This week many freshers will sign up to the Oxford Union Society, and by the end of their first year more people than not will regret that decision. The Union is an amazing institution full of some of the cleverest, funniest and most driven people I’ve met in Oxford, but somehow it doesn’t quite work.
For one thing, the debates are ridiculous. Have you ever met a person coming out of a Union debate and saying ‘Fun, just not long enough’? At the end of a debate last year a doctor, supposed to speak on the NHS, sang instead. He was bored, we were bored and it summed up how absurd the whole process had become.
If a doctor who has travelled to speak about his work no longer cares, then what hope for the audience? Equally, if someone has given up their Thursday evening to listen to a debate on knife crime, the last thing they want to hear is who did what to whom on Lincoln lawn.
I have lost count of the number of speakers who start their speeches admitting they are unprepared or covering for someone who has pulled out before telling smug jokes about the sexuality of someone on the front row. The debating chamber is not the committee’s playground – treat it with some respect.
The larger problem is not with the Union itself. The majority of the students are ill-informed about it. People are too quick to write it off because of its reputation. But if people took time to meet those involved, then the ‘hacking’ that annoys so many would be less of an issue.
Hacking is so effective because the majority of members have no idea who to vote for: they haven’t taken the time to check on the individuals themselves. Surely someone interested enough to pay £160 to join should be sufficiently engaged not to complain when asked to vote. Hacking is a necessary evil that those who stand have to go through. Even Obama plays the game.
Whilst the responsibility lies with both the Union and students to make it the organisation it should be, the Union has to instigate it. Writing a nice introduction in the termcard is not enough. Why not host all the political parties on the same night and break the Tory white tie image? Make it the centre of political debate that it could easily be.
The Oxford experience is so transient and quick that in three years the Union could have a whole new inclusive image. The place has so much potential and the change could be so easy: that responsibility is on us all.