The Cambridge Union Society, commonly referred to simply as the Cambridge Union, is a debating society in Cambridge, England and is the largest society at the University of Cambridge. Throughout its nearly two centuries of continuous operation, the Union has developed a worldwide reputation as a noted symbol of free speech and open debate. Additionally, as one of the oldest organizations of its kind in the world, the Cambridge Union served as a model for the subsequent foundation of similar societies at several other prominent universities including the Oxford Union and the Yale Political Union.
The Cambridge Union was founded on February 13, 1815 as a union of three debating societies and quickly rose to prominence in University life. Early officers have included the historian and essayist, Thomas Babington Macaulay and many subsequent Presidents and officers have gone on to become influential leaders in a wide variety of fields and professions. Just a few years after it was founded, the Union was even temporarily shut down by the University for being too contentious. The Union is legally a self-funded members' club which owns and has full control over its private property and buildings in Cambridge city centre. However, it enjoys strong relations with the university, allowing other societies to hire rooms out, often admiting guests to its events and even holding a debate open to all students once a year.
After nearly 200 years, the Cambridge Union is still best known for its debates which often receive national or international media attention. However, it also organises lectures by visiting speakers, film evenings and other social events for its members. The top members of its debating team compete internationally against other top debating societies, and Cambridge regularly fields one of the most successful teams at the World Universities Debating Championships.
Its current Bridge Street premises ( ) were designed by Alfred Waterhouse and formally opened on October 30, 1866, with an additional wing to the building added several decades later. The future radical Liberal politician, Sir Charles Dilke, was the President largely responsible for construction. Included among the building's many rooms are the famous debating chamber, a dining room, bar, snooker room, library and various offices. The society offers hot refreshments and newspapers during the day, as well as drinks at night. Recently, the Society's building has proved to be a popular filming location with scenes for several British television programs and an upcoming feature length motion picture shot on the premises.
The Cambridge Union is sometimes confused with the Cambridge University Students' Union, the representative body for students set up much more recently in 1971. Similarly, the term 'President of the Union' is also occasionally misused, for example, in reference to Charles Clarke, a former president of the students' union .
Membership of the Society
The Union is most famous for its debates, typically held on Thursday evenings during University Terms, although many other events such as speaker meetings or entertainments are also popular with members. Some traditional debating motions, such as "This House Has No Confidence in Her Majesty's Government" are typically held once per year, although most motions for debate are novel and selected by the current President for that term. To maintain the highest quality of intellectual discussion, the Union seeks to bring in top experts and figures relevant to the motion up for debate. Traditionally, the proposition and opposition each feature three speakers, alternating between the two sides, and at the conclusion of the debate the members of the house divide and vote on the motion by exiting the debating chamber through one of three doors for "Ayes", "Noes", or "Abstention". Union officials quickly tally the vote by counting the number of members walking through each door, and the final result is then officially announced a few moments later, usually in the Union's bar, by the Secretary.
The Union also continues to attract eminent speakers from the UK and across the globe. Recent visitors have included the first democratically elected President of Iraq Jalal Talabani, the late U.S. President Reagan, Queen Noor of Jordan, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Michael Howard, Michael Moore, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Gillian Anderson and Ahmed Chalabi as well as a multitude of British politicians.
Events of the Society
The Standing Committee, the Union's primary day-to-day managing body, consists of the current President, Secretary and Officers, the President-Elect and Officers-Elect, any former Presidents, Secretaries or Treasurers currently resident in Cambridge, and three senior positions, filled by members of the University of MA standing or higher, consisting of the Senior Treasurer, Senior Librarian, and Steward. The Standing Committee appoints several positions in the society including the Secretary and members of the Executive Department. This, in turn, includes positions such as the Director of Recruitment, Director of Communications, Director of Information Technology and a Press Secretary.
The Society's leadership
President - The President serves as the Chairman of Standing Committee (The Union's governing body), Debates, and Members' Business meetings. He/she is responsible for organising a programme of debates and overseeing the planning of other events during their term in office. Term in office is one academic term plus one vacation (about 14-23 weeks).
Secretary and Vice President - The Secretary and Vice President (SVP) has the general control of the general business of the society, its premises and maintaining official records. The SVP also serves as the Chairman of the Executive Department. Term in office is one calendar year (March-March).
Treasurer - The Treasurer, officially called the Junior Treasurer, is responsible for raising sponsorship funds for their term, maintaining relations with corporations and local businesses, running merchandising operations, and organising any other general fundraising activities. Term in office is one academic term plus one vacation (about 14-23 weeks).
Senior Officer - The Senior Officer is responsible for organising the term's series of guest speaker meetings and holds an ex officio role as Chairman of the Library Committee. Term in office is one academic term plus one vacation (about ~14-23 weeks).
Entertainments Officer - The Entertainments, or Ents, Officer is responsible for organising the term's line-up of social events including bops, tastings and other events such as aerobics nights or speed dating. Term in office is one academic term plus one vacation (about 14-23 weeks).
Director of Debating - The office of Director of Debating is often jointly held by two individuals who are responsible for organizing the Society's activities in relation to competitive debating. Term in office is one calendar year (March-March).
External Committee - The members of the External Committee assist the officers with their duties and, in practice, also work alongside the members of the House Committee in staffing events. Term in office is one academic term plus one vacation (about 14-23 weeks).
House Committee - The members of the House Committee are responsible for providing staffing for events including checking membership cards at the door or serving as fire stewards when the Debating Chamber is in use. Term in office is one academic term plus one vacation (about 14-23 weeks).
The Senior Officers - The Senior Treasurer is responsible for maintaining a day-to-day eye on the Society's finances. The Steward is responsible for advising the Standing Committee on legal and code matters. The Senior Librarian is responsible for the administration of the Society's extensive library. Each of the Senior Officers hold one year terms, but it is common for the same individual to serve many successive terms.
The Trustees - The Board of Trustees, currently Chaired by Sir Richard Dearlove, is responsible for the long-term development of the Union's finances and property and legally responsible for the Society as a charity. The Trustees tend not to concern themselves with the day-to-day running of the society's events.
In addition to these posts the Society also maintains an employed staff consisting of an Accountant, Office Managers, a Bar Manager. The Society holds contracts for catering, cleaning, building maintenance, property management, and legal advice.
Previous Presidents and Officers include John Maynard Keynes, Rab Butler, Archbishop Michael Ramsey, Douglas Hurd (former British Foreign Secretary), Ken Clarke (former British Chancellor of the Exchequer), Michael Howard (former Home Secretary and former leader of the Conservative Party), Chris Smith and Arianna Huffington. Recent Presidents and Officers have continued to move into the law, academia, the media and politics, including Clare Balding, BBC's sports broadcaster and Gavin Barwell as Head of Operations at Conservative Central Office. Several ex-Presidents were parliamentary candidates in the 2001 and 2005 general elections.