig in the Main Chamber. This service is to be called CUS Live, which will hosted on the Union's Website, and will be available to access by Union members from October 7, 2014. As membership of the Cambridge Union Society is for life, the service will also be available to non-resident members, and will include the ability to contribute virtually via questions and comments to be read out on the floor of the Union.[25]

The Union will also be broadcasting all events during the Michaelmas 'open period' (a 2 week period at the start of the year where Union events are open to non-members) by temporarily making CUS Live publicly accessible.


Most Cambridge Union events are uploaded to their public YouTube channel, which has several thousand subscribers and often acts as a public forum for debate between users.[26]


The Cambridge Union, like it's Oxford counterpart, is no stranger to controversy over its choice of speakers. Protests have been arranged by students against the appearance of Universities Minister David Willetts, Government Minister Eric Pickles,[27] during which the building was broken into, former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn,[28] Marine Le Pen[29] and Wikileaks Founder Julain Assange.[30]

Responding to these criticisms, the Union is often quoted as upholding the universal right to free speech, against the principles of No Platform passed by the National Union of Students and upheld by a few groups within Cambridge.[31][32][33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "THE CAMBRIDGE UNION SOCIETY". OpenCharities. OpenCharities. 10 September 2012. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c
  3. ^ "The Cambridge Union Society Welcome Diana Yukawa". Diana Yukawa. Diana Yukawa. 2 May 2012. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^ a b c d e Parkinson, Stephen (2009). Arena of Ambition: A History of the Cambridge Union. London: Icon Books.
  6. ^ a b c d e
  7. ^
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  10. ^
  11. ^
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  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ a b c d
  21. ^
  22. ^ a b
  23. ^ "Cambridge Union Constitution". Retrieved 2010-10-22. 
  24. ^ "The Constitution of Canada". Retrieved 2005-12-05. 
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^


  • 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