The Oxford Union Society
TypeStudent debating union
HeadquartersOxford, England
  • Frewin Court, Oxford, OX1 3JB
Louis Wilson (Christ Church)
AffiliationsWorld Universities Debating Council

The Oxford Union Society, commonly referred to as the Oxford Union, is a debating society in the city of Oxford, England, whose membership is drawn primarily from the University of Oxford. Founded in 1823, it is one of Britain's oldest university unions and one of the world's most prestigious private students' societies.[1] The Oxford Union exists independently from the university[2] and is distinct from the Oxford University Student Union.

The Oxford Union has a tradition of hosting some of the world's most prominent individuals across politics, academia, and popular culture ranging from Albert Einstein and Michael Jackson to Sir Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, Queen Elizabeth II and Mahathir Mohamad. Many former Presidents of the Union have gone on to hold high office in the UK and the Commonwealth including William Gladstone, Ted Heath, Boris Johnson, and Benazir Bhutto.

History and Status


The Oxford Union was founded as an independent forum for unrestricted debate by junior members of Oxford University in 1823. At the time, the University prohibited junior members from discussing certain issues, such as matters of theology. Although restrictions of speech within the University have since been lifted, the Oxford Union has remained separate from and independent of the university and is constitutionally bound to remain so.

The first meeting of the Society was held illegally in a room in Peckwater Quad at Christ Church. The first recorded debate was about Parliamentarianism vs Royalism during the English Civil War. By the late 1820s, the Oxford Union was established enough to have regular elections, a growing collection of books, and formalized relations with its sister society The Cambridge Union. In the early 1830s, the Union held its first debate on having confidence in HM Government, a tradition that is continued to this day. As the Society developed, it bought a plot of land by Frewin Court in central Oxford and commissioned Benjamin Woodward, who was then working on the University Museum, to design new buildings for the Society's use. These initial buildings opened in 1857, included the original debating chamber. By the 1870s, the Society had grown too large for the chamber and commissioned a new chamber by Alfred Waterhouse. Finished in 1878 and opened the following year, the Union's new Debating Chamber was the largest purpose-built debating chamber in the world. The original chamber became the Society's library and is now home to over 60,000 volumes. A further period of building began in the early 1900s when an extension was built between the Steward's House and the main premises of the Society.[2]


The Oxford Union is an unincorporated association; its property is held in trust in favour of its objectives and members, and governed by its rules (which form a multipartite contract between the members).[3] Its members are almost exclusively drawn from the University of Oxford with some provision for members who are resident in Oxford or attend Oxford Brookes University.

Women members

Until 1963, women were excluded from membership of the Oxford Union. The admission of women to the Union required a 2/3 vote of its past and current members. The first vote to admit women failed, with 903 men voting to admit women and 459 voting against.[4] The second vote, on 9 February 1963, succeeded, 1,039 to 427.[5] Oxford student Judith Okely, who had led the campaign to admit women, then became the first woman member.[6] Geraldine Jones of St Hugh's College was in 1967 the first woman to be elected President of the Oxford Union.[5]

Notable debates

1933: King and Country Debate

Main article: The King and Country debate

The Oxford Union has long associated itself with freedom of speech, most famously by debating and passing the motion "That this House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country" in 1933. The debate polarized opinion across the country, with the Daily Telegraph running an article headlined "DISLOYALTY AT OXFORD: GESTURE TOWARDS THE REDS".[7]

Several prominent Union members (including Randolph Churchill) tried to expunge this motion and the result of the debate from the Union's minute book. This attempt was defeated in a meeting more attended than the original debate. Sir Edward Heath records in his memoirs that 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.[8]

1964: Extremism Debate

In 1964, the Oxford Union invited American civil rights activist Malcolm X to speak on the motion, "This House Believes Extremism in Defence of Liberty is no Vice; Moderation in the Pursuit of Justice is no Virtue".[9]

1975: EEC Membership

In 1975 the Union debated the motion "That this House Would Say Yes to Europe" with Conservative Leader Ted Heath, Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe and senior Labour cabinet minister Barbara Castle speaking in the debate. It was televised live by the BBC shortly before the referendum, in June 3, 1975.[10]

1985: Nuclear Armament

In 1985, David Lange, Prime Minister of New Zealand, debated against the American evangelist, the Revd Jerry Falwell, the motion "This House Believes Nuclear Weapons are Morally Indefensible."[9]

Notable speakers

Benazir Bhutto is the first woman and Asian to serve as the President of Oxford Union in 1977.

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. Amongst the earliest individual addresses made to the Union were speeches given by Lord Randolph Churchill at the start of the 20th Century and Millicent Fawcett who became the first woman to address the Oxford Union in 1908.

Since then notable speakers to have addressed the members of the Oxford Union include:


Membership of the Oxford Union falls into four classes: life membership, long-term membership, temporary membership, and residential membership. Temporary membership can take four forms: course-length membership, termly membership, visiting membership, and (confusingly) permanent membership. The overwhelming majority of members are life members; the criterion for membership is being a fully matriculated member of the University of Oxford or a member of one of the Union's "kindred societies", namely:

All those eligible for life membership can instead apply for long-term membership for a period of at least the duration of their course. Shorter membership is also extended to staff members of the University of Oxford or of any of its colleges or permanent private halls.[15] Members of a number of other institutions, together with those participating in some visiting study programmes in Oxford, are also eligible to apply for temporary membership.

Guests staying at the Oxford Union Society/Landmark Trust flat in the Old Steward's House are deemed to be visiting members of the Society for the duration of their stay in the flat.[16] Residential memberships are available to Oxford residents who are not from the university, but only if they are deemed worthy by a full meeting of the Union's Standing Committee after submitting a written application to the Secretary and subsequent interview by a member of the Standing Committee.[17]

The Union buildings

The Oxford Union buildings are located in Frewin Court (off Cornmarket Street) and on St Michael's Street, and are owned by a separate charitable trust, the Oxford Literary and Debating Union Trust ("OLDUT").[18]


The Oxford Union was never financially secure and had 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 OLDUT (the Oxford Literary and Debating Union Trust), and the Oxford Union Society was granted a licence to occupy the building.[19]

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 LGBTQ+ venue Plush[20]), and part of what was formerly the Steward's house (now occupied by the Landmark Trust[21]).

The creation of OLDUT secured the future of the Union's buildings such that even if the Oxford Union Society were to cease to be or fail financially the buildings would not be lost. OLDUT's principal sources of funds are private donations and grant funding (including from the Mitsubishi UFJ Trust Oxford Foundation), rent on investment property and hiring fees.[22] OLDUT uses these funds to provide financial support for the refurbishment and maintenance of the Union buildings and the operation of the Union's library and reading-rooms.[citation needed]


The original Union buildings were designed by Benjamin Woodward and opened in 1857. The society soon outgrew these premises and commissioned Alfred Waterhouse to design a free-standing debating chamber in the gardens, which opened in 1879. This was about a decade after the completion of the Cambridge Union's premises (also designed by Waterhouse), and the exteriors of the two buildings are very similar.[citation needed]

The final extension, housing the Goodman Library (ground floor) and the Macmillan Room (1st floor)
The Old Library at night as viewed from the gallery.
The Old Library at night as viewed from the gallery

The original Woodward debating chamber is now known as "The Old Library". The Old Library is best known for its Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, referred to collectively 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.[23] It provides the Macmillan Room (the Union dining room) and Snooker Room on the first floor above the Goodman Library, underneath which there are basement library stacks. The Union also consists of a Bar on the ground floor, the Gladstone Room (a reception room) and the Morris Room (a meeting room) on the first floor, and a Members' TV Room on the second (uppermost) floor, along with separate offices for the President, Librarian, Treasurer and Secretary.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

The Debating Chamber

The Old Library contains a fireplace situated in the middle of the floor with a concealed flue, a rare design of which only a handful of examples survive in the UK.[citation needed]

The debating chamber features busts of such notables as Roy Jenkins, Edward Heath, Michael Heseltine, George Curzon and William Gladstone. It is also home to a grand piano, 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.[citation needed]

As recently as the 1970s the Oxford Union still provided a full silver service dining room for its members which, like its famous bar, was the afternoon and evening venue of choice for many of the university's leading undergraduate journalists and politicos. To be invited to dine at the large table in the bay window - the usual domain of the Union's president - was considered the acme of attainment in that particular sphere of the university. It was often said more plots were hatched around that particular table on a regular evening than in the Houses of Parliament on Bonfire Night.[24][25] Similarly, the Union's two libraries were extensively used by that same cadre of undergraduates (principally humanities students) who were rushing at the last minute to complete the obligatory weekly essay for their formal university education.

The Union's buildings were used as a location for each of the films Oxford Blues (1984) and The Madness of King George (1994).[26]


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

Competitive debating offers members of the Union debate workshops and a platform upon which to practise and improve their debating skills. The Union's best debaters compete internationally against other top debating societies, and the Oxford Union regularly fields 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 Oxford Schools' Debating Competition and the Oxford Intervarsity Debating Competition, each of which attracts schools and universities from around the world, as well as running a number of internal debating competitions.[27][28] Oxford Schools' Debating Competition is the largest schools' competition in the world, with over one thousand teams entering each year.

There are chamber debates every Thursday evening during University terms. Experts[clarification needed] for the proposition and opposition present paper speeches to the house. Members have an opportunity to deliver brief speeches from the floor. Following the style of the British Parliament, a motion is moved to "divide the House" in order to vote. Members in the chamber vote on the proposition with their feet by exiting the hall through a door designed to model the voting lobbies of the House of Commons, the right-hand side being marked 'ayes' and the left-hand side 'noes'.[citation needed]

Oxford Union Society debates are filmed and licensed by Oxford Union Limited, a registered company controlled by the Oxford Union Society.[29] Oxford Union Limited runs a YouTube channel which has more than 1.8 million subscribers and has gained more than 250 million views across its videos.


The Oxford Union's general conduct and management is governed by the Standing Committee. The voting members are:[30]

The non-voting members are:

The Bursar, the Deputy Bursar and the Access Officers attend meetings of Standing Committee in an advisory capacity.[3]

Day-to-day management of the Union is partly conducted by professional staff, principally the Bursar, the Deputy Bursar and the House Manager.[3]


Elections are held to fill the offices of President-elect, Librarian-elect, Treasurer-elect and Secretary, as well as 6 positions on the Standing Committee and 11 positions on the Secretary's Committee.[31] In order to stand for election to the Secretary's Committee, members must make two speeches on different nights during the term they stand for election. For the other offices, candidates must have additionally made two such speeches in the previous term. Elections are always held on Friday of 7th Week of the university's Full Term.[3]

The election for the Chair of the Consultative Committee is held at the meeting of the Consultative Committee on Monday of 8th Week of each term. Only members who have attended four of the last eight meetings of the Consultative Committee may either stand for election as Chair or vote.[3]

The number of elected positions on Standing Committee was increased from 5 to 7 in Michael Li's term (Trinity 2017) and implemented in Chris Zabilowicz's term (Michaelmas 2017).[32] However, the number of elected positions was decreased back to 5 officers at the end of James Price's term (Hilary 2021) before being increased to six at the end of Molly Mantle's term. It remains an ongoing point of discussion within the Society.[33]

Students running for election usually stand as part of a team, known as slates, enabling voters to support a designated candidate for each position and increase each candidate's vote count.[34]


1996: OJ Simpson

In May 1996 President Paul Kenward invited O. J. Simpson to address the union, his first public address since his October acquittal by a Los Angeles jury of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994. Speaking for 90 minutes in front of 1,300 students, Simpson spoke of racism in the Los Angeles Police Department, and said he was sorry for hitting his wife, Nicole.[35]

Paul Kenward had given O. J. Simpson assurances there would be no broadcast media at the union debate. However, Chris Philp, (now Conservative MP and then a second-year student at University College and features editor of the student magazine Cherwell), was fined £50 for selling a written transcript of the debate and helping to sell an audio cassette to TV stations.[36]

2007: David Irving / Nick Griffin debate

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. The Student Population at a Council meeting voted to oppose the invitations.[37] Following this and protests by other student groups, a poll of the Union's members was taken and resulted in a two-to-one majority in favour of the invitations.[38]

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. Around 20 protesters succeeded in breaching the poorly maintained security cordon and attempted to force their way through to the main chamber. Members of the waiting audience blocked access by pushing back against the chamber doors. After students were convinced to yield to the protesters by Union staff, a sit-in protest was staged in the debating chamber, preventing a full debate from occurring due to security concerns. 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 protester and members of the audience, and eventually assisting police in herding protesters from the main hall. One student protester interviewed by BBC News reported that fellow protesters played 'jingles' on the piano and danced on the President's chair[39] though the truth of the latter assertion was 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.[40]

The President of Oxford University Student Union, Martin McCluskey, strongly criticised the decision to proceed with the debate, saying that providing Irving and Griffin with a platform for their extreme views afforded them undue legitimacy.[41] Following the event, some, including Oxford MP Evan Harris, criticised the No Platform Policy adopted by the Student Union.[42][43]

2015: Marine Le Pen

In February 2015, the Union invited Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National in France, to address the Union, in view of the popularity of the FN in the French polls at the time. This sparked considerable controversy, with allegations of Le Pen endorsing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The speech went ahead as planned, albeit delayed by the protesters blockading the Union's main entrance, and briefly breaking into the building.[44] In all, over 400 people turned up to the demonstration.[45] There was considerable controversy over OUSU's response, with allegations that OUSU had indirectly supported the protesters and not adequately condemned threats of violence against Union members who had attempted to attend the talk.[46]

2018: Heather Marsh

In 2018, human rights activist Heather Marsh accused the Oxford Union of censorship and violating a contractual obligation when they failed to post video of a "Whistleblowing" panel in which she appeared to the official Oxford Union YouTube channel, allegedly at the request of a fellow panelist, former CIA operative David Shedd.[47] Oxford Union president Gui Cavalcanti replied that its agreement with Marsh and other panelists gave them the right but not the obligation to publish video of any events, adding that "just this academic year, we’ve had multiple events not uploaded, ranging from J. J. Abrams to Sir Patrick Stewart."[48] A transcript of the panel and its 22-minute audio are available online.[47]

2019: Ebenezer Azamati

In October 2019, before the annual 'No Confidence' debate, blind Ghanaian graduate student Ebenezer Azamati was violently removed from the hall for refusing to relinquish his seat, which had been reserved for a committee member. Azmati later had his membership revoked for two terms for 'violent misconduct'. Footage of the event was recorded by another member, and was subsequently uploaded to the internet. This led to protests from the University's AfriSoc society on Azmati's behalf, and soon gained national news media coverage.[49] This was eventually followed by the resignation of standing committee members and other Union officials, and then by Union president Brendan McGrath on 19 November.[50] Azmati was compensated an undisclosed amount.[51]

2023: Kathleen Stock

In April 2023, the Union invited the gender-critical feminist philosopher Dr Kathleen Stock. The invitation was met with criticism from the University's LGBTQ+ Society and Student Union, who alleged Stock's views were transphobic and called upon the Union to rescind the invitation. The Union declined to disinvite Stock, saying in a statement that members would have the 'opportunity to respectfully engage and challenge' Stock. Letters both in support and in opposition to Stock's talk were published in national publications, signed by academics and students, and prompted intervention from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who told the Telegraph that 'University should be an environment where debate is supported, not stifled. We mustn’t allow a small but vocal few to shut down discussion. Kathleen Stock's invitation to the Oxford Union should stand'. Over a hundred protestors gathered outside the buildings on the day. The event went ahead, but shortly after it started, a protestor glued themselves to the floor of the Union's debating chamber before subsequently being removed by police. [52][53][54]

2024: Allegations of Institutional Racism

In June 2024, an Election Tribunal disqualified Ebrahim Osman Mowafy from the post of President-Elect. The next day, two letters were sent to the Union's Trustees and Senior Officers, signed by the majority of the governing body and all of the non-white ex-Presidents in statu pupillari. These alleged that the Society's disciplinary procedures were "opaque", "compromised" and had been repeatedly “disproportionately targeting individuals from non-traditional backgrounds”, as well as reporting that the Tribunal's clerk, the Acting Returning Officer, had been overheard making explicitly Islamophobic remarks both in reference to the defendant and more broadly, Muslim women. Three of the Society's committees, including its largest committee and the Standing Committee, passed motions declaring the Union to be "institutionally racist", as well as the governing body passing a motion of no confidence in the incumbent Returning Officer.[55] [56][57]

Retractions of speaker invitations

In a few notable cases the Union has withdrawn invitations to controversial speakers, as the result of public pressure, specific pressure by lobbyists, and concerns about safety.

1998: John Tyndall

A debate that was to have involved the far-right fascist 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.[58]

2001: David Irving

An invitation to the writer and Holocaust denier 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. Following a 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.[59] However, Irving was allowed to speak at a Union debate in 2007.[60]

2009: Philip Nitschke

In March 2009, the Union withdrew an invitation to euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke after Nitschke had already accepted the invitation. Nitschke received a second e-mail cancelling the invitation "in the interests of there being a 'fair debate'", and was told other speakers were unwilling to speak alongside him.[61] 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 [assisted suicide]".[62] 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 Michael Irwin.[62][63] However, Irwin denied that he had applied pressure to exclude Nitschke.[64]

The Oxford Union 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 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 Nitschke. We certainly hope that no offence has been caused. The Oxford Union is a politically-neutral institution and holds no opinion on Nitschke's views."[61]

Nitschke commented, "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."[62] He also called the act "an almost unprecedented act of censorship".[65] Nitschke gave a series of lectures across the UK at the time the debate was held.[66]

Past officers

Notable past Presidents and Junior Officers of the Oxford Union include:

(MT = Michaelmas Term; HT = Hilary Term; TT = Trinity Term)

See also


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  2. ^ a b Oxford Union Society Rules: Rule 69 "Independence"
  3. ^ a b c d e "The Oxford Union Society : Rules and Standing Orders" (PDF). Retrieved 7 February 2020.
  4. ^ Cherry, Libby (15 July 2018). "SEXIST POLITICS, SILENCING, AND PREDATORY TUTORS: OXFORD FEMINISTS' BATTLE TO BE HEARD". Isis. Retrieved 15 April 2021. Before even arriving at Oxford, Okely vowed to get women into the Union as a point of principle. And two votes later, she was successful
  5. ^ a b "Centenary Women's Timeline". Oxford University. 2020. Retrieved 19 April 2021. On 9 February 1963, after years of campaigning, the Oxford Union Society – an important training ground for aspiring politicians – admitted women to full membership, after the required two-thirds majority was secured in a poll of members. Voting was 1,039 in favour and 427 against.
  6. ^ Maclean, Ruth (14 February 2013). "Gender Equality To Be Celebrated At Hilda's Festival". Retrieved 19 April 2021. The 'broad' line-up includes trans activist Jess Pumphrey, who succeeded in getting the amendment passed which allows women to wear trousers as part of sub fusc. Other trailblazing speakers include Professor Judith Okely, the first female member of the Oxford Union, the Very Reverend Dean Vivienne Faull, the first female Dean of the Church of England, and Professor Hermione Lee, now head of Wolfson College.
  7. ^ Ceadel, Martin (1979). "The 'King and Country' Debate, 1933: Student Politics, Pacifism and the Dictators". The Historical Journal. 22 (2): 397–422. doi:10.1017/s0018246x00016885. ISSN 0018-246X. S2CID 153490642.
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  12. ^ Tommy Robinson: Full Address Oxford Union, retrieved 5 March 2024
  13. ^ Katie Hopkins argues for the freedom to choose to not be a vegan, retrieved 5 March 2024
  14. ^ Immigration is Bad For Britain: Douglas Murray, retrieved 5 March 2024
  15. ^ Oxford Union Society Rules: Standing Order F7 "Institutions Admitted to the Benefits of Rule 3(c)" (a) "Course-length Membership" (ii) "University Staff Members"
  16. ^ Oxford Union Society Rules: Standing Order F7 "Institutions Admitted to the Benefits of Rule 3(c)" (d) "Visiting Members"
  17. ^ Oxford Union Society Rules: Rule 3 "Membership of the Society", (b) "Residential Members"
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51°45′11″N 1°15′35″W / 51.75306°N 1.25972°W / 51.75306; -1.25972