The Cambridge Union

The Cambridge Union Society
CUS Logo
The crest of the Cambridge Union Society.
TypeStudent Debating Union
HeadquartersCambridge, UK
Location9A Bridge Street Cambridge, Cambridgeshire
PresidentCharles Connor, Kings
Vice PresidentImran Mateo, Queens
Chair of TrusteesChris Smith, Baron Smith of Finsbury

The Cambridge Union Society, commonly referred to as "The Cambridge Union", is a debating and free speech society in Cambridge, England, and the largest society at the University of Cambridge. It 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 more recently Anglia Ruskin University. The Cambridge Union is a registered charity and is completely separate from the Cambridge University Students' Union.

The Union has hosted political and other figures in its chamber, both state- and international-based, including the Dalai Lama, President Ronald Reagan, Professor Germaine Greer, Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, and Clint Eastwood. Speakers from the 21st century include academics Slavoj Žižek, Richard Dawkins, and Rowan Williams, former British prime ministerJohn Major, former President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf, actor and comedian Stephen Fry, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Olympic legend Lord Coe, comedian and activist Russell Brand, presidential candidate and Senator Bernie Sanders and actor Sir Ian McKellen.[2] Previous students involved in the Cambridge Union have included Arianna Huffington, and the famous economist John Maynard Keynes.

History of the Union

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. Several years after it was founded, on 24 March 1817, the Union was temporarily shut down by the University. In 1821 the Union was allowed to reform, under strict guidelines.[1]

The Union's Bridge Street premises (52°12′31″N 0°07′10″E / 52°12′31″N 0°07′10″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.[1]

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.[1]

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.[1][3]

After more than 200 years, The Cambridge Union is best known for its debates, which often receive national and international media attention. The top members of its debating team compete internationally against other top debating societies. The Union also organises talks by visiting speakers and a wide array of events throughout the academic year.[1][3]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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.[6] 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.[7] Construction on the major redevelopment project is scheduled to begin in Michaelmas 2018.[8]


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