This House – The Cambridge Union Society at 200

This House – The Cambridge Union Society at 200

  • Cambridge Union Society debate chamber
    Cambridge Union Society debate chamber

The Cambridge Union Society celebrates its 200th birthday this year. We investigate a long – and sometimes dramatic – history. Words by William Ham Bevan.

The Cambridge Union Society’s 200th birthday celebrations – as with so much in its history – have been anything but understated. At February’s bicentennial debate, big beasts Ken Clarke and Michael Howard spoke on the same side, while the Union’s first two female Presidents – since ennobled as Baroness Mallalieu and Baroness Hayman – faced each other across the chamber. Ex-Presidents Sir Peter Bazalgette, Vince Cable and Norman Lamont were among the other grandees to accept the invitation to return. It is a reminder that the Union has never existed in a vacuum. Its ability to attract the world’s most interesting and influential has ensured that events in the debating chamber have enjoyed coverage and influence far beyond Cambridge’s city bounds.

The Society was formed in 1815 from a union of two or three earlier debating associations. Accounts vary of the exact circumstances, but a blackballing scandal at one of the ancestor clubs seems to have been key. The new Union Society first convened in a room at the Red Lion Inn in Petty Cury, and in 1866 moved into its current home, designed by Alfred Waterhouse. Since then, critics of the Union have often painted it as a redoubt of stuffy conservatism with a reluctance to move with the times. This is somewhat unfair, argues Stephen Parkinson (Emmanuel 2001) – a former President and the author of Arena of Ambition: A History of the Cambridge Union.

“The Union has actually been very progressive,” he says. “It had its first Jewish President in 1850, six years before the University granted Jewish students their degree. It elected its first non-white President in 1882, and was ahead of the rest of the University and Colleges in admitting women [in 1963] and electing a female President [Ann Mallalieu, in 1967].”

Bombings and financial responsibility

Along the way, the Union has tackled all manner of threats to its existence, from Luftwaffe raids to fire to being absorbed into a more conventional Student Union. But no threat has recurred so frequently as that of not being able to balance the books.

Indeed, taking on ultimate responsibility for the Union’s finances at the age of 20 or 21 is not for the timid, as Ed Stourton (Trinity 1976) discovered in Lent 1979. He says: “When I was President, you were technically the chief executive of the whole thing, which was absolutely terrifying – and of course it was always going into debt. The thing that sticks negatively in the mind is that awful sinking feeling when you get the call the day before a big debate and your star guest says, ‘I’m afraid I can’t come.’ My best memories are actually not from my presidency, but from debates. Once you’re President, you just preside. You don’t make speeches any more.”

Parkinson says: “Maintaining financial independence is vital – the Union is within the University but not part of it. Sometimes this is a challenge: for example, it was the only building connected with the University to be directly hit by the Luftwaffe, and had to raise the funds to rebuild that and get itself back on an even keel. The bombing claimed the life of Stanley Brown who had been its chief clerk, and had worked at the society for nearly 40 years. He died seven months later from the trauma of trying to rescue the building on that night.”

A blaze at the Union

That blaze in 1942 is not the only one to have devastated the Union buildings. Just 10 days into his 1975 presidency, and with a debate featuring Denis Healey, Geoffrey Howe and Harold Macmillan already announced, Bazalgette (Fitzwilliam 1973) faced his own baptism of fire. He recalls: “Someone came up to me at a May Week party and said, ‘The roof has just burnt off your place.’ There were people there, trying to carry smoke-damaged carpets and things drenched in water out of the building. It was a complete catastrophe. That would have been in June and I had arranged for the debate to be televised in October.”

Worse yet, a period of high inflation had left the ruined debating chamber severely underinsured it appeared. “We were told that we were going to get only 60% of the cost paid by the insurers, and it was hundreds of thousands of pounds – the equivalent of millions today. I was making things up as I went along, but I went down to Westminster and convened a meeting of some former presidents.

“One was Christopher Norman-Butler, who has since passed away. He was a banker and said that he would have a word with the chairman of Norwich Union. I don’t know if I believed him at the time, but he was as good as his word it seemed. A few weeks later Norwich Union countermanded the instructions of the local insurance office and said they’d pay the lot.”

Political tensions

On occasion, political machinations at the Union have broken through to become the subject of national or even international news. In 1962, Brian Pollitt (King’s 1959) became the Union’s first Communist President. At a time when Cold War tensions were ratcheted to their tightest, the possibility of a Communist Union President was big news. Only three years earlier, John Nott had been the eighth successive Cambridge University Conservative Association (CUCA) member to take the reins at the Union.

“There was a Conservative bloc,” says Pollitt. “CUCA had an organic relationship with the Union because that was traditionally the path for those aspiring to prominence in later political life. They rose within CUCA and simultaneously within the Union Society, and it was very common for them to proceed to being chairman of CUCA to becoming President or whatever in the Union Society.

“You had this mysterious reptile, known as the ‘CUCA crocodile’, which could mobilise Conservative-voting troops within the Union to vote for people they supported, or not vote for people they opposed. There was no comparable tie with the Socialist Society or the Labour Club.”

Pollitt first stood for the presidency in 1961 against Barry Augenbraun (St John’s 1960), a vociferous anti-communist from New York, ensuring interest on both sides of the Atlantic. A BBC television crew was present to witness Pollitt’s narrow defeat. That election was later declared void because Augenbraun was deemed to have flouted the Union’s ban on canvassing, and Pollitt withdrew his own candidacy.

Media attention was yet greater for his successful run at the presidency two terms later, with ITN reporters covering the handover from Lord Howard. Interest had been stoked by one of the most notorious episodes in Union history. On the eve of his election, Pollitt had been badly beaten up by a group of assailants in his rooms at King’s, forcing him to take his Finals in the College sanatorium. The attackers have never been identified. Pollitt recalls a contemporary describing his time in charge, which included such innovations as the rejection of formal wear and gowns at House debates, as “the revolutionary government”.

Union opposition

In the following decades, an organised opposition to the Union emerged. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Cambridge Organisation of Labour Students and the broader University Left movement encouraged a student boycott of the Society. In 1986, Tom Shakespeare (Pembroke 1984) was charged with coordinating the campaign.

He says: “The Union Society Boycott Campaign had a page in the student handbook and a stall at the Freshers’ Fair, and we did leafleting. The reasoning was that it was seen to be expensive to join and elitist – all the black-tie dinners and public school-style debating. There was also felt to be a confusion in some freshers’ minds between the Union Society and the Student Union. We wanted to make clear that the Student Union was free and was the democratic voice of students, and that they could participate in debates and activities outside the Union.”

Some speakers in the Union term card could be relied upon to provoke a protest. Shakespeare says: “We objected to people like Enoch Powell and Harvey Proctor. In retrospect, I’m not sure I would now do those protests. I believe in free speech and I’m not sure we can deny people a platform if they are speaking within the law – so if the aim of the protest is to close down debate, I don’t think that’s legitimate. But certainly people like Enoch Powell had said racist and inflammatory things, and I think it was right to turn up and say, ‘Look, we don’t agree with you’.”

Controversial debates

This question, of whether controversial speakers should be engaged in debate at all, has caused more consternation and upset than any other. The National Union of Students and many of its affiliated unions adhere to a “no platform” policy that bans certain organisations and individuals from speaking – in particular, those deemed to hold fascist or racist views.

The Cambridge Union has generally cleaved to an opposing view, and its roster of speakers has often been controversial. Oliver Mosley, a second year at St John’s, Director of Communications for the Union’s bicentenary and President-elect, says: “We don’t take a view on speakers, so we will host anyone and everyone, as long as they are interesting to our members. Marine Le Pen, for example – whatever you think of her – has ideas that are interesting to engage with or attack. We do face challenges, because at any one time there will be at least one society at Cambridge that disagrees with the speaker that’s coming to the Union.”

Debbie Newman (Fitzwilliam 1998) recalls that around the time of her presidency in 2001, arguments raged over whether to invite the disgraced historian and Holocaust sceptic David Irving. (A different committee would include him in the Easter 2003 term card, resulting in widespread protest, but the invitation was withdrawn.)

She says: “In that situation it becomes about safety and Cambridgeshire Police has to get involved, and that’s when it tends to get into the national press. Everyone has an opinion about that divide: whether you’re giving a platform for dangerous views or you’re allowing full and democratic debate and allowing people to make up their own minds about what they hear.

“I think the Union does provide this opportunity for the airing of controversial debate, which allows ideas to be effectively rubbished in public; in other places they’re deemed too dangerous to be heard.”

Popular culture and humour in the chamber

While controversial speakers have been a regular bugbear for progressives, a frequent complaint of more conservative Union alumni has been that serious debate has been edged out by more frivolous material. The past 25 years have seen celebrities such as Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, Jim Bowen, Katie Price and Pamela Anderson grace the chamber, securing column inches in the diary columns and provoking the odd letter of disapprobation from old members.

Parkinson’s history of the Union points out that it has always had a flippant, waggish side and that light-hearted debates are as old as the Society itself. But for some ex-officers, recollections of Cambridge humour can now elicit a groan or two. “It’s cringe-making to think of the so-called ‘funny debates’,” says Stourton. “I remember there was one favourite motion which was ‘A drink before and a cigarette afterwards are the three best things in life,’ which we all thought was howlingly funny, clever and sophisticated.”

The Union’s core mission

Bazalgette returned to the Union in the 1990s as a trustee, and has since accepted several invitations to speak. At one occasion, he was surprised to be reunited with one of his own witticisms from 1974. “Someone stood up and made a joke that I had coined myself,” he says. “It’s not even devastatingly funny – it was about people from Magdalene having plus-four trousers and minus-four IQ points. So I don’t think things have changed too much.”

Despite the odd instance of cross-generational plagiarism, he believes the Union’s core mission is as relevant and important as ever. “If it was just a club for trading jokes, it would be pretty depressing in many ways. But individuals’ ability to speak in public is a critical asset, particularly in the modern media age. Being able to articulate in public, and coherently, what you believe in: without putting too fine a point on it, that’s a vital part of the act of leadership.”

The Cambridge Union 200th Anniversary Debate will take place at Middle Temple Hall, London, on 26 September. The event is open to all Cambridge alumni and members of the public. For more information, go to

This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 75. Find out how to receive CAM.