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Notable Debates

Contributed by Eden A. Smith (Ex-Returning Officer, Magdalen)

To describe the Oxford Union as merely a debating society underplays just how much the modern institution does. Perhaps the most frequently used quote about the Union comes from Harold Macmillan (Ex-Librarian, Balliol). The Union, he quipped, is ‘last bastion of free speech’. While freedom of speech - our founding purpose - continues to be debated as a standalone issue itself, the content of those speeches and exchanges is equally deserving of attention.

Debate is our purpose and for two centuries students have gathered together in our chamber to grapple with the issues of the day, tussle with the meaning of the past, and wrestle over their visions of the future. Covering every possible subject, most have been fiercely fought in a bright chamber at night, before the minute books are locked away. The records of these hundreds of debates are, if not forgotten, part of an infrequently consulted archive of student rhetoric. Every once in a while, however, a great debate occurs, which may even be worthy of national or international attention. This article presents just a few of these, their place in our history, and reflects on the oratory that continues to give force to Macmillan’s famous label.

King & Country - "that abject, squalid, shameless avowal"

The most famous debate in the Union’s history came in the Hilary Term of 1933. The motion eventually settled on was ‘This House Will under no circumstances fight for its King and its Country’. Pacifism was in fact a frequent Union debate subject, and had been since the First World War. It was in those days still rare for more than two external speakers to come up to Oxford for the debate; student members would propose and oppose the motion. 

It nonetheless proved difficult, come 1933, to secure speakers for the proposition. David Walters’ 1984 history of the Union, Playground of Power, notes that of those who refused to come, amongst them Bertrand Russell, all did so for logistical reasons. C.E.M Joad, a philosophy professor, was eventually found and came up from London. After speeches from Kenelm Hubert Digby (St John’s) and David Graham (Librarian, Balliol) defending a pledge for peace, Professor Joad delivered a rousing defence of pacifism. This House was in fact gathered, he suggested, to affirm that it would ‘never commit murder on a huge scale whenever the Government directed it should do so.’ Despite a long speech from Quintin Hogg, the future Lord Chancellor, the motion was carried by a comfortable majority. 428 members voted, 275 supporting the proposition. This was more than at other debate that term, although a sizeable rather than overwhelming turnout.

The public reaction was beyond what the President, Frank Hardie (Christ Church) and his officers, amongst them Michael Foot (Treasurer, Wadham) had expected. Max Beloff (Corpus Christi), teller for the Ayes later recalled to David Walters in the 1980s that to those present, the debate seemed more about the horrors of the Great War than the threat of Nazi Germany. 

Nonetheless, fears as to the rise of fascism and the threat of communism dominated the newspaper reports, amongst them pieces in the Daily Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail and Daily Express. 275 white feathers, one for each Aye vote, were delivered to the Union. At the following debate, some twenty members seized the offending minutes and burnt them. Randolph Churchill, with the full oratorical support of his father, who described the outcome as "that abject, squalid, shameless avowal" sought to have the motion expunged from the minute book; at the ticketed debate on the matter, Churchill was defeated by 750 votes to 138. Despite having been escorted into the chamber with police protection, he was chased at the end of the debate. He escaped – by hiding in a public toilet. The right to free speech had prevailed and the motion would later be referred to as "the Oxford pledge".

On Thursday 9th February 2023 the House once again debated the King and Country motion – 90 years to the day after the original motion - with 88 in favour and 212 against.

Malcolm X on Extremism

Few other debates have captured the public imagination or thrived in the press in such a way as the King and Country Debate. However, moments of national importance have cropped up since then. The most well known was during the visit of Malcolm X on 3 December 1964. The motion itself, ‘This House Believes Extremism in Defence of Liberty is no Vice; Moderation in the Pursuit of Justice is no Virtue’, was in fact a near-quote from the Republican Convention acceptance speech of Barry Goldwater, in July of that year. In the United Kingdom, the 1964 general election had taken place just two months previously, charged with racist rhetoric in some seats. In April, Robert Surpell and Clive Seddon, both Oxford undergraduates, had released a paper in the Journal of the Institute for Race Relations showing that over half of the University landladies in the city refused to accommodate students of colour.

During the debate on the night of the third of December, in the chair was the President, Eric Anthony Abrahams, later the first black television reporter for the BBC. It was his farewell debate. Malcolm X spoke after an opposition speech in which he was accused of being a racist on par with the South African leadership. The activist opened with the traditional thanks for being invited to speak. ‘Tonight’, he added, ‘is the first night that I have ever had the opportunity to be as near to conservatives as I am’. What followed was a speech which could, in the words of Saladin Ambar, only be described as ‘a near thirty-minute exposition that is perhaps the best encapsulation of [his] ultimate views on race, American politics and what can only be called universal human rights’. It was during that exposition that the line, ‘We are not human beings unless we band together and do whatever, however, whenever is necessary to see that our lives and property are protected’ was uttered. 

In years to come, exhorting student audiences to go out and change the world would become commonplace. Malcolm X’s speech ended similarly. The young generation were already living in a time of extremism, in his view. ‘A better world has to be built,’ he declared, ‘and the only way it’s going to be built is with extreme methods, and I for one will join in with anyone – I don’t care what colour you are – as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.’ He took his seat to thunderous, and extended, applause. As is often the way in the Union, however, one speech cannot carry a side. The motion was defeated.

In 2015 the motion was once again put before the house with political activist Angela Davis arguing that extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice to mark the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X's address at the Union. 

A Question of Europe

In 1975 The Union debated the motion "This House Would Say Yes to Europe". With 493 voting for the motion and 92 against, this televised debate which was held just two days before the national referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the EEC which it had joined in 1973.

Former prime minister Edward Heath and the leader of the Liberal Party Jeremy Thorpe spoke in favour of the motion and Labour ministers Barbara Castle and Peter Shore spoke against it. The debate was broadcast live on BBC1 with an introduction by Robin Day and Ludovic Kennedy; at the end of the programme David Dimbleby provided an update on other developments in the referendum campaign. The result of the 5 June referendum was 67% in favour of remaining within the EEC. The debate broadcasted from The Union's chamber two days earlier reportedly played a role in swaying public opinion.

The question of Europe has been debated many times since by speakers including Dan Hannan MEP, Nick Clegg, former Deputy Prime Minister, and Nigel Farage, Honorary President of Reform UK and former leader of UKIP.

‘This House Believes Nuclear Weapons are Morally Indefensible’

The eyes of the world are often on the Union, and not just through the millions of viewers its debates have online. In 1985, a debate of global importance was held, broadcast across the world and with a direct feed to politicians in the UK, US, Europe – and New Zealand. David Lange, Prime Minister of that country, debated against the American evangelist, the Revd Jerry Falwell, the motion ‘This House Believes Nuclear Weapons are Morally Indefensible’. 

The politician, known domestically for his eloquence and skill in parliamentary debates, carried that charisma with him to the Union. Challenged by one student as to why New Zealand did not do the ‘honourable’ thing, and pull out of the ANZUS alliance, Mr Lange quipped that he would answer the question if the student would just hold his breath for a moment, as he could ‘smell the uranium on it from here!’ 

There had initially been confusion as to the precise motion. Mr Falwell had accepted an invitation to defend ‘the Western nuclear alliance’. Mr Lange refused to debate such a motion, which would have placed him in the same boat as the USSR. Arriving in London with few diplomatic plans, he met Margaret Thatcher only after the debate itself. Standing to speak, he was greeted with a standing ovation, a rarity then and almost unheard of now. The debate itself was charged with New Zealand’s controversial opposition to any nuclear power. The Labour party had won the 1984 election on a pledge to oppose not only nuclear weapons, but ban nuclear ships from entering New Zealand ports.

There was also frustration with French nuclear tests, France not having signed the Test Ban Treaty. ‘The only thing worse than being incinerated by your enemies’, observed the New Zealand premier drily, ‘is being incinerated by your friends’. Mr Lange received a second standing ovation, and whilst Mr Falwell made a respectable defence of nuclear weapons, the proposition won the debate resoundingly. David Lange would go on to note in his autobiography twenty years later that his appearance at the Union was the high point of his career. 

"This debate entered the annals of New Zealand history and remains relevant to this day" - Dr Jeya Wilson, Ex-President, Hilary 1986, St Antony's and current Union Trustee, living in Aotearoa New Zealand (pictured, left, with Mr Lange, after the debate)

200 years of free speech - our living heritage

These motions are just a few of the ones that have captured our imagination in the Union’s second century; whilst guest speeches dominate often, the heart of each debate has always been the student speakers. Whilst the King and Country motion’s legacy endures, and was taken up by other universities, it stands as testimony to the importance of debate amongst the young, even when those young later change their mind. 

Many of those who voted with the Ayes in 1933 would in fact go on to fight, and die, for King and Country just six years later. Christopher Hollis in his 1965 history of the Union believed it ‘a good thing that there should survive a place where the young are encouraged to parade their opinions and to parade them in a light-hearted fashion’. Mr Hollis would be pleased to know that the place survives into its third century, and the debates with it. Whilst the themes in the Union often change, some are ripe to be revisited with new eyes and after new events. In Hilary 2023, the House will repeat the King and Country motion – 90 years to the day after the original debate.

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