Oxford Union

The Oxford Union Society, commonly referred to simply as the Oxford Union, is a debating society in the city of Oxford, Britain, whose membership is drawn primarily but not exclusively from the University of Oxford. Founded in 1823, it is Britain's second oldest University Union (only the Cambridge Union Society is older), and has gained a worldwide reputation for the cut and thrust of its debate, proving a valuable training ground for many future politicians from Britain and other countries.

Status and membership

The Oxford Union is an unincorporated association, holding its property in trust in favour of its objectives and members, and governed by its rules (which form a multi-partite contract between the members).

Since its foundation, it has been independent of the University: historically, this was because the Victorian University restricted junior members from discussing certain issues (for example, theology). Despite such restrictions since being lifted, it has remained entirely separate from the University, and is constitutionally bound to remain so.

Only members of Oxford University are eligible to become life members of the Union, but students at certain other educational institutions are entitled to join for the duration of their time in Oxford. These institutions are:

  • Oxford Brookes University
  • Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies
  • Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies
  • Ripon College, Cuddesdon
  • Ruskin College
  • St Stephen’s House

Shorter membership is also extended to those participating in some visiting study programmes in Oxford.

The Union buildings are owned by a separate charitable trust, the Oxford Literary and Debating Union Trust.

Union buildings

The Oxford Union buildings are located in Frewin Court, off Cornmarket Street, and on St Michael's Street. The original Union buildings were designed by Alfred Waterhouse and opened in 1879. This was about a decade after the completion of the Cambridge Union's premises, also designed by Waterhouse, and the exterior of the two buildings was very similar.

A debating chamber was subsequently added, but the Union's growing membership meant that it became too small, and is now the "Old Library". The Old Library is best known for its Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, known as the Oxford Union murals. The current debating chamber, and several further extensions to the main buildings were added over the next forty years. The final extension was designed in a conventional Gothic Revival style by Walter Mills and Thorpe and built in 1910-11. It provides a dining room and a second library, together with basement library stacks.

Many of the rooms in the Union are named after figures from the Union's past, such as the Goodman Library, with its oriel windows, and the wood-panelled MacMillan Room with barrel ceiling. The buildings have gradually been added to with paintings and statues of past presidents and prominent members.

The Gladstone Room also contains William Ewart Gladstone's original cabinet table, semi-circular in design so that he could look all his ministers in the eye as he held forth.

In the debating chamber there are busts of such notables as Roy Jenkins, Edward Heath, Michael Heseltine, George Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston and William Ewart Gladstone. There is also a grand piano in the debating chambers known as the "Bartlet-Jones Piano" after the Oxford University Music Society president who found it dusty and forgotten in a cupboard in the Holywell Music Room and placed it on permanent loan to the Union. The piano was unveiled by Vladimir Ashkenazy, who famously refused to play it in front of the packed chamber because he "had not warmed up". The despatch boxes which continue to be used in Union debates are modelled on those in the House of Commons, and were offered to the House during World War II.

The buildings were used as a location for the films Oxford Blues (1984) and The Madness of King George (1994).


Officers of the Union, Michaelmas Term 2011

  • President: Isabelle Westbury, Hertford College
  • Librarian: Isabel Ernst, St Catherine's College
  • Treasurer: James Freeland, Brasenose College
  • Secretary:
  • President-Elect: Lauren Pringle, Wadham College
  • Librarian-Elect: Luke Eaton, Jesus College
  • Treasurer-Elect: John Lee, Hertford College

Debating at the Oxford Union takes two forms — competitive debating and chamber debating.

Competitive debating is the preserve of a minority of members of the Union. The Union's best debaters compete internationally against other top debating societies, and the Oxford Union regularly fields one of the most successful teams at the World Universities Debating Championship (which the Union hosted in 1993) and the European Universities Debating Championship. The Union also runs the prestigious Oxford Schools' Debating Competition and Oxford Intervarsity Debating Competition competitions, which respectively attract schools and universities from around the world, as well as running a number of internal debating competitions. The Oxford Union is currently only the reigning European and British & Irish Champion in University Debating, having lost the World debating title in the final against Sydney University Debating team at the recent World University Debating Championships in Turkey.

Chamber debating, including the debates (known as Public Business Meetings) with invited guest speakers for which the Union is best known, tends to be less formalised (even if more formal) than competitive debates, and the manner of delivery is closer to public speaking, with audience engagement far more important.

Public Business Meeting debates also have voting. At the end of the debate, the audience votes on the proposition by exiting the hall through a door, the right-hand side of which is marked 'ayes' and the left-hand side 'noes'. This follows the style of the British Parliament, which votes this way if it is necessary to "divide the House".

The Oxford Union has been described as the "world's most prestigious debating society".

The Union and the Student Union

The Oxford Union is often confused with the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU). OUSU is the officially recognised student representative body of the University of Oxford. The Oxford Union, despite being composed largely of students, is not a part of the University.


It is not generally recognised (either by the outside world, or the Union's members) that the Oxford Union Society does not own its buildings. The Oxford Union was never financially secure, and its position was not helped by its termly changes of junior (i.e. student) officers. There was also a significant level of historic debt, associated with the erection of its buildings.

Following a particularly bad period in the 1970s, the Union buildings were sold to a charitable trust ("OLDUT", the Oxford Literary and Debating Union Trust), and the Oxford Union Society was granted a licence to occupy the building.

Several parts of what were historically the Union buildings and grounds were subsequently either sold or made the subject of long leases, including an area of land around the rear of the debating chamber, part of the Union cellars (adjoining that now occupied by the Purple Turtle), and part of what was formerly the Steward's house (now occupied by the Landmark Trust). OLDUT has subsequently paid for the refurbishment and maintenance of the Union buildings, both from its own resources and by securing private donations and grant funding.

As a result of OLDUT's creation, the future of the physical Union is now secured, so that even if the Oxford Union Society were to cease to be, or to fail financially, the buildings would not be lost. In addition, OLDUT provides some financial support for the running of the Union in those areas where the Union undertakes activities which match OLDUT's charitable objectives - particularly the operation of the Union's library.

Despite the importance of OLDUT in preserving the fabric of the Union, the relationship between OLDUT and OUS has at times been strained. OLDUT is first and foremost a charitable trust, and it has objectives which do not always match those of what is primarily a student society.

Notable speakers

The Oxford Union has a long history of hosting international figures and celebrities. Previous guests have included the Dalai Lama, Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, former US Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, US diplomat Henry Kissinger, former US Presidential nominee Senator John McCain, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, former New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange, Russian politician and former finance minister Grigory Yavlinsky, notable barrister and prime-ministerial spouse Cherie Booth QC, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, physicist Stephen Hawking, biologist Richard Dawkins debating creationist A. E. Wilder-Smith, savant Kim Peek, comedian and writer Stephen Fry, former US Attorney General and Senator Robert Kennedy, actors Pierce Brosnan, Clint Eastwood, Ewan McGregor and Martin Sheen, Malcolm X, O.J. Simpson, footballer Diego Maradona, rock star Jon Bon Jovi, pop star legend Michael Jackson, composer Burt Bacharach, televangelist Jerry Falwell, magician David Blaine, TV talk show host Jerry Springer, singer Barry White, puppet Kermit the Frog, actress Judi Dench, singer Gerard Way, fashion journalist Anna Wintour, international model Katia Elizarova, scientist Albert Einstein, musical humourist and conductor Gerard Hoffnung, porn star Ron Jeremy, pop star Shakira, UFC president Dana White, and Islamic preacher Zakir Naik.

Free speech

The Oxford Union has long associated itself with freedom of speech, most famously by debating and passing the motion "This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country" in 1933.

What is generally forgotten (but arguably more significant as an example of the Union's commitment to freedom of speech) is that an attempt was made by several prominent Union members (including Randolph Churchill) to expunge this motion and the result of the debate from the Union's minute book. This attempt was roundly defeated — in a meeting far better attended than the original debate. Sir Edward Heath records in his memoirs that Randolph Churchill was then chased around Oxford by undergraduates who intended to debag him (i.e. humiliate him by removing his trousers), and was then fined by the police for being illegally parked.

More recently, controversial debates at the Union have included "This House Would Abolish the Welfare State" in 2011. The motion fell, but the debate was particularly well-attended on account of the high-profile speaker line-up and current government spending cuts.

Speakers denied a platform

Harold Macmillan called the Oxford Union "the last bastion of free speech in the Western world", a quotation which continues to feature prominently in the Union's publicity. However, the Union's commitment to free speech has not enabled it to resist pressure to deny platforms to controversial speakers.

John Tyndall

A debate that was to have involved the far-right leader John Tyndall was met with a campaign of resistance in 1998. This opposition, coupled with police advice following a series of racially motivated nail-bombings in London, resulted in the cancellation of the debate.

David Irving

An invitation to the controversial historian and writer David Irving to speak in a debate on censorship in 2001 was met by a coordinated campaign by left-wing, Jewish, and anti-fascist groups, together with the elected leadership of the Oxford University Student Union, to have the invitation withdrawn. Despite the fact that there was no mechanism in the Union's constitution by which members could compel the President — who is responsible for organising debates — to either cancel a debate or withdraw an invitation to a particular speaker, attempts were made to pass a Union motion ordering her to do so. Following a particularly bitter meeting of Union members, and a subsequent meeting of the Union's governing body, the Standing Committee, the President decided the debate would have to be cancelled. However, Irving was allowed to speak at a Union debate in 2007.

Philip Nitschke

In March, 2009, the Union withdrew an invitation to euthanasia campaigner Dr Philip Nitschke after Nitschke had already accepted the invitation. Nitschke received a second email cancelling the invite in the interests of there being a "fair debate", and was told other speakers were unwilling to speak alongside him. The debate topic was the legalisation of assisted suicide, a field in which Nitschke is prominent. The reason given by Oxford Union president Corey Dixon was that two other speakers "disagree with his particular take on ". According to Dixon, the speakers who successfully pressured the Union to withdraw Nitschke's invitation were a member of the public, whose brother had undergone assisted death, and British euthanasia campaigner Dr Michael Irwin. However, Dr Irwin later denied that he had applied pressure to exclude Nitschke.

The Oxford Union then released a statement explaining the decision: "An administrative decision was made to ensure we had three speakers on each side of the debate, which was proving difficult due to Dr Nitschke's attendance. It is always in the interests of the Oxford Union to ensure a balanced debate with as wide-ranging views as possible represented. There may have been miscommunication between the Oxford Union and Dr Nitschke. We certainly hope that no offence has been caused. The Oxford Union is a politically-neutral institution and holds no opinion on Dr Nitschke's views."

Nitschke commented that "This famous society has a long tradition of championing free speech. To suggest that my views on end-of-life issues are inappropriate simply because I believe that all rational elderly adults should have access to the best end-of-life information beggars belief." He also called the act "an almost unprecedented act of censorship". Nitschke gave a series of lectures across the UK at the time the debate was held.

Irving/Griffin controversy

In November 2007, President Luke Tryl sparked controversy by inviting Holocaust denier David Irving and British National Party leader Nick Griffin to speak at a Union forum on the topic of free speech. Following protests by several student groups, a poll of the Union's members was taken and resulted in a two-to-one majority in favour of the invitations.

On the evening of the planned debate several hundred protesters gathered outside the Union buildings, chanting anti-fascist slogans and later preventing guests and Union members from entering the premises. Eventually succeeding in breaching the poorly-maintained security cordon, around 20 of the campaigners attempted to force their way through to the main chamber, whereupon some of the waiting audience blocked access by pushing back against the chamber doors. After students were convinced to yield to the protestors by Union staff, a sit-in protest was staged in the debating chamber, which prevented a full debate from occurring due to security concerns. A small number of the audience attempted to reason with the demonstrators. Because of a lack of security personnel, a number of students from the audience eventually came to take on the responsibilities of controlling events, in one instance preventing a scuffle from breaking out between a protestor and members of the audience, and eventually assisting police in herding protestors from the main hall. One student protestor interviewed by BBC News reported that fellow protestors played 'jingles' on the piano and danced on the President's chair although the truth of the latter assertion is seriously questioned by eyewitnesses. Smaller debates were eventually held with Irving and Griffin in separate rooms, amid criticism that the police and Union officials had not foreseen the degree of unrest which the controversial invitations would arouse. The President of Oxford University Student Union, Martin McCluskey, strongly criticised the decision to proceed with the debate, claiming that providing Irving and Griffin with a platform for their extreme views afforded them undue legitimacy. Some students following the event criticised the Student Union for preventing Oxford Union members (as students themselves) from exercising the right to free assembly, and accused the Oxford University Student Union of hypocrisy in seemingly restricting the rights of free speech to those individuals whose views chimed with those of the Student Union leadership (although the decision to oppose the invite had been agreed by representatives of the Student Population at a Council meeting).


The Oxford Union is run by the Standing Committee which is elected termly and is constituted by the Junior Officers (the current President, President-Elect, Junior Librarian, Junior Treasurer, Librarian-Elect, Treasurer-Elect, and the Secretary), five elected members and recent Junior Officers (who have chosen to serve). The Chairman of the Consultative Committee is a member of Standing Committee without vote, and the Returning Officer (responsible for the conduct of the Union's elections and for advising on the interpretation of the Union's rules), the Bursar, and the Chairman of the Debates Selection Committee are non-members with speaking rights. The Union also has two Senior Officers, the Senior Librarian and Senior Treasurer (generally Oxford academics but must be members of the Union) who advise the Standing Committee.

The Junior Officers each have specific areas of responsibility, such as debates (President), "speaker meetings" (President and Librarian), sponsorship and funding (Treasurer), and social events (Secretary). The Junior Officers-Elect spend a term preparing their area, before assuming their office.

A number of other committee run or advise the running of various aspects of the Union, including the Wines and Spirits Committee (the Union's bar), the Cellar Management Committee (responsible for liaison with the management of the Purple Turtle), the Library Committee (responsible principally for library acquisitions and disposals), the Finance Committee (which advises the Standing Committee on financial matters), and the Debates Selection Committee (which runs competitive debating). Two further committees, the Secretary's Committee and the Consultative Committee, are not, despite their names, committees in the traditional sense.

The Secretary's Committee consists of eleven members, elected on a termly basis in the same ballot as that for the Officer and Standing Committee, who assist at the Union's social functions, and is generally the first stage for any aspiring Union politician. Although considered a committee under the rules, it only ever meets informally, and is more akin to a group of people with a particular role, rather than a committee.

The Consultative Committee holds weekly public meetings during term time, at which members can informally question the junior officers and members of the elected committees on the performance of their duties. All members of the Union are considered members of the Consultative Committee, so meetings tend to be more like an open forum.

The Chairman of the Consultative Committee (who is elected termly, but not during the Union's main elections) is a member of Standing Committee with speaking privileges but without voting rights, responsible for the Union's publicity, website and archives; setting up the Union's rooms for events; chairing Consultative Committee, directing members of the Secretary's Committee, and bringing up any matters of concern at Standing Committee.

The Returning Officer is elected from a body of Deputy Returning Officers whose members have been approved by a scrutiny committee. He is responsible for running the Society's elections and is empowered (along with the President) to interpret the Society's constitution. It remains hotly disputed whether the Returning Officer wields disproportionate influence without an electoral mandate, or maintains an essential check and balance to the powers of the President.

The day to day management of the Union is partly conducted by professional staff, principally the Bursar and the House Manager.

Past officers

Notable past Presidents of the Oxford Union include:

  • Tariq Ali
  • Herbert Henry Asquith
  • Lalith Athulathmudali
  • Ruzwana Bashir
  • Hilaire Belloc
  • Tony Benn
  • Benazir Bhutto
  • Gyles Brandreth
  • John Buchan
  • Robin Day
  • Michael Foot
  • William Ewart Gladstone
  • William Hague
  • Michael Heseltine
  • Edward Heath
  • Christopher Hollis
  • Anthony Howard
  • Boris Johnson
  • Lakshman Kadirgamar
  • Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury
  • David Lewis
  • Henry Edward Manning
  • John Playfair Price
  • Julian Priestley
  • Montek Singh Ahluwalia
  • Andrew Sullivan
  • Jeremy Thorpe

Other Officers of the Union who have achieved political success include Ann Widdecombe, Edwina Currie, and Roy Jenkins. Harold Macmillan was Librarian of the Union before the First World War ended his university career in August 1914.


The Union holds elections in the penultimate (7th) week of each University term, in order to allow members of the society to choose officers and committee members for the following term. The elections are held to fill the offices of President-elect, Librarian-elect, Treasurer-elect and Secretary, as well as five elected positions on the Standing Committee and 11 positions on the Secretary's Committee. In order to stand for election to the Secretary's Committee, members must make two speeches on different nights. For the other offices, this is increased to 4. The election for the Chairman of the Consultative Committee is held at CC on Monday of 8th week. Only members who have attended 4 of the last 8 meetings may either stand for election as Chairman or vote.