The Cambridge Union Society, also known as the Cambridge Union, is a debating and free speech society in Cambridge, England and the largest society in the University of Cambridge. Founded in 1815, it is the oldest continuously running 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, and more recently Anglia Ruskin University. The Cambridge Union is a registered charity and is completely separate from the Cambridge University Students' Union.
The coat of arms of The Cambridge Union Society
|Type||Student debating union|
|Location||9A Bridge Street Cambridge, Cambridgeshire|
|President||Gabriel Barton-Singer, Trinity|
|Vice President||Alycia Leach, Clare|
|Chair of Trustees||The Lord Smith of Finsbury|
|Affiliations||World Universities Debating Council|
The Cambridge Union has a long and extensive tradition of hosting prominent figures from all areas of public life in its chamber, both state- and international-based, including the Dalai Lama, President Ronald Reagan, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and comedian Stephen Fry. Previous presidents of the Cambridge Union have included Arianna Huffington, and the economist John Maynard Keynes.
History of the Cambridge 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 Union was allowed to reform, under strict guidelines.
The Cambridge Union's Bridge Street premises (52°12′31″N 0°07′10″E) were 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.
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 Union's library.
The Union is legally a self-funded charity 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 sometimes admitted to Union events for a charge.
After more than 200 years, the Cambridge Union is best known for its debates, which 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 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.
In 2015 the Union celebrated its bicentenary; a committee composed of former and current Officers was put together to organise a range of events to mark the occasion. This included special debates, dinners and parties in Cambridge and, for the first time in its history, in London.
2016 redevelopment project
In January 2015 the Union announced a £9.5m refurbishment project to begin in late 2016 to address major structural problems and to expand existing facilities, subject to approval by planners, to include a new Wine Bar on the ground floor and a Jazz & Comedy Club in the basement (in the old home of the Cambridge Footlights). It also announced a plan to use the revenue generated from the new building to reduce membership fees to make the Union more accessible to students from lower income backgrounds, and to increase the size of its competitive debating activities for disadvantaged children and students.
The development was to be partially financed through the leasing of disused parts of its site to Trinity College in a deal worth £4.5 million. Planning permission was received in 2016, and a fundraising campaign to cover the remaining cost was to be launched on 11 March 2017 with a special debate between Jon Snow and Nick Robinson. Construction on the major redevelopment project is scheduled to begin in Michaelmas 2018.
Membership of the Union
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 union awards honorary memberships to particularly distinguished individuals. Honorary members include:
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.
Speakers hosted by the Union have included:
- Spiritual leader of Tibet the Dalai Lama
- British prime ministers Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher and John Major
- US Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan
- First Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru
- German Chancellor Helmut Kohl
- Australian Prime Minister John Howard
- First democratically elected President of Iraq Jalal Talabani,
- Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi
- Last President of apartheid-era South Africa, F. W. de Klerk
- British politician Jeremy Corbyn
- British politician Nigel Farage
- Academic Germaine Greer
- Economist Ha Joon Chang
- Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking
- African-American author and activist James Baldwin
- 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
- Comedian and political activist Russell Brand
- American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson
- American civil rights activist Al Sharpton
- American Presidential candidate, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders
- Second person to walk on the moon Buzz Aldrin.
- Economist Jeffrey Sachs
- Actress and activist Rose McGowan
- Professor and author Jordan Peterson
- American EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler
The Cambridge Union 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.
The Standing Committee
The Standing Committee (or 'Voting Members') is the Union's primary managerial body of 13 members, which consists of the current President, Vice-President and Officers, the President-Elect and Officers-Elect, and the Debating Officers. All Officers of the Union are elected by its membership on a termly basis, with the exception of the Vice-President and two Debating Officers, who are appointed 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", during which time they are members of Standing Committee.
The Lent 2020 Standing Committee:
- President - Gabriel Barton-Singer, Trinity
- Vice President - Alycia Leach, Clare
- Executive Officer - Emaan Ullah, Homerton
- Speakers Officer - Abhiram Bibekar, Christ's
- Treasurer - Freddie Fisk, Robinson
- Social Events Officer - Phoebe Pickering, Corpus
- Debating Officers - Achilleas Papadimitriou, Sidney Sussex
During every term, the Standing Committee appoints a variety of positions within the Union. Until recently, appointed positions were specialised. These specialized positions ranged from the Secretary, Head of Event Management, Head of Publicity, Head of Audio-Visual and Head of Press amongst others. Since Easter 2019, many of these specialised departments were amalgamated to form the Chamber Committee. The Chamber Committee includes a group of Generalists who are responsible for the day-to-day running of the Society, such as guest liaison, the Union's publicity efforts, the management of the press, and the management and organization of events. The Generalists are overseen by two Chairs of Chamber Committee and the Chief of Staff. Some specialised positions still exist, such as the Secretary, the Audio-Visual team, and the Membership Officers. Collectively, they are referred to as 'Full Committee' or just 'appointees'.
The Board of Trustees, currently chaired by Lord Chris Smith, 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 Union, 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 and Vice President of the Union are traditionally appointed as Trustees for the duration of their term in office.
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 Union 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.
In addition to these posts the Union also maintains an employed staff consisting of a Bursar, responsible for overseeing the long-term health of the charity, Office Managers and a Bar Manager. The Union also holds contracts for catering, cleaning, building maintenance, property management, IT services and legal advice.
Members of staff are employed by the Union's subsidiary events company. The President, Vice-President, Bursar and other Trustees appointed on an ad-hoc basis serve as Directors of the company.
Many of the Union's former Officers have gone on to considerable personal success after their time involved in the society. Notable past Presidents and Officers include:
- John Maynard Keynes
- Edward John Gambier
- Philip Noel-Baker
- Gerald Strickland
- Spencer Horatio Walpole
- Michael Ramsey
- James Peiris
- Rab Butler
- Peter Bazalgette
- Douglas Hurd
- Leon Brittan
- Kenneth Clarke
- Arianna Huffington
- Michael Howard
- Norman Lamont
- Andrew Mitchell
- Robert Harris
- Adair Turner
- Clare Balding
- Vince Cable
- Gavin Barwell
- Karan Bilimoria
- Helene Hayman
- Jack Ashley
- Charles Lysaght
- Christopher Steele
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.
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 Union's YouTube channel titled 'The Cambridge Union'. 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 in 2015, 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 includes the ability for "virtual" attendees to contribute to debates via questions and comments to be read out on the floor of the Union. The streaming service is hosted on the Union's website and is available only to members.
Hosting of speakers
The Cambridge Union, like its Oxford counterpart, has faced 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, French politician Marine Le Pen and Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange. In January 2015, 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. In June 2019, the hosting of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad attracted criticism from the Union of Jewish Students, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and several former Cambridge Union members including former President Andrew Cannon due to the former's anti-Semitic remarks.
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. The Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 eventually clarified that Higher Education institutions must retain particular regard to the duty to ensure freedom of speech and the importance of academic freedom within University societies, although it is unclear whether this applies to the Union.
Referendum on Julian Assange
The union called a referendum on the hosting of Julian Assange on 22 October 2015, arguing that his residency in the Ecuadorian Embassy meant he was outside the jurisdiction of UK law, and thus required the consultation of its members considering a lack of past precedent. The referendum was more widely viewed as an opinion poll on the union's refusal to "no platform" speakers. It passed with 76.9% of the vote. Turnout was 1463.
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