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The coat of arms of The Oxford Union Society
|Type||Student debating union|
|Stephen Horvath, New College|
|Affiliations||World Universities Debating Council|
The Oxford Union Society, commonly referred to simply as the Oxford Union, is a debating society in the city of Oxford, England, whose membership is drawn primarily from the University of Oxford. Founded in 1823, it is Britain's third oldest University Union (after the University of St Andrews Union Debating Society and The Cambridge Union), and has provided an opportunity for many budding politicians from Britain and other countries to develop their debating skills and to acquire a reputation and contacts.
- 1 Status and membership
- 2 Union buildings
- 3 Debating
- 4 The Union and the Student Union
- 5 OLDUT and OUS
- 6 Notable speakers
- 7 Free speech
- 8 Retractions of speaker invitations
- 9 Controversy
- 10 Governance
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 Other sources
- 14 External links
Status and membership
The Oxford Union is an unincorporated association; its property is held in trust in favour of its objectives and members, and governed by its rules (which form a multi-partite contract between the members).
Since its foundation, it has been independent of the University: historically, this was because the university restricted junior members from discussing certain issues (for example, theology). Although such restrictions have since been lifted, it has remained entirely separate from the University, and is constitutionally bound to remain so.
Only members of Oxford University are eligible to become life members of the Union, but students at certain other educational institutions are entitled to join for the duration of their time in Oxford. These institutions are:
- Magna Carta College
- Oxford Brookes University
- Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies
- Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies
- Ripon College, Cuddesdon
- Ruskin College
- St Stephen’s House
Shorter membership is also extended to those participating in some visiting study programmes in Oxford.
Residential memberships are available to Oxford residents who are not from the university, but only if they are deemed worthy by a full meeting of officers of the Union.
The Union buildings are owned by a separate charitable trust, the Oxford Literary and Debating Union Trust.
The Oxford Union buildings are located in Frewin Court, off Cornmarket Street, and on St Michael's Street. The original Union buildings were designed by Benjamin Woodward and opened in 1857. The society soon outgrew these premises and commissioned Alfred Waterhouse to design a free-standing debating chamber in the gardens, opened in 1879. This was about a decade after the completion of the Cambridge Union's premises, also designed by Waterhouse, and the exterior of the two buildings is very similar.
The original Woodward debating chamber is now known as "The Old Library". The Old Library is best known for its Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, referred to as the Oxford Union murals. The current debating chamber, and several further extensions to the main buildings were added over the next forty years. The final extension was designed in a conventional Gothic Revival style by Walter Mills and Thorpe and built in 1910-11. It provides the MacMillan Room (the Union dining room) as well as the Goodman Library, underneath which there are basement library stacks. The Union also consists of a Bar on the ground floor, the Morris Room (a meeting room) and Snooker Room on the first floor, and a Members' TV Room on the third (uppermost) floor, along with separate offices for the President, Librarian, Treasurer and Secretary.
Many of the rooms in the Union are named after figures from the Union's past, such as the Goodman Library, with its oriel windows, and the wood-panelled MacMillan Room with barrel ceiling. The buildings have gradually been added to with paintings and statues of past presidents and prominent members.
The Gladstone Room also contains William Ewart Gladstone's original cabinet table, semi-circular in design so that he could look all his ministers in the eye as he held forth. The Old Library contains a fireplace situated in the middle of the floor, with a concealed flue, a rare design of which only a handful of examples survive in the UK.
In the debating chamber there are busts of such notables as Roy Jenkins, Edward Heath, Michael Heseltine, George Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston and William Ewart Gladstone. There is also a grand piano in the debating chamber known as the "Bartlet-Jones Piano" after the Oxford University Music Society president who found it dusty and forgotten in a cupboard in the Holywell Music Room and placed it on permanent loan to the Union. The piano was unveiled by Vladimir Ashkenazy, who famously refused to play it in front of the packed chamber because he "had not warmed up". The despatch boxes which continue to be used in Union debates are modelled on those in the House of Commons, and were offered to the House during World War II.
As recently as the 1970s the Oxford Union still provided a full silver service dining room for its members, which like its famous bar was the afternoon and evening venue of choice for many of the university's leading undergraduate journalists and politicos. To be invited to dine at the large table in the bay window, the usual domain of the Union's president, was considered the acme of attainment in that particular sphere of the university. It was often said[by whom?] more plots were hatched around that particular table on a regular evening than in the Houses of Parliament on Bonfire Night. Similarly the Union's two libraries were extensively used by that same cadre of undergraduates, mainly studying humanities, who were rushing at the last minute to complete the obligatory weekly essay for their formal university education. The Union's buildings were used as a location for the films Oxford Blues (1984) and The Madness of King George (1994).
Debating at the Oxford Union takes two forms — competitive debating and chamber debating.
Competitive debating is the preserve of a minority of members of the Union. The Union's best debaters compete internationally against other top debating societies, and the Oxford Union regularly fields one of the most successful teams at the World Universities Debating Championship (which the Union hosted in 1993) and the European Universities Debating Championship. The Union also runs the prestigious Oxford Schools' Debating Competition and Oxford Intervarsity Debating Competition competitions, which respectively attract schools and universities from around the world, as well as running a number of internal debating competitions.
Chamber debating, including the debates (known as Public Business Meetings) with invited guest speakers for which the Union is best known, tends to be less formal in format (even if more formal in tone[clarification needed]) than competitive debates, and the manner of delivery is closer to public speaking, with audience engagement far more important.
Public Business Meeting debates also have voting. At the end of the debate, the audience votes on the proposition by exiting the hall through a door, the right-hand side of which is marked 'ayes' and the left-hand side 'noes'. This follows the style of the British Parliament, which votes this way if it is necessary to "divide the House".
The Oxford Union has been described as the "world's most prestigious debating society".
The Union and the Student Union
The Oxford Union is often confused with the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU). OUSU is the officially recognised student representative body of the University of Oxford. The Oxford Union, despite being composed largely of students, is not a part of the University.
OLDUT and OUS
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The Oxford Union was never financially secure, and its position was not helped by its termly changes of junior (i.e. student) officers. There was also a significant level of historic debt, associated with the erection of its buildings. After a particularly bad period in the 1970s, the Union buildings were sold to a charitable trust ("OLDUT", the Oxford Literary and Debating Union Trust), and the Oxford Union Society was granted a licence to occupy the building.
Several parts of what were historically the Union buildings and grounds were subsequently either sold or made the subject of long leases, including an area of land around the rear of the debating chamber, part of the Union cellars (adjoining that now occupied by the Purple Turtle), and part of what was formerly the Steward's house (now occupied by the Landmark Trust). OLDUT has subsequently paid for the refurbishment and maintenance of the Union buildings, both from its own resources and by securing private donations and grant funding.
As a result of OLDUT's creation, the future of the physical Union[clarification needed] is now secured, so that even if the Oxford Union Society were to cease to be, or to fail financially, the buildings would not be lost. In addition, OLDUT provides some financial support for those of the Union's activities which match OLDUT's charitable objectives - particularly the operation of the Union's library.
Despite the importance of OLDUT in preserving the fabric of the Union, the relationship between OLDUT and OUS has at times been strained. OLDUT is a charitable trust, and it has objectives which do not always match those of what is primarily a student society.[such as?]
The Oxford Union has a history of hosting international figures and celebrities, for example, in no particular order:
- authors Salman Rushdie, Philip Pullman, Robert Greene
- Dalai Lama
- former British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and current Prime Minister Theresa May
- Mother Teresa
- billionaire and Berggruen Institute founder Nicolas Berggruen
- Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage
- former US Presidents Richard Nixon (November 1978), Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton
- US diplomats Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright and John Kerry
- former CIA director David Petraeus
- former US Presidential candidates John McCain, Newt Gingrich
- US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger
- former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf
- former Australian prime minister John Howard
- former New Zealand prime minister David Lange
- former PLO leader Yasser Arafat
- Afghan president Hamid Karzai
- Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
- Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina
- French far-right politician Marine Le Pen
- Scottish politician Alex Salmond
- Russian politician and former finance minister Grigory Yavlinsky
- notable barrister and prime-ministerial spouse Cherie Booth QC
- Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams
- biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins
- former journalist and author Christopher Hitchens
- scientist Albert Einstein
- physicist Stephen Hawking
- classical pianist Lang Lang
- savant Kim Peek
- comedian and writer Stephen Fry
- former US Attorney General and Senator Robert Kennedy
- actresses Judi Dench, Emma Watson
- actors Johnny Depp, Pierce Brosnan, Ewan McGregor, Martin Sheen, Leslie Nielsen, Jack Gleeson, Richard Dreyfuss, Morgan Freeman, Ian McKellen
- actor/directors Orson Welles, Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty
- radio presenter Scott Mills
- comedians Frankie Howerd and Jim Bowen
- African-American social and civil rights activist Malcolm X
- rock guitarist Jimmy Page
- footballers Diego Maradona, Paul Gascoigne, Geoff Hurst
- former FIFA president Sepp Blatter
- rock star Jon Bon Jovi
- pop stars Michael Jackson, Shakira, Leehom Wang, Super Junior
- singer and viral video star PSY
- composer Burt Bacharach
- televangelist Jerry Falwell
- magician David Blaine
- TV presenter Nicholas Witchell
- TV talk show host Jerry Springer
- singers Elton John, Barry White, Gerard Way
- puppet Kermit the Frog
- fashion journalist Anna Wintour
- business leaders Alan Sugar, Peter Thiel
- author John le Carré
- international model Katia Elizarova
- Slipknot/Stone Sour vocalist Corey Taylor
- musical humorist and conductor Gerard Hoffnung
- porn stars Ron Jeremy, Annabel Chong
- UFC president Dana White
- Islamic preacher Zakir Naik
- ventriloquist David Strassman
- former Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike
- the second person to walk on the moon Buzz Aldrin
- Indian politician Shashi Tharoor
- writer and conspiracy theorist David Icke
- Dutch politician and leader of Forum for Democracy Thierry Baudet
- American political consultant Roger Stone
- Saudi international rights lawyer Malik R. Dahlan
- English far-right activist Tommy Robinson 
- Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson
The Oxford Union has long associated itself with freedom of speech, most famously by debating and passing the motion "This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country" in 1933. What is generally forgotten (but arguably more significant as an example of the Union's commitment to freedom of speech) is that several prominent Union members (including Randolph Churchill) tried to expunge this motion and the result of the debate from the Union's minute book. This attempt was roundly defeated — in a meeting far better attended than the original debate. Sir Edward Heath records in his memoirs that Randolph Churchill was then chased around Oxford by undergraduates who intended to debag him (i.e. humiliate him by removing his trousers), and was then fined by the police for being illegally parked.
This early commitment to free speech has not stood the test of time, however. In February 2018 the Oxford Union censored an entire Whistleblowing Panel against the wishes of the majority of the panelists because a former CIA operative, David Shedd, objected to points made by another speaker, philosopher Heather Marsh. This has raised suggestions that the Oxford Union is now less of a “last bastion of free speech” and more of a “safe space where powerful men who do horrible things can go to speak and be appreciated”.
Retractions of speaker invitations
Despite its associations with free speech, in a few notable cases the Union has withdrawn invitations to controversial speakers, as the result of public pressure and concerns about safety.
A debate that was to have involved the far-right leader John Tyndall was met with a campaign of resistance in 1998. This opposition, coupled with police advice following a series of racially motivated nail-bombings in London, resulted in the cancellation of the debate.
An invitation to the writer and Holocaust denier David Irving to speak in a debate on censorship in 2001 was met by a coordinated campaign by left-wing, Jewish, and anti-fascist groups, together with the elected leadership of the Oxford University Student Union, to have the invitation withdrawn. Following a meeting of Union members, and a subsequent meeting of the Union's governing body, the Standing Committee, the President decided the debate would have to be cancelled. However, Irving was allowed to speak at a Union debate in 2007.
In March 2009, the Union withdrew an invitation to euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke after Nitschke had already accepted the invitation. Nitschke received a second e-mail cancelling the invitation "in the interests of there being a 'fair debate'", and was told other speakers were unwilling to speak alongside him. The debate topic was the legalisation of assisted suicide, a field in which Nitschke is prominent. The reason given by Oxford Union president Corey Dixon was that two other speakers "disagree with his particular take on [assisted suicide]". According to Dixon, the speakers who successfully pressured the Union to withdraw Nitschke's invitation were a member of the public, whose brother had undergone assisted death, and British euthanasia campaigner Michael Irwin. However, Irwin later denied that he had applied pressure to exclude Nitschke.
The Oxford Union then released a statement explaining the decision: "An administrative decision was made to ensure we had three speakers on each side of the debate, which was proving difficult due to Nitschke's attendance. It is always in the interests of the Oxford Union to ensure a balanced debate with as wide-ranging views as possible represented. There may have been miscommunication between the Oxford Union and Nitschke. We certainly hope that no offence has been caused. The Oxford Union is a politically-neutral institution and holds no opinion on Nitschke's views."
Nitschke commented, "This famous society has a long tradition of championing free speech. To suggest that my views on end-of-life issues are inappropriate simply because I believe that all rational elderly adults should have access to the best end-of-life information beggars belief." He also called the act "an almost unprecedented act of censorship". Nitschke gave a series of lectures across the UK at the time the debate was held.
In May 1996 President Paul Kenward invited O. J. Simpson to address the union, his first public address since his October acquittal by a Los Angeles jury of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994. In a 90 minute appearance before an overflow crowd of 1,300 students at the Union, Mr Simpson spoke of racism in the Los Angeles Police Department; and said he was sorry for hitting his wife, Nicole.
Paul Kenward had given O. J. Simpson assurances there would be no broadcast media at the union debate. However, Chris Philp, (now Conservative MP and then a second-year student at University College and features editor of the student magazine Cherwell, was fined £50 for selling a written transcript of the debate and helping to sell an audio cassette to TV stations.
In November 2007, President Luke Tryl sparked controversy by inviting Holocaust denier David Irving and British National Party leader Nick Griffin to speak at a Union forum on the topic of free speech. Following protests by several student groups, a poll of the Union's members was taken and resulted in a two-to-one majority in favour of the invitations.
On the evening of the planned debate several hundred protesters gathered outside the Union buildings, chanting anti-fascist slogans and later preventing guests and Union members from entering the premises. Eventually succeeding in breaching the poorly maintained security cordon, around 20 of the campaigners attempted to force their way through to the main chamber, whereupon some of the waiting audience blocked access by pushing back against the chamber doors. After students were convinced to yield to the protestors by Union staff, a sit-in protest was staged in the debating chamber, which prevented a full debate from occurring due to security concerns. A small number of the audience attempted to reason with the demonstrators. Because of a lack of security personnel, a number of students from the audience eventually came to take on the responsibilities of controlling events, in one instance preventing a scuffle from breaking out between a protestor and members of the audience, and eventually assisting police in herding protestors from the main hall. One student protestor interviewed by BBC News reported that fellow protestors played 'jingles' on the piano and danced on the President's chair  although the truth of the latter assertion is seriously questioned by eyewitnesses. Smaller debates were eventually held with Irving and Griffin in separate rooms, amid criticism that the police and Union officials had not foreseen the degree of unrest which the controversial invitations would arouse. The President of Oxford University Student Union, Martin McCluskey, strongly criticised the decision to proceed with the debate, claiming that providing Irving and Griffin with a platform for their extreme views afforded them undue legitimacy. Some students[who?] following the event criticised the Student Union for preventing Oxford Union members (as students themselves) from exercising the right to free assembly, and accused the Oxford University Student Union of hypocrisy in seemingly restricting the rights of free speech to those individuals whose views chimed with those of the Student Union leadership (although the decision to oppose the invite had been agreed by representatives of the Student Population at a Council meeting).
Marine Le Pen
In February 2015, President Lisa Wehden invited Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National in France, to address the Union, in view of the popularity of the FN in the French polls at the time. This sparked considerable controversy, with allegations of Le Pen endorsing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. A motion was passed by OUSU expressing dismay at the invitation and mandating the President, Louis Trup, to e-mail all students to notify them that the protest was taking place.
The speech went ahead as planned, albeit delayed by the protestors blockading the Union's main entrance, and briefly breaking into the building. In all, over 400 people turned up to the demonstration. There was considerable controversy over OUSU's response, with allegations that OUSU had indirectly supported the protesters and not adequately condemned threats of violence against Union members who had attempted to attend the talk.
In February 2018, President Laali Vadlamani invited philosopher and human rights activist Heather Marsh to speak on a Whistleblowing Panel with former CIA operative and US DIA director David Shedd. The video of the event was suppressed from the official Oxford Union Youtube channel which Marsh maintained was a breach of the publicity offer in the letter of invitation. She further stated that she was informed by the Oxford Union that the video was censored on order from David Shedd. Oxford Union has denied naming the panelist who ordered the video suppressed but confirmed that it did so at a panelist’s request (David Shedd is the only panelist who has not publicly expressed a wish that the video be published). It is alleged that Shedd ordered the video suppressed because of some of Marsh’s comments in which she referred to the CIA as “the most powerful, well-funded, weaponized, international, organized crime syndicate the world has ever seen” and said they offered not national security but “a mafia protection racket available to the highest bidder”. She also confronted Shedd over a list of human rights abuses and crimes by the CIA, according to a published transcript.
Unlike previous controversies in which the Oxford Union has defended its right to offer platforms to powerful speakers with views some consider dangerous to vulnerable people, this controversy has Oxford Union defending their right to censor a human rights author over views unpopular to the CIA. Marsh has written that the event illustrates "a class strata dictates who may and who may not be criticized or offended" and suggested the Oxford Union should change its slogan from “the last bastion of free speech” to “the safest space for punching down”. She also stated “If US officials can censor entire debates on US policy at the Oxford Union that is (at least as far as the public is aware) something new and something which ought to be known by anyone planning to speak there.”
The Oxford Union is run by a Standing Committee, made up of the Junior Officers (the current President, President-Elect, Junior Librarian, Junior Treasurer, Librarian-Elect, Treasurer-Elect, and the Secretary), seven elected members, and recent Junior Officers (who have chosen to serve). The Chair of the Consultative Committee and the Chair of the Debates Selection Committee are ex officio non-voting members of Standing Committee, and the Returning Officer (responsible for the conduct of the Union's elections and for advising on the interpretation of the Union's rules) and the Bursar are non-members with speaking rights. The Union also has two Senior Officers, the Senior Librarian and Senior Treasurer (generally Oxford University academics but they must be members of the Union) who advise the Standing Committee.
The day-to-day management of the Union is partly conducted by professional staff, principally the Bursar and the House Manager.
- Montek Singh Ahluwalia economist IMF, India
- Tariq Ali author
- Eric Abrahams, cabinet minister in Jamaica
- Michael Beloff barrister; President of Trinity College
- Jeremy Beloff (brother) chemist
- Paul Foot journalist, dep. ed. Private Eye
- Peter Jay journalist, Chairman of OU Trustees
- Lalith Athulathmudali cabinet minister in Sri Lanka
- Ruzwana Bashir
- Hilaire Belloc author
- Anthony Wedgwood-Benn, Viscount Stansgate cabinet minister
- Benazir Bhutto prime minister of Pakistan
- John Buchan author
- Robin Day BBC
- William Rees-Mogg Editor, 'The Times'
- Uwe Kitzinger head of INSEAD, Founder of Templeton College
- Jeremy Thorpe Liberal leader
- Michael Foot Labour leader
- Gyles Brandreth member of parliament, comedian
- Andrew Rowe OU Librarian, member of parliament
- Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, Jun. Scottish minister
- Edwina Currie OU Librarian, cabinet minister
- Jonathan Aitken OU librarian, cabinet minister
- Douglas Hogg cabinet minister
- Roy Jenkins OU Librarian, Ch of Exchequer
- Denis Healey OU Librarian, Ch of Exchequer
- Lord Curzon, foreign secretary
- Anthony Crosland foreign secretary
- William Hague foreign secretary
- Boris Johnson foreign secretary
- F. E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead, Lord Chancellor
- Quentin Hogg Lord Hailsham, Lord Chancellor
- Michael Gove Lord Chancellor
- Michael Heseltine deputy prime minister
- Harold Macmillan OU Librarian, prime minister
- Edward Heath prime minister
- Herbert Henry Asquith prime minister
- William Ewart Gladstone prime minister
- Philip May prime minister's husband
- Clive Wolman Journalist, Editor 'Mail on Sunday'
- Christopher Hollis
- Anthony Howard Journalist
- Jeremy Isaacs BBC
- Lakshman Kadirgamar
- Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury
- David Lewis
- Henry Edward Manning
- Viscount Monckton
- John Playfair Price
- Julian Priestley
- Andrew Sullivan
Other Officers of the Union who have achieved political success include Ann Widdecombe Current and recent MPs who served as Union Officers include Damian Hinds, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nicky Morgan, Sam Gyimah and Louise Mensch.
Elections are held to fill the offices of President-elect, Librarian-elect, Treasurer-elect and Secretary, as well as 7 positions on the Standing Committee and 11 positions on the Secretary's Committee. In order to stand for election to the Secretary's Committee, members must make two speeches on different nights during the term they stand for election. For the other offices, this is increased to four (two in previous terms, two in the current). Elections are always held on Friday of 7th Week, as defined by the University terms.
There were previously 5 elected positions on the Standing Committee before this was changed to 7 in Michael Li's term (Trinity 2017), this was subsequently implemented in Chris Zabilowicz's term (Michaelmas 2017). The election for the Chair of the Consultative Committee is held at the meeting of the Consultative Committee on Monday of 8th Week of each term. Only members who have attended four of the last eight meetings of the Consultative Committee may either stand for election as Chair or vote.
Students running for election usually stand as part of a team, known as 'slates', enabling voters to support a designated candidate for each position and increase each candidates' vote count. This practice has come under criticism recently due to the dominance of a single slate and the resulting unopposed elections. The Michaelmas 2017 elections were the first since Hilary 2016 for which any of the officership positions have been contested.
- Cambridge Union Society
- Jefferson Literary and Debating Society
- Olivaint Conference of Belgium
- Conférence Olivaint
- Yale Political Union
- Berkeley Forum
- Durham Union
- College Historical Society
- Philodemic Society
- Queen's Debating Union
- Lunar Society of Birmingham
- The Durham Union
- Stubbs Society
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- Oxford University Student Union — Oxford University Student Union
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- Smith (1989); p. 180-184
- Martin Pugh, ‘Monckton, Walter Turner, first Viscount Monckton of Brenchley (1891–1965)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 accessed 8 July 2013
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- BBC News (2001a) BBC.co.uk,Oxford's star chamber, 5 May 2001, Accessed 4 June 2006] - Oxford Union history
- BBC News (2001b) BBC.co.uk, Oxford drops Hitler historian debate, 9 May 2001, Accessed 4 June 2006 - Cancellation of the debate involving David Irving
- Frei, Matt (2007) BBC.co.uk, Washington diary: Land of ideas, 2 May 2007, Accessed 4 June 2006
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