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The Oxford Union: Debating the issues in the spirit of democracy
Buy this photo » Oxford Union president Parit Wacharasindhu
THERE’S plenty to name-drop about at the Oxford Union – the city’s student debating society – which regularly attracts some of the world’s most prominent figures.
While there are too many to mention, speakers include Albert Einstein, the Dalai Lama, Sir Roger Bannister, presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter and Britons Sir Winston Churchill and Lady Thatcher.
As well as the great and the good, Oxford Union in Frewin Court has attracted controversy people – glamour model Katie Price, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and America’s “Queen of Porn” Jenna Jameson to name a few visitors.
Last week alone the line-up included Glastonbury’s Michael Eavis, Made in Chelsea actor Spencer Matthews and Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Tonight it’s Italian chef Antonio Carluccio and tomorrow the ex-chief executive of BP Tony Hayward.
But there are a few people the union has on its wish list.
Its current president Parit Wacharasindhu said they have their eye on Labour leader Ed Miliband and Prime Minister and Witney MP David Cameron.
The 20-year-old said: “The Prime Minister is on our wish list but we understand the difficulties involved bringing high-profile politicians.”
The origins of the union date back to 1812 when two New College graduates began a social club and society partly to debating the great issues of the day that Oxford University did not wish students to discuss.
Rules were drawn up by 1822, debates began in 1823 and the Oxford Union Society was set up fully in 1825. It moved to its present home in St Michael’s Street in 1852.
Mr Wacharasindhu puts the union’s longevity down to its commitment to democracy. He said: “It is run by students for students and is the embodiment of democracy.”
Bursar Lindsey Warne has been at the union since 1999 and believes it is unique. She said: “There are very few places left in the world where you can have students challenging the views of heads of state on a one-to-one basis. It is a unique institution because it is not partial and does not hold a particular view.
“Anyone is welcome – free speech is essential.”
Well known as the place where future British leaders have gone to find their voices, the union’s members include five Prime Ministers as well as London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson.
Speakers who haven’t attended have also attracted attention including former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson whose visit was cancelled amid security issues.
Recent invitees making head-lines include Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who delivered his speech via video-link from London’s Ecuadorian embassy, and Fifa president Sepp Blatter who last week apologised for ridiculing Madrid footballer Cristiano Ronaldo.
The presidents of the union may have changed over the years but there’s no sign the wealth of speakers will. And who knows, maybe Mr Cameron will accept the invitation.
Premier training ground
The society’s first debating rooms were in Wyatt’s, the picture dealer’s, at 115 High Street. In 1857 a debating hall was built at its current location designed by the young Irish architect Benjamin Woodward.
Twelve British Prime Ministers have honed their skills in the chamber.
The first was William Ewert Gladstone, who was Prime Minister four times, more than any other person. He was also Britain’s oldest Prime Minister aged 84, when he resigned for the last time.
The society’s formal Thursday evening debates have taken place since 1823. Former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once described the Union as “the last bastion of free speech in the Western world”.
The forms of debate are similar to those in the House of Commons, with all remarks addressed to the president or chairman, and members referred to as “honourable”, standing on each side of the house to oppose each other.
The despatch boxes were originally from the House of Commons and were a gift from Winston Churchill. In the absence of division lobbies, voting is determined by through which door a member exits.
FAMOUS speakers at the Oxford Union have included:
- The late singer-songwriter Michael Jackson chose the Oxford Union to make his first public speech in a decade in March 2001.
- South African’s first black president Nelson Mandela has spoken as has his daughter Dr Maki Mandela in 2001.
- Korean rapper Psy, who became an Internet sensation, had the Oxford Union in raptures Gangnam Style in November 2012.
- US actor, singer and entertainer David Hasselhoff “The Hoff” waxed lyrical about politics and personal philosophy in 2011. The Baywatch star was given the floor to talk about truth and consequences – and sing.
- Kermit the Frog: The famous Muppet Show character turned up in Oxford to explain his life story to amused students in 1994. Dressed in university robes, he explained: “When I was a tadpole, I had over four thousand brothers and sisters, so my parents couldn’t afford to send me to university.”
- America’s “Queen of Porn”, Jenna Jameson, took to the soapbox to argue against the motion The House Believes that Porn is Harmful, and won the vote at 204-27. Ms Jameson later told Esquire magazine: “There are certain moments in my life that I remember... That was one. I win.”
- Disgraced former American President Richard Nixon gave a speech at the Union after he was resigned from office in 1975 over the infamous Watergate scandal. He told students: “Some people say I did not handle it properly and they are right. I screwed it up. Mea culpa. But you’ll be here in the year 2000 and we’ll see how Im regarded then.”
- Other speakers include Mother Teresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Home Secretary Theresa May, Dame Judi Dench, Michael Barrymore, Sir Michael Parkinson, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, physicist Stephen Hawking, Sir John Major, James Bond star Sir Roger Moore and the 42nd American President Bill Clinton.
You have to be an Oxford University student to become a member. It costs £236 for life membership. Members receive benefits including free entry to Oxford nightclub Purple Turtle and £1.50 pints at the union’s in-house bar. It couldn’t reveal a number for its current membership.
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