5th April 2023: The Oxford Union Celebrates 200 Years of Inspiring, and controversial, debates
You can read the write up by The Oxford Mail here: https://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/23432335.pictures-oxford-union-celebrates-200-years-debates/
QUAD Magazine: Why Free Speech Matters
13 March 2023 - Charlie Mackintosh, Ex-President, Hilary 2023, New College, argues why free speech matters. This piece first appeared in the University of Oxford’s alumni magazine QUAD
Celebrating Hilary 2023 Debating Achievements
We recently sent three teams to the Manchester IV 2023 on the 11th of February. One of our teams (Dhruv Leekha and Tanae Rao) won the tournament, while another of our teams (Ahmed Hussain and Pranav Baskar) made it to the semi-finals. Congratulations!
9 February 2023: The Oxford Union voted to fight for King & Country, 90 years to the day since the 1933 'Oxford Oath'
This was the first time, since the original debate, that the Oxford Union revisited the ‘King and country’ motion whilst a king sits on the British throne. The Hon. Michael Beloff KC and The Hon. Jeremy Beloff were tellers for the evening in tribute to their father Max Beloff who was a teller in the 1933 debate.
The 1933 ‘King and Country’ debate
On the evening of 9 February 1933, Oxford Union members assembled for their regular Thursday night debate to consider the motion ‘That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country’. The fact the motion was carried, by 275 votes to 153, caused outrage amongst some members of the establishment, ignited a media storm and captured international attention. More than any other event, it is perhaps the events of that night and its aftermath that ensured the Oxford Union Society’s place in history and its hold on public consciousness.
The Debate Motion
The motion was initially suggested by the Librarian, David Graham, and as was custom, officially selected by the President, Frank Hardie. As well as three student speakers – Kenelm Digby (St John’s), Keith Steel Maitland (Balliol) and David Graham (Balliol) - Hardie invited two guests to give paper speeches. The well-known philosopher and Union member, C.E.M. Joad, was invited to speak for the motion, and former Union president, Quintin Hogg, to speak against. The debate itself was unremarkable. Joad’s eloquence in presenting an absolute pacifist position was widely credited for swaying the result. Only the student papers and Oxford Mail sent reporters.
The controversy surrounding the debate began on 11 February with a letter on the centre-page of the Daily Telegraph entitled, ‘Disloyalty at Oxford: gesture towards the Reds’. It purported to be by a Union member ‘Sixty-four’, later revealed as Telegraph writer J.B. Firth. A flurry of similar press stories and published letters from readers followed. One group of older non-resident Oxford Union members, led by Lord Stanley Of Alderley and Randolph Churchill, son of Winston, proposed to remove, or ‘expunge’, the records of the debate from the Society’s minute book.
On 16 February, at the debate following the ‘King and Country’ motion, a group of 20-30 intruders marched into the hall and tore the record of the debate from the minute book. The intruders were variously described as undergraduates, members of the University boat club or members of Oswald Mosley’s fascist party. A couple of weeks later, on 2 March, a packed House divided on the motion to expunge the records of the ‘King and Country’ debate. The motion was defeated by a decisive 750 votes to 138.
This second vote was in fact a referendum on free speech; resident Oxford members resented the intrusion of others in their affairs. The President was also credited for swaying the result with his speech making clear that this was not a rerun of the previous motion, but a ‘childish and absurd’ attempt to alter the record.
The timing of the motion largely explains the level of attention it attracted. During a period of rising international tensions, the speakers at the debate focussed on pacificism and the best way to prevent the outbreak of a future war. National press coverage, however, transformed the public terms of the debate into something quite different.
The supporters of the motion were criticised as decadent or communist inspired youth, expressing disloyalty to the King. It is true that the Union’s junior officers and committee members were largely liberal and left-leaning, reflective of a wider intellectual shift during this period. The Communist party, however, played no part in the debate. The students were serious and earnest in their convictions. The monarchy was moreover barely mentioned. The ‘King and country’ part of the motion was interpreted by most students as short-hand for a jingoistic and imperialist call to war.
“[I]n Germany, in Russia, in Italy, in Japan, the idea of a decadent, degenerate Britain took deep root and swayed many calculations” - Winston Churchill, in ‘The Second World War’.
Older Union and University members feared the result would be taken as representative of the position of the Union, the University and indeed the country as a whole. Once University unions across the country began passing similar motions, a panic about the values of the nation’s youth set in, especially over how this would be seen internationally, in the Soviet Union, Italy, Japan and Germany. A claim that the ‘King and Country’ result convinced the dictators that Britain would not resist aggressive expansionism has though been largely discredited.
9 February 1933 ‘King and Country’ motion carried by a majority of 122 votes
15 February 1933 Notice posted that a motion to expunge the records of the ‘King and Country’ debate from the records would be proposed during the Society’s meeting on 2 March
16 February 1933 During the evening debate, a group of 20-30 intruders marched into the hall and tore the minutes of the ‘King and Country’ debate from the minute book.
2 March 1933 The motion ‘That the Secretary be directed to expunge from the records of the Society the Motion which was carried on Thursday, 9th February’ was defeated by 750 votes to 138 votes.
The ‘King and Country’ scoreboard
The motion that the House would not fight for ‘Queen and Country’, often omitting the ‘in any circumstances’ clause, has been debated on various occasions in the past with the following results:
9 February 1933 Motion carried by 275 For, 133 Against
20 May 1965 Motion defeated with 466 For, 493 Against
22 May 1981 Motion defeated with 135 For, 138 Against
9 February 1983 Motion defeated with 187 For, 416 Against
7 February 2008 Result unrecorded
7 February 2013 Motion defeated with 109 For, 191 Against
9 February 2023 Motion defeated with 88 For, 212 Against
1 January 2023: The Oxford Union Celebrates 200 Years of Free Speech
Today marks the start of The Oxford Union’s Bicentenary year. Founded in 1823 at a time when The University of Oxford restricted students from discussing certain topics, The Union continues to uphold the principle of free speech through the exchange and debate of a wide range of ideas and opinions, presented by a diverse range of speakers – some inspiring, others controversial. As we celebrate our Bicentenary year of 2023, we reaffirm our commitment to our integral values and our belief that the discussion of complex topics should not only be encouraged but is an essential element of any free society.
There is much to celebrate as we look back – from debate motions that have reverberated around the world to the internationally prominent figures that have been scrutinised during interactive exchanges. 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. This year we will also celebrate 60 years since women were granted membership on equal terms as men and on 8th February we will pay tribute to those who campaigned for this important change.
“Our Bicentennial presents an important opportunity to affirm our founding principle of free speech. Recent events demonstrate that free speech can never be taken for granted and will constantly be threatened by those unable to engage with a point of view that differs from their own. As such, the need to defend the right to question and challenge ideas is more pressing than ever. I am proud to be President of a society that has defended free speech for 200 years and that I hope will continue to do so for many centuries to come.”
– Charlie Mackintosh, President of The Oxford Union, Hilary 2023
The Union remains independent from the University of Oxford. As we reflect on our past, we will also celebrate our unique architectural heritage including our historic volumes and irreplaceable Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris that adorn the original debating chamber, today our beautiful Old Library.
Looking to the future, we remain committed to upholding free speech by attracting enquiring minds and providing a forum in which to debate and discuss complex ideas as a modern society that remains proud of two centuries of tradition.
We also strive to continue to give back to our local community. We have recently re-invigorated our ‘Schools’ Outreach’ initiative to promote debating across the United Kingdom. The ability to express oneself and critically engage in arguments play a powerful role in an individual's personal and educational journey and we believe that the opportunities to develop those skills should be accessible to all. We also seek to dispel the myths around applying to Oxford by answering any questions visiting pupils might have about the city, the University, and The Union's own history. See here.
A selection of key dates
16 January, 8pm
Peter Thiel, entrepreneur and investor will deliver The Union’s inaugural Bicentenary address followed by a Q&A with our members.
Marks the 60 years since women gained membership on equal terms as men.
9 February, 8:30pm
Our members will once again be asked whether they would ‘fight for king & country’, 90 years to the day since the motion was first put to the house in 1933. See ‘notable debates’ for more information.
Two hundred years to the date since our first ever debate.
27 December 2022: Remembering Benazir Bhutto - Ex-President, Hilary 1977
Today we remember Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan and Ex-President of The Oxford Union, Hilary 1977, who was assassinated 15 years ago today. Her portrait hangs in our Chamber and each year we are proud to host a Memorial Lecture in her honour. In recent years, lectures have been delivered by former British Prime Minister The Rt Hon Theresa May MP, former British Prime Minister The Rt Hon David Cameron, and Salome Zourabichvilli, President of Georgia.
See coverage by The Express Tribune
3 December 2022: Competitive Debating Highlights - Michaelmas term
From 8th Week:
Another round of congratulations to Dhruv Leekha for coming top novice speaker and 2nd open speaker at the KCL Pro-Am this weekend, and to Flora for being 7th novice speaker!
From 5th Week:
This past weekend, Oxford debaters braved Cambridge to bring home another round of successes! In particular, congratulations to Gaby Lin and Andrew Chen for breaking to semifinals at Cambridge IV, and to Andrew for being 10th best speaker at the tournament! Also congratulations to Aniket Chakravorty and Zarina Bell-Gam for breaking to quarterfinals! We also have a round of successes for our first-years, with Aidan Woo being top Novice speaker, Dhruv Leekha 5th best, Elena Radalescu 6th-best, and Lwandle Ntshangase as 8th best novice speaker!
From 4th Week:
Congratulations to the following teams for their performances at the LSE IV and LSE WGM this past weekend! Congratulations to Mitchell Palmer and Shilo Grayson for winning the Pro-Am final at the LSE IV, as well as Mitchell for being 4th best overall speaker, and Shilo for being 5th-best novice speaker! Another congratulations to Flora Prideaux and Ashlyn Cheong for also breaking to the Pro-Am final! On LSE WGM, congratulations to Gaby Lin and Elena Radulescu for winning the tournament! Also congratulations to Gaby for coming 1st speaker, Elena for coming 2nd speaker and best ESL speaker, and Anandita Abraham for coming top novice speaker and 4th best speaker overall.
29 November 2022: The Rt Hon. the Baroness Hale of Richmond DBE speaks with The Oxford Union
Lady Hale of Richmond took up appointment as President of The Supreme Court in September 2017, succeeding Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury. This following her appointment as Deputy President from June 2013. In October 2009 she became the first female Justice of The Supreme Court.
Speaking to members in our debating chamber, Lady Hale opened by sharing her thoughts about the Scottish Independence ruling that had taken place just a few days previously. “Anybody who has read the Scotland Act would not have been surprised by the decision of the UK supreme court [to disallow an independence referendum without Westminster approval]”. That decision is very far from one that turns the Supreme Court into a political court. It was a straightforward decision.”
Lady Hale then addressed the "political implications" of court rulings and referred to the process of exiting the EU and the importance of staying focused on the role that parliament might play from a constitutional and legal perspective, rather than returning to discussions about whether or not the UK should still leave the EU.
A write up from Cherwell journalist Jack Twyman can be viewed at: https://cherwell.org/2022/11/29/baroness-hale-visits-the-oxford-union/
15 October 2022: Our Response to Allegations of 'No-Platforming'
Our letter to 'The Times' (which was not published) in response allegations that The Oxford Union among others had 'quietly de-platformed speakers'
We write in response to the article published in the Education section of The Times on 13th October 2022 entitled University free speech hit by ‘quiet no-platforming’ culture. This is a joint statement from The Cambridge Union Society, The Durham Union Society and The Oxford Union Society.
We reject the allegation that university free speech has been “hit by ‘quiet no-platforming’ culture”. We believe that the discussion of complex, sometimes controversial, topics should not only be encouraged but is an essential element of any free, progressive society.
Our respective societies aim to promote critical thinking through the exchange and debate of a wide range of ideas and opinions, presented by a diverse range of speakers - some inspiring, others controversial.
We do acknowledge that, in recent years, a small number of individuals have tried to progress an agenda that has attempted to curtail free speech, under the alleged objective of protecting those who might feel ‘offended.’
While certain speakers may hold views that are regarded by some as unacceptable, we nonetheless believe that it is more important to debate an issue in full rather than shy away from a difficult subject or to silence certain voices. We invite those who do not agree with the views of a particular speaker to actively participate in an event and to challenge them.
The Cambridge Union Society is strongly committed to our founding principle of promoting Free Speech. In recent years we have proudly defended this fundamental right with a speaker line-up which has included Jordan Peterson, Mahathir Mohamad, and Germaine Greer. The Cambridge Union strongly supports the rights of all speakers to share their views. We will never blacklist any speakers and regularly apportion significant funds towards providing security to enable those likely to attract protests to share their views in our chamber, such as we did for the Israeli Ambassador, Tzipi Hotovely, earlier this year.
The Durham Union Society is proud to uphold the principles of free speech and open dialogue between our guest speakers, members and the wider University community. Consulting with our members, we host a wide range of speakers with a diversity of viewpoints, with recent speakers including Lord Sumption, Nathan Law, Noam Chomsky and Gina Miller. The Durham Union Society does not shy away from difficult and important conversations, and we encourage members to challenge and engage with argument, rather than shut it down.
The Oxford Union Society exists to challenge, inform and educate through open debate and civil discourse. As per our Guest Speaker Invitation Policy, we only host speakers who agree to be challenged in the context of a debate or an interactive discussion. There are, therefore, some occasions when we must rescind an invitation to a potential speaker on the basis that they do not agree to this policy. We will continue to defend the right for any person to express their opinion on a given topic as long as it is legal.
The Cambridge Union Society, The Durham Union Society and The Oxford Union Society