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 one of Britain's oldest university unions and one of the world's most prestigious private students' societies. The Oxford Union exists independently from the university and is separate from the Oxford University Student Union.
The Oxford Union has a tradition of hosting some of the world's most prominent individuals across politics, academia and popular culture, including US Presidents Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron and Theresa May, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, activists Malcolm X, the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa, actor Morgan Freeman, musicians Sir Elton John and Michael Jackson, and sportspeople Diego Maradona and Manny Pacquiao.
Historically, the university restricted junior members from discussing certain issues (for example, theology). Although such restrictions have since been lifted, the Oxford Union has remained entirely separate from and independent of 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, including:
Shorter membership is also extended to those participating in some visiting study programmes in Oxford as well as staff members of the University of Oxford or any of its colleges or permanent private halls.
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 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 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 offers members of the Union debate workshops and a platform upon which to practice and improve their debating skills. 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. Oxford Union debaters Jason Xiao and Lee Chin Wee are the reigning World Universities Debating Champions.
Chamber debates occur every Thursday evening during University terms. Experts for the proposition and opposition present paper speeches to the house. Members have an opportunity to deliver brief speeches from the floor. Following the style of the British Parliament, a motion is moved to "divide the House" in order to vote. Members in the chamber vote on the proposition with their feet by exiting the hall through a door, the right-hand side of which is marked 'ayes' and the left-hand side 'noes'.
The Oxford Union has a history of hosting international figures and celebrities, including:
Despite its associations with free speech, in a few notable cases the Union has reluctantly withdrawn invitations to controversial speakers, as the result of public pressure, specific pressure by lobbyists 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.
The Oxford Union has long associated itself with freedom of speech, most famously by debating and passing the motion "" in 1933. The debate polarized opinion across the country, with the Daily Telegraph running an article headlined "DISLOYALTY AT OXFORD: GESTURE TOWARDS THE REDS".
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 defeated in a meeting more 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.
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. Speaking for 90 minutes in front of 1,300 students, 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. The Student Population at a Council meeting voted to oppose the invitations. Following this and protests by other 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. Around 20 protesters succeeded in breaching the poorly maintained security cordon and attempted to force their way through to the main chamber. Members of the waiting audience blocked access by pushing back against the chamber doors. After students were convinced to yield to the protesters by Union staff, a sit-in protest was staged in the debating chamber, preventing a full debate from occurring due to security concerns. 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 protester and members of the audience, and eventually assisting police in herding protesters from the main hall. One student protester interviewed by BBC News reported that fellow protesters 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.
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. The speech went ahead as planned, albeit delayed by the protesters 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, the Oxford Union 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 not posted to the official Oxford Union YouTube channel which Marsh maintained was in breach of what had been agreed to in her 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." Others 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".
In October 2019, before the annual 'No Confidence' debate, blind Ghanaian graduate student Ebenezer Azamati was violently removed from the hall for refusing to relinquish his seat, which had been reserved for a committee member. Azmati later had his membership revoked for two terms for 'violent misconduct'. Footage of the event was recorded by another member, and was subsequently uploaded to the internet. This led to protests from the University's AfriSoc society on Azmati's behalf, and soon gained national news media coverage. This was eventually followed by the resignation of standing committee members and other Union officials, and then by Union president Brendan McGrath on 19 November.
The Oxford Union's general conduct is managed by the Standing Committee. This is 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. Non-voting members include the Union's Trustees, the Senior Officers (the Senior Librarian and the Senior Treasurer, who are generally Oxford University academics and who must be members of the Union), the Returning Officer (responsible for the conduct of the Union's elections and for advising on the interpretation of the Union's rules), the Chair of the Consultative Committee (responsible for logistics and facilitation of events) and the Chair of the Debate Selection Committee. The Bursar attends meetings of Standing Committee in an advisory capacity.
Day-to-day management of the Union is partly conducted by professional staff, principally the Bursar and the House Manager.
Notable past Presidents of the Oxford Union and past Junior Officers of the Union include:
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.
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.
The number of elected positions on standing Committee was increased from 5 to 7 in Michael Li's term (Trinity 2017) and implemented in Chris Zabilowicz's term (Michaelmas 2017).
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. In Michaelmas 2018, a motion was passed banning slates for two terms followed by a referendum on the practice.
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).
The Oxford Union was never financially secure and had 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 LGBTQ+ venue Plush), and part of what was formerly the Steward's house (now occupied by the Landmark Trust).
The creation of OLDUT secured the future of the Union's buildings such that even if the Oxford Union Society were to cease to be or fail financially the buildings would not be lost. OLDUT's principal sources of funds are private donations and grant funding (including from the Mitsubishi UFJ Trust Oxford Foundation), rent on investment property and hiring fees. OLDUT uses these funds to provide financial support for the refurbishment and maintenance of the Union buildings and the operation of the Union's library and reading-rooms.
Oxford Union Society debates are filmed and licensed by Oxford Union Limited, a registered company controlled by the Oxford Union Society.