Cambridge Union Society

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Cambridge Union Society
The coat of arms of the Cambridge Union Society.
Formation 1815
Sponsor Deloitte
Type Student Debating Union
Headquarters Cambridge
Location 9A Bridge St Cambridge, CB2 1UB
President James Hutt, Pembroke
Chair of Trustees Chris Smith, Baron Smith of Finsbury
Affiliations World Universities Debating Council

The Cambridge Union Society, commonly referred to as "the Cambridge Union" or "the Union", is a debating society in Cambridge, England, and the largest society at the University of Cambridge. Additionally, the Cambridge Union has served as a model for the foundation of similar societies at several other prominent universities, including the Oxford Union, Studentafton (Lund, Sweden), Siddons Union Club and the Yale Political Union. The Union is a private society with membership open to all students of Cambridge University or Anglia Ruskin University, and is completely separate from the Cambridge University Students' Union. The Union became a registered charity in May 2010,[1] and entered into a 3-year partnership with professional service providers Deloitte in November, 2013.[2]

The Union has hosted political and other figures in its chamber, both state- and international-based, including the Dalai Lama, President Ronald Reagan, Professor Germaine Greer, Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, and Clint Eastwood. Speakers from the 21st century include academics Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams, former British Prime Ministers John Major, former President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf, comedian Dara Ó Briain, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Olympic legend Lord Coe, comedian and activist Russell Brand,[3] and actor Sir Ian McKellen.[4]

History of the Union

A debate at the Cambridge Union Society (c. 1887). There is no longer a dress code for members attending debates today.

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 Society was allowed to reform, under strict guidelines.[5][6]

The Union's Bridge Street premises (Lua error in Module:Coordinates at line 668: callParserFunction: function "#coordinates" was not found.) 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.[5][6]

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 Society's library.[5][6]

Modern Developments

The Union is legally a self-funded society 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 often admitted to Union events and they are sometimes open to all students.[5][6]

After nearly 200 years, the Cambridge Union is best known for its debates, which often 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.[5][6]

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 Society 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.

The Union became a registered charity in May 2010,[1] and entered into a 3-year partnership with professional service providers Deloitte in November, 2013 in order to address increasingly high running costs.[2] Addressing concerns that such support would jeopardise the Society's independence, the Union stated "Deloitte will not be choosing the speakers or debate motions and the Union will remain a society dedicated to free speech, which prioritises its members’ interests".[2]

In 2015 the Union will celebrate its Bicentennial. A specialist committee composed of former and current Officers has been put together to organise a range of events to mark this occasion, including special debates, dinners and parties in Cambridge and, for the first time in its history, in London.[7]


The Union announced a major refurbishment project to begin after the conclusion of its Bicentenary in 2015 to address major structural problems and to expand its existing facilities, subject to approval by planners. The project is to be financed through the leasing of disused parts of its site to Trinity College, Cambridge in a deal worth £4.5 million.[8]


Membership of the Society

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.[9] Members are able to bring guests to certain functions provided that the guests would not be allowed to purchase membership.[10] Social events and events organised by external bodies are occasionally open to the public, with discounts for Union members[10]

The society awards honorary memberships to particularly distinguished individuals and maintains reciprocal membership policies with similar societies such as the College Historical Society and the Oxford Union Society. Recently, Sir Ian McKellen was awarded honorary membership when he addressed the Union Society in January 2011, as were Lord Coe in May 2010 and former British Prime Minister John Major in April 2010.

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.[11] 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[12]

Individual speakers have included British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. US Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, the first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, the first democratically elected President of Iraq Jalal Talabani,[13] Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, the last President of apartheid-era South Africa, F. W. de Klerk, spiritual leader of Tibet the Dalai Lama, academic Germaine Greer, economist Ha Joon Chang, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, actors Brian Blessed, Bradley Whitford, Judi Dench, Clint Eastwood, Roger Moore[14] and Bill Nighy,[15] former head of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn,[16] chat show host Jerry Springer,[17] actress and model Pamela Anderson,[18] magician David Blaine,[19] and most recently, comedian and political activist Russell Brand, American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, and second person to walk on the moon Buzz Aldrin.[4] A more complete list of past speakers is listed on their website.


The Cambridge Union Society 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.[20]

Standing Committee

Standing Committee is the Union's primary day-to-day managing body, which consists of the current President, Vice-President and Officers, the President-Elect and Officers-Elect. All Officers of the Union are elected by its membership on a termly basis, with the sole exception of the Vice-President, who is appointed by Standing Committee 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.[20] Termly elected officers serve a term (and its preceding vacation) as "officer-elect", prior to entering office, during which time they are voting members of the Standing Committee. This time is to be used to plan their term in office.[21]

Every term, Standing Committee is also responsible for appointing a variety of positions within the society including the Secretary, Head of Event Management, Head of Publicity, Head of Audio-Visual and Press Officer amongst others, all of whom are entitled to attend Standing Committee meetings without voting rights, along with the Bursar.[22]

Review Committee

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 Society 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.[20]


The Board of Trustees, currently chaired by Sir Richard Dearlove, 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 Society, 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 of the Union is traditionally appointed as a Trustee for the duration of their term in office.[20]


In addition to these posts the Society also maintains an employed staff consisting of a Bursar, responsible for overseeing the long-term health of the Society, Office Managers and a Bar Manager. The Society also holds contracts for catering, cleaning, building maintenance, property management, IT services and legal advice.

Past officers

Notable past Presidents and Officers include:

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[24] while the complete Constitution of Canada is 31,575 words long.[25] 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.

A new draft of the Constitution of the Cambridge Union Society was drafted and approved by the Union's Standing Committee, and approved by Trustees on Tuesday, 29 April 2014. It came into force on 1 July 2014.[22]

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 Society's YouTube channel titled 'The Cambridge Union Society'.[26] 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, 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, called CUS Live, includes the ability to contribute to debates virtually via questions and comments to be read out on the floor of the Union. CUS Live is hosted on the Union's website and is available only to members of the society.[27]


Hosting of Speakers

The Cambridge Union, like its Oxford counterpart, is no stranger to controversy over its choice of speakers. Protests have been arranged by students against the appearance of Universities Minister David Willetts, Government Minister Eric Pickles,[28] during which the building was broken into, former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn,[29] Marine Le Pen[30] and Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange.[31] Most recently, 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. [32]

The LGBT+ group continues to boycott all LGBT+ events at the Cambridge Union having declared it to no longer represent a 'safe space'.[33]

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.[34][35][36]

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".[37] 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.[38]

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.[39]

Referendum on Julian Assange

The Union called a referendum on the hosting of Julian Assange on October 22nd 2015, arguing that his situation was a unique one that required the consultation of its members. The referendum passed with 76.9% of the vote. Turnout was 1463.[40]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 "THE CAMBRIDGE UNION SOCIETY". OpenCharities. OpenCharities. 10 September 2012. Retrieved 8 April 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "The Union by Deloitte". Varsity Online.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Speakers at the Union".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Parkinson, Stephen (2009). Arena of Ambition: A History of the Cambridge Union. London: Icon Books.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 "History of the Union".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "2015 Celebrations". Cambridge Union Society. Archived from the original on 5 October 2012. Retrieved 9 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Union moves to save 149-year-old home" (pdf) (Press release). Cambridge Union Society. 31 January 2015. Retrieved 9 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Join online".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Our Guest Policy". Cambridge Union Society. Retrieved 9 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Dawkins defeated in Cambridge Union religion debate". The Cambridge Student.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "Peter Hitchens and Lord Desai post debate clash: This House Regrets the Rise of New Atheism". YouTube. 11 October 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "President Talabani visiting the Cambridge Union (Hosted by Pres. Ali Al-Ansari)".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Connery is a good actor; it's a pity I can't understand what he's saying". Varsity Online.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Bill Nighy Interview, The Cambridge Union Society". YouTube. 19 August 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Caroline Davies. "Cambridge students protest against Dominique Strauss-Kahn visit". the Guardian.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Poppy Damon. "Jerry, Jerry, Jerry". The Tab Cambridge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "Pamela Anderson takes to the stage at Cambridge Union - Daily Mail Online". Mail Online.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "David Blaine at the Cambridge Union". YouTube. 4 October 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 "Full Committee of the Cambridge Union (Lent 2015)".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Full Committee of the Cambridge Union (Lent 2015)".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. 22.0 22.1 "The Constitution".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "Beck, Theodore (BK879T)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. "Cambridge Union Constitution". Retrieved 2010-10-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "The Constitution of Canada". Retrieved 2005-12-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. "The Cambridge Union Society" (Video upload). The Cambridge Union Society on YouTube. Google Inc. March 2014. Retrieved 8 April 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. "CUS Live". Cambridge Union Society. Retrieved 9 April 2015. Unknown parameter |registration= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. "Outrage over student protest at Cambridge Union – Union security staff "Out of control"". The Cambridge Student.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. "Disgraced Dominique Strauss-Kahn gives Cambridge Union address flanked by 6 bodyguards - Daily Mail Online". Mail Online.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. "Marine Le Pen sparks Cambridge protests". 19 February 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. "Protest planned over Julian Assange appearance". Cambridge News.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. Ivers, Charlotte (22 January 2015). "CUSU are angry about the Union… again". The Tab. Retrieved 9 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. "#BOYCOTTUNIONDRINKS GERMAINE GREER'S UNION INVITATION UNACCEPTABLE". 22 January 2015. Retrieved 9 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  34. Max Toomey. "LE PEN: AS IT HAPPENED". The Tab Cambridge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  35. Will Heilpern. "DO ONE DAVID WILLETTS: Cambridge students tell Uni minister to 'Fuck Off'". The Tab Cambridge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  36. Helen Cahill. "Union Courts Controversy Once More". The Tab Cambridge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  37. Morris, Nigel (13 March 2015). "Oxford and Cambridge unions win exemption allowing extremists to preach on campus". The Independent. Retrieved 9 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  38. Travis, Alan (13 March 2015). "Oxford and Cambridge Unions avoid terror ban on extremist speakers". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  39. Travis, Alan (20 March 2015). "Theresa May drops rules on ordering universities to ban extremist speakers". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Cradock, Percy (1953). Recollections of the Cambridge Union 1815-1939. Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Parkinson, Stephen (2009). Arena of Ambition: A History of the Cambridge Union. London: Icon Books.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

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