From the moment you join The Oxford Union you become part of our heritage. Whether you participated in competitive debating tournaments, held an elected committee position, or attended the Society’s speaker and social events, you continue to be part of an ever-growing international network spanning more than 70 countries that explores issues and promotes critical thinking.
Alumni Life members can continue to enjoy membership benefits after graduating, from attending speaker events and debates to using the bar and library. All members are also eligible for reciprocal membership of The National Liberal Club in London - see here for more information.
If you have lost your membership card, you can contact email@example.com to purchase a new one for a small fee.
Celebrating our Bicentenary Year - and our Alumni Life Members
As we celebrate 200 years of free speech, there is much to reflect on - from notable debates that have reverberated around the world to the guest speakers who have been questions and challenged by our members. Every individual who has passed through our doors has played a role in shaping The Union into what it is today; our past, present and future members are central to our heritage and history in the making.
In this historic year we therefore also pay tribute to our life members and hope to see you at one of our upcoming Alumni Events soon.
Read on below to discover how the Union has celebrated its earlier historic milestones.
Supporting the Oxford Union
Looking ahead, we have identified three key priorities for the next decade and beyond:
Free Speech – essential in promoting civic discourse and central to the Union's prevailing purpose;
Access – removing physical and financial barriers to participation;
Heritage – preserving the beautiful, Grade II* listed buildings and enabling necessary refurbishment of the Library and restoration of the precious artworks contained within.
Our immediate focus is to raise funds to pay for essential maintenance works which must be accomplished by mid-2024. The loss of the buildings, however temporary, could pose a serious threat to our ability to operate independently and with legitimacy. Moreover, the loss of such a space, which attracts members from all colleges, would fundamentally change the fabric of Oxford's student community who cherish the Union as a central meeting place to socialise, study, and debate.
To those who have already given their support or have expressed an interest in doing so – thank you. Your generosity at any level will make a real difference to our ability to accomplish our objectives without interruption: attracting speakers, providing a forum for civic discourse, removing physical and financial barriers to participation, while preserving a unique heritage which creates an inspiring setting for the Oxford Union's mission.
Across two centuries, the Oxford Union has taken the regular opportunity to celebrate its own existence. It was not without reason that The Times grumpily described the Union in the 1994 as “the most self-publicising student debating society in the world”.
Technically, the Oxford Union Society is not quite two hundred years old. The Union was founded in 1823 as the ‘United Debating Society’ for the purposes of holding debates once a week on historical and philosophical subjects. Yet by 1825, the Society was beset with the problem of a small number of members disrupting debates, and a lack of rules prevented powers of expulsion. So the Society passed a motion “that the Society… cease to exist”. It was reinvented and reconstituted the following Monday as the ‘Oxford Union Society’ – without the turbulent members. The Oxford Union has embraced its rule book ever since.
At first, the Union used college rooms, then rented. But in 1852, the Union moved to its location across St Michael’s Street and Frewin Court, and opened new buildings in 1857, including the current Old Library (then the original debating chamber); the external Debating Chamber followed in 1879.
It was in those decades of expansion that the Union held its Jubilee celebrations to mark its 50th Anniversary in October 1873. H.H. Asquith (later the Liberal Prime Minister) was the Secretary of the Special Committee for the Jubilee celebrations.
Four hundred members attended the banquet at the Oxford Corn Exchange. For convenience of the guests living in London, the Great Railway Company put on special trains to convey them to and from the dinner.
The Times reported that the first toast of the evening was to Her Majesty the Queen. Speeches included Lord Selborne, the Lord Chancellor; George Goschen, First Lord of the Admiralty; the Marquis of Salisbury then Chancellor of the University (later Prime Minister); Archbishop Tait of Canterbury; and Archbishop (not yet Cardinal) Manning from the Roman Catholic Church.
Manning talked about the young before him who were “to form the material of future legislators, not prompted by the low ambition of calculating minds, but by the high aspiration of men who desire to do good service to the Commonwealth, and who are now training themselves in all the fire of youth, the vigour of their fresh intellect, and the energy of their will, set upon our great public service, in the Oxford Union.”
John Mowbray MP (later the Father of the House of Commons) declared: “there are many persons I know who regard the Union as merely a debating society, but I think this to be a great mistake. There are imperial politics, and there are Union politics… I look upon it as a great school for the development of the combative element.”
Reporting on the dinner, The Times noted: “Among its leading members have been many who promise to fulfil a prominent station in public life. It has not only supplied a school for speaking to those who intend to pursue the professions of the Law or the Church, or to embrace political life, but, by furnishing a theatre for the display of miscellaneous knowledge, and by bringing together most of the distinguished young men in the university, it has had a great effect upon the general tone of Oxford society.”
The event finished at 1.30 in the morning due to the length of the speeches – an evening of Victorian oratory and verbosity.
The anniversary debate was held the next night. A mere three years after the fall of Napoleon III, the motion was the “that the restoration of the Empire would form the best guarantee for the future prosperity of France.”
Fifty years later, the Centenary debate and dinner was arranged for October 1923. But both the events had to be postponed due to the general election – there was little chance of getting MPs of the day to attend at the peak of the campaign.
The Centenary debate was held in February 1924, on a motion “This House believes that civilisation has advanced since this House first met”. The shadow of the Great War loomed large. Catholic theologian, Father Ronald Knox, told the House that “mechanical contrivances do not constitute an advance of civilisation and I want to say over and over again that we are getting not only worse but more barbarous.”
But barrister and writer, Philip Guedalla, argued there was one thing that Oxford had never been charged and that was modesty, for this reason, the motion was bound to be carried.
The Centenary dinner was held in the Town Hall the next day. Speakers included Asquith, Lord Curzon, Lord Birkenhead, Archbishop Lang (then of York) and Hilaire Belloc.
Tickets were issued for £1:10 for members; tickets were available for 10/ each for ladies to attend in the gallery for dessert and wine. Women would not be admitted to the Union as members for decades to come, when a poll on a rules change in 1963 successfully passed on a second attempt.
Toasts were made to the King, the University, the Church, the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the law, Letters, the Union, and to the ex-Officers. Across the nine courses of dinner, the wines served included Moet & Chandon Imperial 1914, Chateau Margot 1914 and Sauterne Supérieur 1916.
Lord Curzon, the Chancellor of the University, declared that he used to think the Union was like the House of Lords, “that Chamber in which I spend the evening of my days in the company of many other ex-Presidents. I do not know whether I ought to carry the resemblance as far as that, but, at any rate, it was infinitely superior in all respects to that temple of bourgeois mediocrity, the House of Commons.”
Curzon noted that “the Union is an indispensable feature” in Oxford life, despite it having “no official existence” in the University; “it is not even mentioned in the monument of literary style, the Oxford University Calendar. Its President is not prayed for from the St Mary’s pulpit on Sundays, much as I am sure he stands in need of that arbitrary aid to continued existence.” That latter sentiment continues to ring through the ages.
It was 2am in the morning before the self-congratulatory speeches finished.
The self-publicising Society was less successful in the media on this occasion. Most of the national press refused to report the debate, as they took offence at being banished to report the proceedings from the gallery. The London District of the Institute of Journalists passed a resolution which “cordially approved” of the actions of the press in refusing to report the event, as “the usual courtesies to the press not having been extended”.
Fifty years on, the Sesquicentennial dinner was held in March 1973 in the Randolph hotel. Thanks to inflation, the cost was now £8.50 per head. Speakers included Harold Macmillan as guest of honour, Jeremy Thorpe, Geoffrey Rippon, and William Rees-Mogg.
Macmillan declared: “What is the University? Only the background against which the Union is cast”. Jeremy Thorpe described the Union as “the nursery in which we were trained in the minor arts of doing down our opponents in debate”. Michael Stewart, former Labour Foreign Secretary, compared the Union with the House of Commons: “both have a reading room, a writing-room, a bar and a restaurant, together with a debating room for the more politically minded members.”
Twenty-five years later, the 175th dinner in Trinity 1998, held in the Union debating chamber, included another generation of ex-officer luminaries such as Edward Heath, William Hague, Roy Jenkins and Michael Heseltine. The anniversary debate shortly before in Hilary 1998 featured Robin Day, Patrick Mayhew, Kenneth Baker, Peter Jay, Michael Beloff, Max Beloff, Anne Widdecombe, Jeffery Archer, as well as a 33 year old Boris Johnson. The matter for debate was “This House believes that ambition is the last refuge of the failure”. This was a motion, Boris asserted, “which puts its finger on the central neurosis: ambition and failure that has made this Union Society so exciting for the last 175 years.”
As the Union celebrates its Bicentenary, some may criticise its continued verbosity and pomposity. But there can be no denying its brilliant dawns of so many leading figures across letters, the law and public life. It has been an unrivalled training ground for debating and the skulduggery of politics. And most crucially, is its role as a bastion of free speech – more relevant than ever in an era of growing intolerance towards dissenting views. The Society’s members may be entitled to raise a glass to its past, present and future.
Sheridan Westlake OBE
Brasenose & St Cross
Ex-Chairman of Consultative Committee, ex-Returning Officer