Contributed by Eden A. Smith (Ex-Returning Officer, Magdalen College)
The Oxford Union is the most prestigious debating society in the world. Our roots lie in free speech, but today we are responsible for a host of activities, including weekly debates before hundreds of members, hosting guest speakers and interviewing politicians and celebrities, arranging social events ranging from balls to garden parties, training and fielding competitive debating teams worldwide, and hosting debate competitions. We do all this for our thousands of members, all whilst running two libraries, an archive, a licensed bar, regular large-scale elections, and caring for artwork and listed buildings that are part of this country’s architectural heritage. Throughout its entire history, all this work has been overseen and carried out by students. Today, at our busiest, we are testament to the potential of the young, but we owe much to those visionaries who went before. This is a brief history of those students and the institution they built, which today we treasure.
In the early part of the nineteenth century, student members of the University of Oxford were restricted in the matters they could discuss and the opinions they could air. Tired of the curtailment of their freedom of speech, twenty five young men met near the end of 1822 and established a set of Rules that would govern a new Society and in March 1823 the ‘United Debating Society’ was born. Its first ever debate, held on the fifth of April, would be on the State, the monarchy, and democracy, subjects which would be debated time and again across the next two centuries:
Was the revolution under Cromwell to be attributed to the tyrannical conduct of Charles, or to the democratic spirit of the time?
As Union members began to grow in number, it became clear that holding debates in college rooms would no longer be an option and plans were discussed to create a more permanent location for the Society’s activities. The university, however, had taken note and made its disapproval very clear. In the months that followed, so too did the London papers, criticising the motions debated as well as the participants – a tradition that has lived on, now extended to student run newspapers, too.
During 1825, debate motions became more ‘mischievous’ and it also became clear that the quality of discussion would be limited by the lack of a mechanism to fine ‘boyish’ interrupters. On the third of December that year a motion to dissolve The United Debating Society was passed, to the delight of many in the university. Yet, two days later, The Oxford Union Society was re-born and re-committed to challenging, informing and educating through open debate and civil discourse ever since.
Nonetheless, despite The Union’s re-invention so soon after its original founding, its identity as a forum to uphold free speech has never been questioned. For this reason, in the years that followed all property and books that were first issued under the auspices of The United Debating Society were stamped with the year 1823, as a nod to the true year in which The Oxford Union’s prevailing purpose was first realised.
Once established, the Union’s early presidents set about not only selecting debates, but cementing the Society’s place in the University. Foremost amongst The Union’s early presidents was William Ewart Gladstone, whose leadership took the Union into its second decade and whose cabinet table still stands in the room named after him. He would become the first of many Prime Ministers who honed their debating skills in the Union, becoming an MP just months after his Presidency ended.
In 1857 the first buildings were erected, and the present Old Library served as the debating chamber. On its walls are Pre-Raphaelite murals depicting scenes from Arthurian legend, painted by a team of artists including Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Morris.
Quickly outgrowing the first chamber, however, in 1879 the Union built a separate debating chamber. The main buildings would expand as well, to include a new library and large dining room. Great names would come to dominate Union politics through these later Victorian years, from Asquith and Salisbury to Curzon, Lang and Belloc.
By the Union’s centenary in 1923, it was an active and important part of University life. The passage of Union men into the Church, the Bar and the Houses of Parliament was not only regular, but common. Harold Macmillan would become Librarian in 1914, but the First World War halted all Union activity. A great many members died during the war, and a stone tablet records the names of a few of them, above the President’s chair in the chamber.
During its second century the Union saw some of its most famous moments, and underwent some of its greatest changes. It saw national attention in 1933 when the House voted for the motion,
This House Would Under No Circumstances Fight for its King and its Country. Lights of the political world of the later nineteenth century were active during this time; Edward Heath, Tony Benn, Michaels – both Foot and Heseltine – all took the President’s chair. Many members would in fact go on to fight for King and Country in the Second World War. Their names too are recorded in the Union’s chamber, and for a debate close to 11 November each year, the Officers replace their traditional debate carnations with red poppies.
A great and positive change came in 1963; after several decades of struggle, women were admitted as members for the first time. Judith Okely of St Hilda’s college led the campaign, and was the first female member. Four years later, Geraldine Jones of St Hugh’s was elected the first female President, to be followed in time by a great many others. 2022 saw the first debate in which every single speech was delivered by a woman.
Since 1923, the number of individual guests who come to the Union to speak, and often answer tough questions, has increased greatly. Richard Nixon spoke to a packed chamber in 1978, uttering the line, ‘I screwed it up, and I paid the price’. His fellow Presidents Carter and Reagan would visit, as would Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Sir Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and Queen Elizabeth II, alongside hundreds of other stars of global politics, acting, sport and business. Their photos still adorn the walls of the bar, as do photographs of generations of Union Committees throughout the Union’s buildings.