Cambridge Union Society

Cambridge Union Society

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 13 February 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 Macaulay and many subsequent 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 private members' club which owns and has full control over its private property and buildings in the Cambridge city centre. However, it enjoys strong relations with the university, allowing other societies to hire rooms out, often admitting 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 (coord|52|12|31|N|0|07|10|E|) were designed by Alfred Waterhouse and formally opened on 30 October 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, the Keynes Library and various offices. Although Cambridge escaped virtually undamaged from the massive destruction of World War II in Europe, the Union's building was hit by a bomb dropped during one aerial attack. The explosion caused extensive damage to the Society's library with some older books still showing clearly visible shrapnel wounds. The society offers hot refreshments and newspapers during the day, as well a full bar during the evenings. 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. Consequently, the term 'President of the Union' often causes confusion, for example, in reference to Charles Clarke, a former president of the students' union [cite web | title= "The Bruiser in a hot-seat" |url= | accessdate=2005-12-05] .

Despite the Cambridge Union Society never having been a students' union in the modern sense, it did briefly affiliate to the UK's National Union of Students in 1924.

Membership of the Society

The Cambridge Union receives no formal funding from the University and must raise funds for event expenses and building maintenance through membership fees. Membership is open to students at the University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University. Members are able to bring guests to certain functions and some events are made available to the public for free or through the purchase of a ticket.

The society awards honorary memberships to particularly distinguished individuals and maintains reciprocal membership policies with similar societies such as the Yale Political Union and the Oxford Union Society.

Events 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 held throughout the week. 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 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”. Tellers 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 Ronald Reagan, Queen Noor of Jordan, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, the last state President of Aparthied South Africa Frederik Willem de Klerk, Former Chancellor of Germany Helmut Kohl, Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Actress Gillian Anderson, Actor Clint Eastwood, Jean Marie Le Pen (whose visit caused a controversy similar to that of the recent disrupted visit of Nick Griffin and David Irving to the Oxford Union), Ahmed Chalabi, Hans Blix, as well as a multitude of British politicians such as Michael Howard, Kenneth Clarke, and Norman Lamont.

The Society’s leadership

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 also appoints several positions in the society including the Secretary and members of the Executive Department.

The Executive Department includes positions such as the Director of Recruitment, Director of Communications, Director of Information Technology and the Press Secretary.

Major positions

President - The President serves as the Chairman of Standing Committee, Debates, and Members' Business Meetings (the Union's governing body). They are responsible for organising a programme of debates and overseeing planning for the other events during their term in office. Term in office is one academic term plus one vacation (about 14-23 weeks).

Secretary - The Secretary has general control of the business and premises of the Society. Since the departure of the last Chief Clerk this has also included maintaining the Society's official records. The Secretary also serves as the Chairman of the Executive Department. Term in office is one calendar year (March-March).

Treasurer - The Treasurer is responsible for raising event sponsorship funds, maintaining relations with corporations and local businesses, running merchandising operations and investigating the financial implications of decisions made by committees. However, the Senior Treasurer is the officer primarily responsible for monitoring the finances. 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. 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 club nights, luxury 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. The Director(s) of Debating is considered an officer and maintains a full vote on the Standing Committee. Term in office is one calendar year (March-March).

President's Committee - The members of the President's Committee are any and all members of the Society who are interested in helping with the Society's day-to-day running. Any member of the President's Committee who takes part in the managing of four events attains the title Steward of the President's Committee. These volunteers have proven key to the smooth operation of the organization and its events. Term in Office indefinite. Since the removal of the House Committee, it has grown in size, and currently stands at some 70 members.

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. While these positions are currently vacant recent attempts to move their powers in to the hands of the Trustees were thoroughly defeated.

The Trustees - The Board of Trustees, currently consisting of Sir Richard Dearlove and Dr Nigel Brown, soon to include Nick Butler, is responsible for overseeing the long-term development of the Union's finances and property. Whilst the Trustees are not intimately involved with the day-to-day running of the Society, they maintain ultimate legal responsibility for the organization, its assets and status as a registered charity.

Termly officers serve a term (and vacation) as "officer-elect", prior to entering office, during which time they are voting members of the Standing Committee. This time is to be used to plan their term in office.

In addition to these posts the Society also maintains an employed staff consisting of an Accountant, Office Managers and a Bar Manager. The Society also holds contracts for catering, cleaning, building maintenance, property management, and legal advice.

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.

In addition to the long list of real life distinguished individuals that served as officers of the Cambridge Union during their time in Cambridge, Will Bailey, a fictional character on "The West Wing", a US television drama series, claimed to have been a "former president of Cambridge Union on a Marshall Scholarship".


The Cambridge Union is famous within the University for having a very long and complicated constitution; it is a common rumour that the constitution is longer than the entire Constitution of Canada. This is in fact untrue, but only just: a quick count puts the Union constitution at 31309 words [cite web | title= Cambridge Union Constitution | accessdate=2006-04-28 | url=|format=PDF] while the complete Constitution of Canada is 31575 words long [cite web | title= The Constitution of Canada | accessdate=2005-12-05| url=] . If the University's rules on Single Transferrable Voting are included, then it is indeed longer than that of Canada. These rules are referenced within the constitution, but are not contained. The Rules of the Oxford Union Society total over 45,000 words, not including the Standing Orders and Schedules

ee also

*List of Cambridge Union Presidents since 1815




External links

* [ Cambridge Union Society]
* [ Cambridge Union Society Constitution]

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