Tucked away down a cobbled side-street, you’d be forgiven for walking right past it. But the Oxford Union is in fact one of the city’s most prestigious institutions, and has been hosting guests as influential as Michael Jackson and the Dalai Lama since its foundation in 1823.
The Oxford Union society exists independently to Oxford University, but its students, for a fee, are eligible to lifetime membership, whilst those at Oxford Brookes have access to the Union Society for the duration of their studies. Membership grants you unlimited access to the society’s popular programmes and debates; these events operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Get down early to avoid queues!
History of the Oxford Union
The Oxford Union is one of the oldest debating societies in the UK, and is housed in Frewin Court on St Michael’s Street. The iconic free-standing debating chamber, the beating heart of the action at the Union, was designed by Alfred Waterhouse and opened in 1879. The ‘Oxford Union murals’, located in the Old Library, are breath-taking Pre-Raphaelite paintings completed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones in 1859, and depict ethereal scenes from Arthurian myth.
In 1933, the Union passed a motion which stressed that “This House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country,” and was reviled by Winston Churchill as “abject” and “squalid.” Along with its significant national and international renown, the history of the Union shows that it does not usually shy away from controversies.
The Oxford Union society pay nothing to those who grace their debating chamber, indicating just how revered an invitation can be. Hated or loved, peace-bringing or divisive, speakers are invited to encourage and challenge audiences in the name of democracy.
Speaking in a debate at the Union can be seen as a high point for any politician or activist. From Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa and Malcolm X, to the likes of Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the programme always seeks to span the political spectrum. They’ve hosted a total of seven British Prime Ministers, Churchill and Thatcher included, and American Presidents Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
But the stage isn’t just for big government names. Important figureheads from the worlds of science, music, the screen and stage, business and sports are also included in the ranks of Union speakers. The highlights include Morgan Freeman and Johnny Depp, Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, Lord Alan Sugar, A$AP Rocky and Elton John, Shakira, Stephen Fry and Sepp Blatter.
For one day of the year, the Oxford Scholastica Academy adds to this star-studded line-up with the participants of the debating Masterclass. After an afternoon of learning about constructive dialogue and the format of debate, students have the chance to follow in the footsteps of their heroes and compete in the debating chamber for the final round. Described by many finalists as one of the best experiences of their life, it’s an unmissable opportunity and is always a highlight of the summer school.
The Oxford Union Society
The Standing Committee, the governing body of the Union, is made up of aspiring students from Oxford University. The buzz around the election period for the Union Committee is palpable throughout the city as students jostle for prestigious roles.
The positions are competitive as they’re perceived by many as a gateway into politics. Previous committees have featured the likes of Boris Johnson, Harold MacMillan and former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazhir Bhutto.
The committee is in charge of the Union’s programme of events, inviting speakers, organising the annual Garden Party and election all-nighters, as well as hosting two Balls every year.
As with any debating society offering a world-stage to the rich and powerful, controversy will surely follow.
The most recent scandal was that of a blind student who was physically forced out of the debating chamber by security officials, and has led to the resignation of Union President Brendan McGrath.
But more than anything, the society’s commitment to freedom of speech has been the cause of most upset. In 2015, an invitation was accepted by the leader of France’s Front National, Marine Le Pen. The Students’ Union were outraged by Le Pen’s associations with Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, and, whilst her speech went ahead as planned, over 400 students turned up to blockade the entrance in protest.
O.J. Simpson was invited to address the union in 1996 in his first public appearance since his acquittal. Whilst the committee’s President had assured that there would be no broadcast media at the debate, Chris Philip, now a Conservative MP, was fined for selling transcriptions and audio recordings of the speech to TV stations.
You could say that these controversies simply contribute to the aura of prestige that surrounds the Oxford Union. For hundreds of years this hallowed battle-ground of historic debate and the launch-pad for the careers of the world’s most eminent figures has been at the epicentre of the influence of Oxford as a whole.
Granted an almost-mythological status, for any student in Oxford, the Union offers the opportunity to engage with the most famous, and infamous, thinkers of the age.
Find some of your favourite, or maybe not-so-favourite, names on the Union’s YouTube channel
Take a peek at the Old Library’s spectacular Pre-Raphaelite murals
Interested in debating? Why not join our Experience Debate & Public Speaking Academy this summer!