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Cambridge Union

The Cambridge Union Society
CUS Logo
The Cambridge Union Society's badge
TypeStudent debating union
HeadquartersCambridge, England
Location9A Bridge Street, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire CB2 1UB
PresidentNeha Pauly, Christ's
Chair of TrusteesMohamed A. El-Erian
AffiliationsWorld Universities Debating Council

The Cambridge Union Society, also known as the Cambridge Union, is a debating and free speech society in Cambridge, England, and the largest society in the University of Cambridge. The society was founded in 1815 and is the oldest continuously running debating society in the world.[1] Additionally, the Cambridge Union has served as a model for the foundation of similar societies at several other prominent universities, including the Oxford Union and the Yale Political Union. The Union is a private society with membership open to all students of Cambridge University and Anglia Ruskin University. The Cambridge Union is a registered charity and is completely separate from the Cambridge University Students' Union.

The Cambridge Union has a long and extensive tradition of hosting prominent figures from all areas of public life in its chamber, both state- and international-based, including the Dalai Lama, President Ronald Reagan, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, as well as comedian Stephen Fry.[2] Previous presidents of the Cambridge Union have included author Arianna Huffington and economist John Maynard Keynes.


A debate at the Cambridge Union Society (c. 1887). There is no longer a dress code for members attending debates today.

The Cambridge Union was founded on 13 February 1815, eight years before the Oxford Union was founded in 1823. Several years after it was founded, on 24 March 1817, the Cambridge Union was temporarily shut down by the university. In 1821 the Union was allowed to reform, under strict guidelines.[3]

The Cambridge Union's Bridge Street premises (52°12′31″N 0°07′10″E / 52.20861°N 0.11944°E / 52.20861; 0.11944) were designed by Alfred Waterhouse (who went on to design the Oxford Union Society's building) and formally opened on 30 October 1866. An additional wing was added several decades later. The future radical Liberal politician, Sir Charles Dilke, was the President chiefly responsible for construction. Included among the building's many rooms are the debating chamber, a dining room, bar, snooker room, the Keynes Library and various offices.[3]

Although Cambridge escaped virtually undamaged from the widespread bombing destruction of World War II, the Union's building was hit by a bomb dropped during one attack. The explosion caused extensive damage to the Union's library.[3]

Modern developments

The Union is legally a self-funded charity that owns and has full control over its private property and buildings in the Cambridge city centre. It enjoys strong relations with the university, and allows other student societies to hire rooms for a nominal cost. Guests are sometimes admitted to Union events for a charge.[3][4]

After more than 200 years, the Cambridge Union is best known for its debates, which receive national and international media attention. The top members of its debating team compete internationally against other top debating societies. The program also includes special events, such as a comedy debate in collaboration with the Cambridge Footlights.[5] The Union also organises talks by visiting speakers and a wide array of events throughout the academic year.[3][4]

The Cambridge Union is sometimes confused with the Cambridge University Students' Union, the student representative body set up in 1971; consequently, the term 'President of the Union' may cause confusion. Although the Cambridge Union has never functioned as a students' union in the modern sense, it did briefly affiliate to the UK's National Union of Students in 1924.[4]

In 2015 the Union celebrated its bicentenary; a committee composed of former and current Officers was put together to organise a range of events to mark the occasion. This included special debates, dinners and parties in Cambridge and, for the first time in its history, in London.[6]

2016 redevelopment project

In January 2015 the Union announced a £9.5m refurbishment project to begin in late 2016 to address major structural problems and to expand existing facilities, subject to approval by planners, to include a new Wine Bar on the ground floor and a Jazz & Comedy Club in the basement (in the old home of the Cambridge Footlights). It also announced a plan to use the revenue generated from the new building to reduce membership fees to make the Union more accessible to students from lower income backgrounds, and to increase the size of its competitive debating activities for disadvantaged children and students.[7]

The development was to be partially financed through the leasing of disused parts of its site to Trinity College in a deal worth £4.5 million.[7] Planning permission was received in 2016, and a fundraising campaign to cover the remaining cost was to be launched on 11 March 2017 with a special debate between Jon Snow and Nick Robinson.[8] Construction on the major redevelopment project was scheduled to begin in Michaelmas 2018.[9]



The Cambridge Union receives no formal funding from the university and raises funds for event expenses and building maintenance through membership fees and sponsorship. For most of its history the Cambridge Union was an all-male club. By the early 1960s this was perceived as an embarrassment and an anachronism. Votes were held to amend the constitution to allow women as members, but although a majority voted in favour, they failed to meet the two-thirds majority required by the constitution to make constitutional change. On one occasion a female student gate-crashed a debate and was removed, the whole incident seen and reported in the national press. In about 1965 the amendment was passed and in Michaelmas 1967 Ann Mallalieu became the first female president.

Membership is now open to all students at the University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University.[10] Members are able to bring guests to certain functions provided that the guests would not be allowed to purchase membership.[11] Social events and events organised by external bodies are occasionally open to the public, with discounts for Union members.[11]

The Union launched online membership in late 2015, which allowed any student around the world access to live streams of events for an annual subscription.[12]

Honorary members

The union awards honorary memberships to particularly distinguished individuals. Honorary members include:

Speakers and debates

The Union puts on a wide variety of events for its members, but is best known for its Thursday night debates and individual speaker events. In both of these, leading figures from public life are invited to discuss something of interest to the membership. One of the Union's most famous debates in recent years was between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams in February 2013, on the motion, 'This House Believes Religion has no place in the 21st Century', which was rejected by the assembled members.[17] The Union's debates regarding religion have also created several controversial incidents, including in October 2014, when Peter Hitchens, speaking in favour of the motion ‘This House Regrets the Rise of New Atheism’, appeared[clarification needed] to break the rules of the House by physically intimidating Lord Desai after a heated exchange.[18]

1965 Baldwin/Buckley Debate

Arguably the most notable debate to have been held at the Union was the 1965 Baldwin/Buckley Debate. The debate, which was televised by the BBC, featured writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin and leading American conservative intellectual William F. Buckley. The motion under consideration was that ‘This House Believes The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro’ and the proposition won by a landslide. At the time the debate received extensive coverage on both sides of the Atlantic, and in subsequent years has come to be seen as a significant moment in the US Civil Rights Movement.[19]


The Union has a long history of receiving addresses from prominent figures. Past high profile speakers include:


The Cambridge Union is an organisation that was founded and is headed by students. Each term is planned and carried out by a mixture of elected officers and appointed student staff, with support from the organisation's non-student staff and trustees. The governance of the Cambridge Union is mandated by its Constitution.[28]

The Standing Committee

The Standing Committee (or 'Voting Members') is the Union's primary managerial body of 15 members, which consists of the current President, Vice-President and Officers, the President-Elect and Officers-Elect, and the Debating Officers, Communications Officer and Treasurer. All Officers of the Union are elected by its membership on a termly basis, with the exception of the Vice-President, Treasurer, Communications Officer and two Debating Officers, who are appointed on an annual basis.

Officers of the Union are elected a term in advance, allowing them to serve one term as an officer-elect to prepare for their following term in office.[28] Termly elected officers serve a term (and its preceding vacation) as "officer-elect", during which time they are members of Standing Committee.[29]

Full Committee

During every term, the Standing Committee appoints a variety of positions within the Union. These range from the Secretary to positions in the Events Management, Publicity, Audio-Visual and Press departments, among others. Collectively, these positions are referred to as 'Full Committee'.[30]

The Trustees

The Board of Trustees, currently chaired by Mohamed A. El-Erian, 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 Union, they maintain ultimate legal responsibility for the organization, its assets and status as a registered charity. To maintain the link between the Student management and the Trustees, the President and the Vice President of the Union are traditionally appointed as Trustees for the duration of their term in office.[28]

Review Committee

The Review Committee of the Cambridge Union is a committee of former Officers appointed by Standing Committee under the guidance of the Vice President. It is responsible for handling all disciplinary matters of the Union and may also be called upon to adjudicate on electoral malpractice. No member of Review Committee may serve as an elected officer for the duration of their term.[28]


In addition to these posts the Union also maintains an employed staff consisting of a Bursar, responsible for overseeing the long-term health of the charity, Office Managers and a Bar Manager, amongst others. The Union also holds contracts for catering, cleaning, building maintenance, property management, IT services and legal advice.

Members of staff are employed by the Union's subsidiary events company. The President, Vice-President, Bursar and other Trustees appointed on an ad-hoc basis serve as Directors of the company.

Past officers

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Many of the Union's former Officers have gone on to considerable personal success after their time involved in the society. Notable past Presidents and officers include:

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 the Cambridge Union on a Marshall Scholarship", as well as MacKenzie McHale, a fictional character in the hit US series, The Newsroom.


The Cambridge Union was 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 was in fact untrue, but only just: a quick count puts the old Union constitution in question at 31,309 words[33] while the complete Constitution of Canada is 31,575 words long.[34] If the university's rules on Single Transferable Voting are included, then this Constitution was indeed longer than that of Canada. These rules are referenced within this old constitution, but are not contained.

Recordings and streaming


On 9 May 2011, the Union launched its online public video service CUS-Connect, whereby recordings of past events and interviews were uploaded for free viewing. These have since been transferred the Union's YouTube channel titled 'The Cambridge Union'.[35] Before 2014, the Union only occasionally live-streamed popular events, with the first ever live stream held on 12 May 2011, in which Stephen Fry debated Radio 1 DJ Kissy Sell Out on the motion: "This House believes that classical music is irrelevant to today's youth".

Members' streaming service

As part of its bicentennial celebrations in 2015, the Union launched a permanent live streaming service, to be integrated with a new automatic multi-camera rig in the Main Chamber. The new service includes the ability for "virtual" attendees to contribute to debates via questions and comments to be read out on the floor of the Union. The streaming service is hosted on the Union's website and is available only to members.[36]


Hosting of speakers

The Cambridge Union, like its Oxford counterpart, has faced controversy over its choice of speakers. Protests have been arranged by students against the appearance of Universities Minister David Willetts, Government Minister Eric Pickles,[37] during which the building was broken into, former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn,[citation needed] French politician Marine Le Pen[38] and Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange.[39] In January 2015, the hosting of Germaine Greer caused a public row between the Union and the Cambridge Students' Union's LGBT+ group, due to Greer's alleged transmisogyny towards Rachael Padman. [40] In June 2019, the hosting of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad attracted criticism from the Union of Jewish Students, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and several former Cambridge Union members including former President Adam Cannon due to the former's anti-Semitic remarks.[41][42][43][44] In February 2022, the Union hosted the Israel ambassador Tzipi Hotovely in a high-security, balloted event, resulting in protests and minor vandalism of the premises.[45]

Responding to these criticisms, the Union is often quoted as upholding the universal right to free speech, against the principles of No Platform passed by the National Union of Students and upheld by a few groups within Cambridge.[46][47][48]

2015 Counter-Terrorism Bill

Lobbying by former Union Presidents Lord Deben and Lord Lamont resulted in the specific exclusion of the Cambridge and Oxford Unions from the Government's counter-terrorism bill, amid fears it could restrict free debate. Deben argued that the provisions within the bill would have prevented the hosting of British Union of Fascists' leader Oswald Mosley in the 1950s, concluding that the bill threatened "an essential British value".[49] The National Union of Students used the exclusion to argue that the passage of the Bill was too rapid and ill-thought out, whilst both the Oxford and Cambridge Union reaffirmed that they were not legally part of their respective Universities and thus were never subject to the bill in the first place.[50]

Strong opposition to the bill from Liberal Democrats and senior Conservative peers eventually resulted in the shelving of provisions regarding Universities' until after the 2015 General Election.[51] The Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 eventually clarified that higher education institutions must retain particular regard to the duty to ensure freedom of speech and the importance of academic freedom within university societies,[52] although it is unclear whether this applies to the Union.

Referendum on Julian Assange

The union called a referendum on the hosting of Julian Assange on 22 October 2015, arguing that his residency in the Ecuadorian Embassy meant he was outside the jurisdiction of UK law, and thus required the consultation of its members considering a lack of past precedent. The referendum was more widely viewed as an opinion poll on the union's refusal to "no platform" speakers.[53] It passed with 76.9% of the vote. Turnout was 1463.[53]

See also



  1. ^ "Cambridge Union debating society celebrates 200 years". BBC. 8 January 2015. Retrieved 7 September 2019.
  2. ^ a b "Speakers at the Union".
  3. ^ a b c d e Parkinson, Stephen (2009). Arena of Ambition: A History of the Cambridge Union. London: Icon Books. This follows Cogers, a free speech and debating society established in 1755 in the City of London.
  4. ^ a b c "History of the Union". Cambridge Union Society official website. Archived from the original on 27 September 2020. Retrieved 4 November 2016.
  5. ^ "Israeli Cambridge student spoofs Netanyahu, taunts Corbyn in debate". The Jerusalem Post | Retrieved 21 December 2021.
  6. ^ "2015 Celebrations". Cambridge Union Society. Archived from the original on 5 October 2012. Retrieved 9 April 2015.
  7. ^ a b "Union moves to save 149-year-old home" (PDF) (Press release). Cambridge Union Society. 31 January 2015. Retrieved 9 April 2015.
  8. ^ "THB Westminster is Dead – Jon Snow vs Nick Robinson". Retrieved 25 October 2018.
  9. ^ "NOT SO FREE SPEECH: Union in turmoil after failure of multi-million-pound deal". University of Cambridge. 28 February 2017. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  10. ^ "Join online".
  11. ^ a b "Our Guest Policy". Cambridge Union Society. Retrieved 9 April 2015.
  12. ^ "Join online – The Cambridge Union". Retrieved 25 October 2018.
  13. ^ a b @miss9afi (23 July 2019). "it's honored to me accept the honorary membership of the @cambridgeunion; I will continue my fight to save freedom of speech around the world!" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  14. ^ a b c The Bicentenary Booklet. Cambridge Union Society. 31 December 2004. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h Natarajan, Harish. "Letter from the Cambridge Union Society Debating Officer" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 February 2018. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  16. ^ "Bernie Sanders in Cambridge: 'We have a very strange president'". The Tab. University of Cambridge. 3 June 2017. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  17. ^ "Dawkins defeated in Cambridge Union religion debate". The Cambridge Student.
  18. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Peter Hitchens and Lord Desai post debate clash: This House Regrets the Rise of New Atheism". YouTube. 11 October 2013.
  19. ^ Brockwell, Gillian. "William F. Buckley Jr. vs. James Baldwin: A racial showdown on the American dream". Washington Post.
  20. ^ "Haile Selassie Visits Cambridge". Queens’ College.
  21. ^ "President Talabani visiting the Cambridge Union (Hosted by Pres. Ali Al-Ansari)". Archived from the original on 13 April 2014.
  22. ^ "Connery is a good actor; it's a pity I can't understand what he's saying". Varsity Online.
  23. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Bill Nighy Interview, The Cambridge Union Society". YouTube. 19 August 2012.
  24. ^ Caroline Davies (9 March 2012). "Cambridge students protest against Dominique Strauss-Kahn visit". The Guardian.
  25. ^ Poppy Damon. "Jerry, Jerry, Jerry". The Tab Cambridge. Archived from the original on 13 April 2014.
  26. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "David Blaine at the Cambridge Union". YouTube. 4 October 2013.
  27. ^ Welsby-Riley, Lauren. "Ben Shapiro to speak at Union". Varsity. Retrieved 4 November 2023.
  28. ^ a b c d "Full Committee of the Cambridge Union (Lent 2015)". Archived from the original on 14 October 2020. Retrieved 14 August 2014.
  29. ^ "Full Committee of the Cambridge Union (Lent 2015)". Archived from the original on 14 October 2020. Retrieved 12 April 2014.
  30. ^ "The Constitution".
  31. ^ Obituary of Phillips, The Times, 25 October 1965
  32. ^ Dawson, Hannah (12 January 2017). "Ex-MI6 Spy responsible for Trump dossier was President of The Cambridge Union". The Tab. Archived from the original on 12 January 2017. In 1986, Steele was President of The Cambridge Union in Easter Term.
  33. ^ "Cambridge Union Constitution". Archived from the original on 18 November 2010. Retrieved 22 October 2010.
  34. ^ "The Constitution of Canada". Archived from the original on 14 December 2005. Retrieved 5 December 2005.
  35. ^ "The Cambridge Union Society" (Video upload). The Cambridge Union Society on YouTube. Google Inc. March 2014. Retrieved 8 April 2014.
  36. ^ "CUS Live". Cambridge Union Society. Retrieved 9 April 2015.
  37. ^ "Outrage over student protest at Cambridge Union – Union security staff "Out of control"". The Cambridge Student. 24 May 2011.
  38. ^ "Marine Le Pen sparks Cambridge protests". 19 February 2013.
  39. ^ "Protest planned over Julian Assange appearance". Cambridge News. Archived from the original on 28 September 2015.
  40. ^ Ivers, Charlotte (22 January 2015). "CUSU are angry about the Union… again". The Tab. Archived from the original on 19 March 2015. Retrieved 9 April 2015.
  41. ^ "Cambridge Union audience laughs at anti-Semitic 'joke' by Malaysian prime minister". The Telegraph. 18 June 2019. Retrieved 19 June 2019.
  42. ^ Bowden, George (17 June 2019). "Cambridge Union Criticised After Malaysian PM Makes 'Jewish Friends' Remark At Event". Huffington Post. Retrieved 19 June 2019.
  43. ^ "Cambridge Union 'should be ashamed' for laughing at antisemitism". Jewish News. 17 June 2019. Retrieved 19 June 2019.
  44. ^ "Malaysian PM Mahathir sparks controversy over anti-Semitic remarks at Cambridge University". Channel News Asia. 18 June 2019. Archived from the original on 14 October 2020. Retrieved 19 June 2019.
  45. ^ "Israeli ambassador's Cambridge talk disrupted as students stage sit-in". Middle East Eye.
  46. ^ Toomey, Max. "Le Pen: As it Happened". The Tab Cambridge. Archived from the original on 3 September 2014.
  47. ^ Will Heilpern. "DO ONE DAVID WILLETTS: Cambridge students tell Uni minister to 'Fuck Off'". The Tab Cambridge. Archived from the original on 23 March 2014.
  48. ^ Helen Cahill. "Union Courts Controversy Once More". The Tab Cambridge. Archived from the original on 3 September 2014.
  49. ^ Morris, Nigel (13 March 2015). "Oxford and Cambridge unions win exemption allowing extremists to preach on campus". The Independent. Retrieved 9 April 2015.
  50. ^ Travis, Alan (13 March 2015). "Oxford and Cambridge Unions avoid terror ban on extremist speakers". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 April 2015.
  51. ^ Travis, Alan (20 March 2015). "Theresa May drops rules on ordering universities to ban extremist speakers". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 April 2015.
  52. ^ "What Prevent Means to Higher Education Institutions / Safe Campus Communities". Archived from the original on 18 February 2019. Retrieved 25 October 2018.
  53. ^ a b "Union Vote: Assange WILL speak at Union after tense debate and withering comments from Wikileaks supporters". 22 October 2015. Retrieved 25 October 2018.

Further reading

  • Cradock, Percy (1953). Recollections of the Cambridge Union 1815–1939. Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes.
  • Parkinson, Stephen (2009). Arena of Ambition: A History of the Cambridge Union. London: Icon Books.

52°12′31″N 0°07′10″E / 52.20861°N 0.11944°E / 52.20861; 0.11944

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Cambridge Union
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