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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the Cambridge Union

What is the Cambridge Union?

The Cambridge Union is home to the renowned debating society that’s the oldest in the world. It is also home to the largest student society in Cambridge.

Cambridge Union Building

The wub, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cambridge Union History

‘It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7, to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you’, said the writer James Baldwin in 1965 to the Cambridge Union Society. Indeed, ‘It comes as a great shock’, Baldwin continued, ‘to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians and, although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you’. The short speech, only eight minutes long, enthused and enlightened the Main Chamber on the historical challenges faced by African Americans and on the necessity of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet it was just one moment of many, in the debating society’s 200-year history, that shook the room and has been celebrated ever since.

The Union, affiliated to the university though independent from it, was founded in 1815. Legend has it that the ‘union’ came about after an intoxicated quarrel between college debating societies. It further got off to an inauspicious start as, after only two years, it was suppressed for debating current politics. Regardless, members are proud of the fact it was established eight years before the Oxford Union. It restarted in 1821 and grew in stature, moving in the 1860s to its present location discreetly behind the Round Church. Alfred Waterhouse, the prolific Gothic Revival architect famous for the Natural History Museum in London, designed its building. Their red-brick structure was to have a debating chamber, library, dining room, smoking room, snooker room, bar, and a caretaker’s house. These rooms mean it’s hard to mistake it with a Student Union, which attends to an academic membership and organises in their interests. Rather, it’s focussed wholly on debate. In doing so, it has attracted some of the most influential figures of our recent past.

Sir Charles Dilke, who as President of the Union oversaw the building’s construction, became a prominent Liberal and Radical politician supporting the labour and feminist movements. However, it was not until 1967 that the Union would have its first woman president, Ann Mallalieu. By that time, the society had become used to welcoming important figures: Prime Ministers David Lloyd George, Sir Winston Churchill, and Anthony Eden all spoke at the Union. The first 20th-century President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, came in 1910; the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was educated at Trinity College, visited in 1955; and the last president of apartheid South Africa, F. W. de Klerk, addressed the chamber soon after releasing Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990.

In the world of science, the hall has been graced by Buzz Aldrin, Stephen Hawking, and Sir Roger Penrose. Inventors who have spoken include Hermann Hauser and Bill Gates, and there have been numerous figures from the world of entertainment, including Clint Eastwood, Sir Ian McKellen, and Dame Judy Dench. Some speakers proved controversial at the time, such as Marine Le Pen, Julian Assange, and Germaine Greer, though for different reasons. However, it’s the debates that are most remembered, from the 1866 condemnation of the British Raj and the 1933 vote for socialism over fascism, to the 1965 debate on race in America between Baldwin and William F. Buckley, and the 2013 clash, between Archbishop Rowan Williams and Richard Dawkins, on religion in the 21st century. The Union’s long and varied list of guests attests to its endeavour to uphold an arena of ‘free speech’, whether it courts controversy or not.

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