Cambridge Union Society
The coat of arms of the Cambridge Union Society.
|Type||Student Debating Union|
|Location||9A Bridge St Cambridge, CB2 1UB|
|President||Oliver Mosley, St John's|
|Chair of Trustees||Chris Smith, Baron Smith of Finsbury, Pembroke|
|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, Studentafton (Lund, Sweden), Siddons Union Club 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, and entered into a 3-year partnership with professional service providers Deloitte in November, 2013.
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 academics Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams, former British Prime Ministers John Major, former President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf, comedian Dara Ó Briain, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Olympic legend Lord Coe, comedian and activist Russell Brand, and actor Sir Ian McKellen.
- 1 History of the Union
- 2 Membership of the Society
- 3 Past speakers and debates
- 4 Governance
- 5 Recordings and Streaming
- 6 Controversy
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 External links
History of the Union
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's Bridge Street premises (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.) were designed by
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.
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.
The Union became a registered charity in May 2010, and entered into a 3-year partnership with professional service providers Deloitte in November, 2013 in order to address increasingly high running costs. 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".
In 2015 the Union will celebrate its Bicentennial. A specialist committee composed of former and current Officers has been put together 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 announced a major refurbishment project to begin after the conclusion of its Bicentenary in 2015 to address major structural problems and to expand its existing facilities, subject to approval by planners. The project is to be financed through the leasing of disused parts of its site to Trinity College, Cambridge in a deal worth £4.5 million.
Membership of the Society
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. Members are able to bring guests to certain functions provided that the guests would not be allowed to purchase membership. Social events and events organised by external bodies are occasionally open to the public, with discounts for Union members
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
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. 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
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, 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, Bradley Whitford, Judi Dench, Clint Eastwood, Roger Moore and Bill Nighy, former head of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn, chat show host Jerry Springer, actress and model Pamela Anderson, magician David Blaine, and most recently, comedian and political activist Russell Brand, American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, and second person to walk on the moon Buzz Aldrin. A more complete list of past speakers is listed on their website.
Winston Churchill, former British Prime Minister.
Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist
Stephen Fry, actor, author and comedian
Judi Dench, actress
Former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi
US President Ronald Reagan
Jerry Springer, American television presenter
Bill Nighy, English actor
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Notable past Presidents and Officers include:
- John Maynard Keynes
- Philip Noel-Baker
- Gerald Strickland
- Spencer Horatio Walpole
- Rab Butler
- Michael Ramsey
- James Peiris
- Douglas Hurd
- Leon Brittan
- Kenneth Clarke
- Michael Howard
- Norman Lamont
- Arianna Huffington
- Andrew Mitchell
- Robert Harris
- Adair Turner
- Clare Balding
- Vince Cable
- Gavin Barwell
- Theodore Beck
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 while the complete Constitution of Canada is 31,575 words long. 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.
Recordings and Streaming
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 the Society's YouTube channel titled 'The Cambridge Union Society'. Before 2014, the Union only occasionally live-streamed 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".
Members' Streaming Service
As part of its Bicentennial celebrations, the Union launched a permanent live streaming service, to be integrated with a new automatic multi-camera rig in the Main Chamber. The new service, called CUS Live, includes the ability to contribute to debates virtually via questions and comments to be read out on the floor of the Union. CUS Live is hosted on the Union's website and is available only to members of the society.
Hosting of Speakers
The Cambridge Union, like its 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, during which the building was broken into, former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Marine Le Pen and Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange. Most recently, the hosting of Germaine Greer caused a public row between the Union and the Cambridge Students' Union's LGBT+ group, due to Greer's alleged transmisogyny towards Rachael Padman. 
The LGBT+ group continues to boycott all LGBT+ events at the Cambridge Union having declared it to no longer represent a 'safe space'.
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.
2015 Counter-Terrorism Bill
Lobbying by former Union Presidents Lord Deben and Lord Lamont resulted in the specific exclusion of the Cambridge and Oxford Unions from the Government's counter-terrorism bill, amid fears it could restrict free debate. Deben argued that the provisions within the bill would have prevented the hosting of British Union of Fascists' leader Oswald Mosley in the 1950s, concluding that the bill threatened "an essential British value". The National Union of Students used the exclusion to argue that the passage of the Bill was too rapid and ill-thought out, whilst both the Oxford and Cambridge Union reaffirmed that they were not legally part of their respective Universities and thus were never subject to the bill in the first place.
Strong opposition to the bill from Liberal Democrats and Senior Conservative peers eventually resulted in the shelving of provisions regarding Universities' until after the 2015 General Election.
Referendum on Julian Assange
The Union called a referendum on the hosting of Julian Assange on October 22nd 2015, arguing that his situation was a unique one that required the consultation of its members. The referendum passed with 76.9% of the vote. Turnout was 1463.
- List of Cambridge Union Presidents since 1815
- : Oxford Union
- : Durham Union
- : Olivaint Conference of Belgium
- : Yale Political Union
- : Berkeley Forum
- : Philodemic Society
- : College Historical Society
- : Queen's Debating Union
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Cambridge Union Society.|
- Cambridge Union Society, cambridge-union.org
- Cambridge Union Society Constitution, cambridge-union.org