Way back in MT18, I, a naïve fresher, made my first visit to the Oxford Union. It had taken but a slight nudge from my parents to get me there, and off I trot. Little did I know that I was falling into the trap that so many have fallen into before me, and have done since, where what I was paying for was absolutely not what I got.
Track forward nearly two years, and I can count on two hands the events I have actually been to. And that is not because I was “forced by my parents to buy a membership and was never going to go anyway”. No, I actually loved debating in school, and so had every intention of getting involved in the Union.
Unfortunately though, I had no idea what being ‘involved’ in the Union actually meant. ‘Hacking’ was a completely foreign term to me, let alone ‘Slates’ and God knows what other niche lingo I am unaware of.
I thought, as an institution I had just shelled out a whopping £240 quid for (that’s with their very generous student discount of £20, available for a whole two weeks at the beginning of Michaelmas), there might, you know, be something in it for me.
What I mean is this; I signed up to be a member of a debating society and so far I really haven’t felt like that’s what I am. All I’ve successfully done is hand over a significant amount of cash, without having ever felt like this is a place where I am included or can use my voice. I would love for there to be more open floor debates. Not just some beginners debating workshops shoved out of sight on a Sunday evening, but genuine opportunities for people to speak candidly about issues that really matter to them. Why should it only be hacks that get to take center stage? I am just as much of a member as they are. But as soon as I joined the Union I began to comprehend the ‘toxic politics’ that it involved – a term which is, ironically, being constantly used and subsequently condemned by the perpetrators themselves, only for them to do approximately nothing about it – meaning that I was instantly put off ever getting involved. To date my star moment has been getting papped asking a question at the Greg James interview and honestly that is quite enough for me.
Many membership organisations have had to shift how they are run and portray themselves, and I believe the time has come for this in the Oxford Union. The fact that it is run by students is not a problem in itself, but they must be wary of mistaking their members as pawns just because they are also students. Instead they need to treat students as any other membership organisation does; as people who have paid to be included and want to get involved. Dame Fiona Reynolds was chairman of the National Trust between 2001 and 2012, and during her tenure she increased membership numbers by 1.3 million. This was largely due to the personal touch she bought and her willingness to drop some of the pretensions that the Trust had previously had. I think it’s about time the Union followed suit.
To give credit where it’s due, I think it’s wonderful that a platform such as the Union exists. It’s not often that one gets to see the ex-Prime Minister or a childhood idol speak, not least in such a historic place. I just think the Union is so fundamentally flawed that much of the magic is taken away for anyone on the outside. Primarily this is thanks to the backdrop of all the hacking and bombardment of “Vote for me for ‘Revolution’, ‘Equality’, ‘Progress’”. Yeah right.
What this achieves is actually pretty catastrophic: Many members are put off from going to things they would potentially get something useful out of, which in turn means that people who come to the Union to be heard leave, well, not having been. It also means that the students who run the Union make some pretty careless mistakes because they are so wrapped up in their own egos and potential future statesmanship. For example, last year on the 27thFebruary 2019 there was meant to be a panel entitled ‘Voices of Grenfell’. It had to be postponed however, and it was moved to the 8th March. Otherwise Friday of 8th week. This obviously stupid decision meant that one of the most important events of the term was attended by about 20 people, in a chamber whose capacity is 450. I can only imagine how horrible that must have felt for the people who had lived through one of the worst tragedies of recent times to have come to Oxford full of hope that finally their story was going to be heard, only for it to be received by 20 tired students at the bitter end of term. This irresponsibility reflects badly not just on the Union and its members, but the University as a whole; a fact that you need only to look at the YouTube comments section for proof of. I wonder why the Union didn’t think to try and postpone it to the next term rather than cram it in at the end of Hilary? Well the answer can only be that, for the most part, the Union is not an institution run by people who actually care about it long term. They care about it for the one term they are on top and all they want is to have put on the most interesting and most popular events under their watch. Their heart, I would argue, is not in the right place; a fact which causes me great sadness as someone who thinks the Union is something of huge value and should be protected. But, in order for this to remain true, it needs to be able to engage with its members, so that it can remain a respected platform where free debate can occur and people can get their voices heard.