Oxford Union

The Oxford Union
Founded 1823
Home Page The Oxford Union
Officers of the Union, Michaelmas Term 2008
President Josh Roche, Christ Church
President-Elect Charlie Holt, Lady Margaret Hall
Librarian Leo-Marcus Wan, University College
Treasurer Mike Roberts, Corpus Christi College
Treasurer-Elect James Langman, University College
Secretary Tom Hartley, Worcester College
The Oxford Union Society, commonly referred to simply as the Oxford Union, is a prestigious debating society in the city of Oxford, UK, whose membership is drawn primarily but not exclusively from the University of Oxford. It was founded in 1823 and gained a worldwide reputation for the cut and thrust of its debate, proving a valuable training ground for many future politicians from Britain and other countries.

Status and membership

The Oxford Union is an unincorporated association, holding its property 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 Victorian University restricted junior members from discussing certain issues (for example, theology). Despite such restrictions since being 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 Oxford Brookes University and certain other educational institutions are entitled to join for the duration of their time in Oxford. Shorter membership is also extended to those participating in some visiting study programmes in Oxford.

The Union buildings are owned by a separate charitable trust, the Oxford Literary and Debating Union Trust.

The Union buildings

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 Alfred Waterhouse and 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 was very similar.

A debating chamber was subsequently added, but the Union's growing membership meant that it became too small, and is now the "Old Library". The current debating chamber, and several further extensions to the main buildings were added over the next forty years. The final extension was completed in 1912, adding a dining room and a second library, together with basement library stacks.

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 Gladstone's original cabinet table, semi-circular in design so that he could look all his ministers in the eye as he held forth.

In the debating chamber there are busts of such notables as Roy Jenkins, Edward Heath, Michael Heseltine and William Gladstone. There is also a fine grand piano in the debating chambers 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.

The buildings were used as a location for the films Oxford Blues (1984), The Madness of King George (1994) and opposite, in St Michael's Street, Iris (2001).


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 Student 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 Oxford Schools' Debating Competition, the prestigious Oxford Intervarsity Debating Competition which attracts universities from around the world and a number of internal debating competitions. The Oxford Union is currently the reigning World Champion in University Debating, after team Oxford A (comprising debaters Lewis Iwu and Samir Deger-Sen) won the 2008 World Universities' Debating Championship in Assumption University, Thailand.

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 formalised (even if more formal) 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 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. Unlike almost all other British university student unions, OUSU has no central building to provide a venue for students, only a set of administrative offices, while all events are run in conjunction with other local venues. This stems largely from the fact that each of the University's Colleges has its own Junior Common Room, or JCR which provides many of the functions, albeit on a smaller scale, that would otherwise be provided by a central student union.


It is not generally recognised (either by the outside world, or the Union's members) that the Oxford Union Society does not own its buildings. 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.

Following 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 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 the running of the Union in those areas where the Union undertakes 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 first and foremost a charitable trust, and it has objectives which do not always match those of what is primarily a student society.

Notable speakers

The Oxford Union has a long history of hosting international figures and celebrities. Previous guests have included the Dalai Lama, Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, former US Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, US diplomat Henry Kissinger, current Presidential nominee Senator John McCain, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, former New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange, Russian politician and former finance minister Grigory Yavlinsky, notable barrister and prime-ministerial spouse Cherie Booth QC, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, physicist Stephen Hawking, biologist Richard Dawkins debating creationist A. E. Wilder-Smith during the Huxley Memorial Debate, savant Kim Peek, comedian and writer Stephen Fry, US politician Robert Kennedy, actors Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, Ewan McGregor, Malcolm X, O.J. Simpson, footballer Diego Maradona, rock star Jon Bon Jovi, pop star Michael Jackson, televangelist Jerry Falwell, magician David Blaine, TV talk show host Jerry Springer, singer Barry White, puppet Kermit the Frog, actress Judi Dench, singer Gerard Way, fashion journalist Anna Wintour, musical humourist and conductor Gerard Hoffnung and porn star Ron Jeremy.

Free speech

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 an attempt was made by several prominent Union members (including Randolph Churchill) 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.

Harold Macmillan called the Oxford Union "the last bastion of free speech in the Western world.", a quotation which continues to feature prominently in the Union's publicity.

However, the Union's commitment to free speech has been tested by pressure to deny platforms to controversial speakers. An invitation to the now convicted Nazi apologist 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. Despite the fact that there was no mechanism in the Union's constitution by which members could compel the President — who is responsible for organising debates — to either cancel a debate or withdraw an invitation to a particular speaker, attempts were made to pass a Union motion ordering her to do so. Following a particularly bitter 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.

A previous debate which was to have involved the far-right leader John Tyndall was met with a similar campaign in 1998, although that debate was cancelled on police advice following a series of racially motivated nail-bombings in London, rather than as a result of the opposition.

In May 2007, the House debated but ultimately voted down a motion that would have declared "this House regrets the Founding of America".

Irving/Griffin controversy

In November 2007, the union 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 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).


The Oxford Union is run by the Standing Committee which is elected termly and is constituted by the junior officers (the current President, President-Elect, Junior Librarian, Junior Treasurer, Treasurer-Elect and Secretary), five elected members and recent junior officers (who have chosen to serve). The Standing Committee is also attended ex-officio by the Chairman of the Consultative Committee, 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 Chairman of the Debates Selection Committee, none of whom has a vote. The Union also has two senior officers, the Senior Librarian and Senior Treasurer (generally Oxford academics but must be members of the Union) who advise the Standing Committee.

The junior officers each have specific areas of responsibility, such as debates (President), "speaker meetings" (President and Librarian), sponsorship and funding (Junior Treasurer), and social events (Secretary). The junior officers-elect spend a term preparing their area, before assuming their office.

A number of other committee run or advise the running of various aspects of the Union, including the Wines and Spirits Committee (the Union's bar), the Cellar Management Committee (responsible for liaison with the management of the Purple Turtle), the Library Committee (responsible principally for library acquisitions), the Finance Committee (which advises the Standing Committee on financial matters), and the Debates Selection Committee (who run competitive debating). Two further committees, the Secretary's Committee and the Consultative Committee, are not, despite their names, committees in the traditional sense.

The Secretary's Committee consists of nine members, elected on a termly basis in the same ballot as that for the Officer and Standing Committee, who assist at the Union's social functions, and is generally the first stage for any aspiring Union politician. Although considered a committee under the rules, it only ever meets informally, and is more akin to a group of people with a particular role, rather than a committee.

The Consultative Committee holds weekly public meetings during term time, at which members can informally question the junior officers and members of the elected committees on the performance of their duties. All members of the Union are considered members of the Consultative Committee, so meetings tend to be more like an open forum.

The Chairman of the Consultative Committee (who is elected termly, but not during the Union's main elections) is a member of Standing Committee but without voting rights, responsible for the Union's publicity, website and archives; setting up the Union's rooms for events; chairing Consultative Committee, and bringing up any matters of concern at Standing Committee.

The Returning Officer is elected from a body of Deputy Returning Officers whose members have been approved by a scrutiny committee. He is responsible for running the Society's elections and is empowered (along with the President) to interpret the Society's constitution. It remains hotly disputed whether the Returning Officer wields disproportionate influence without an electoral mandate, or maintains an essential check and balance to the powers of the President.

The day to day management of the Union is partly conducted by professional staff, principally the Bursar and the Steward.

Past officers

Famous past Presidents of the Oxford Union include:

Other officers of the Union who have achieved political success include Ann Widdecombe, Edwina Currie, and Roy Jenkins.


The Union holds elections in the penultimate week of each University term, in order to allow members of the society to choose officers and committee members for the following term. The elections are held to fill the offices of President-elect, Librarian, Treasurer-elect and Secretary, as well as 5 elected positions on the Standing Committee and 9 positions on the Secretary's Committee. The election for the Chairman of the Consultative Committee is held at CC on Monday of 8th week.



External links

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