George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.” Another thing that points clearly to a political career is a position in the Oxford Union. According to Oxford-based organisation 80,000 Hours, a Union president has a one-in-three chance of becoming an MP, and it is with this in mind that the Union conducts most of its business.
Enjoying a vision of itself as a rehearsal for Westminster, the Union encourages rabid infighting, and brutal backstabbing. The position of Librarian may not sound that important, but that won’t stop rivals making dodgy deals, spreading fake rumours, or trying to hack each other’s computers (this actually happened) to gain an advantage.
During my time at Oxford, misogynistic memes have been created about one election candidate; various computer hacks have been attempted; a ‘colonial-themed cocktail’ has been advertised, leading to the Union declaring itself institutionally racist; and a Union president has attempted to use members’ money to fund his legal defence against allegations of rape.
I’m not deluded about Oxford’s student body. I know that to some, this won’t sound like an utterly pathetic way for members of a university debating society to conduct themselves. But if you are sensibly horrified by the iniquities of the den of evil that the Oxford Union has become, its politics probably aren’t for you.
Most people involved with the Oxford Union will tell you that despite all the “hacking”, it really does put on some thoughtful and interesting events. This is a bit like if the Dark Lord Sauron were to point out that Mordor actually has some very impressive mountains, but to some extent it cannot be denied. Recent speakers include Malala Yousafzai, Bill Maher, and David Nutt.
But the Oxford Union does not have a monopoly on interesting speakers in Oxford – far from it. A cursory glance at interesting talks in Oxford reveals that this term’s non-Union speakers already include Laura Bates, Paul Mason, and Richard Dawkins. These talks don’t come with a price tag of £229.
The only real advantage the Oxford Union has over the rest of Oxford in terms of speakers is the celebrity factor. And this, in fact, has become the Union’s raison d’etre over the last few years. Its obsessive ideal of itself as the last bastion of free speech has led it to court controversy for controversy’s sake, inviting far-right politicians like Nick Griffin and Marine Le Pen, as well as divisive figures like EDL founder Tommy Robinson, Holocaust-denier David Irving, radical Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary.
Quite what these figures are supposed to bring to the Union other than crowds of protesters and a few pages in the national papers has always been unclear. It seems the only way the Union can justify its ever-rising fees is by perpetuating the idea that it still somehow ‘matters’, and being the centre of a media storm once in a while is as easy a way of achieving that as any.
The worst possible fate for it as an organisation would be for it to be perceived as irrelevant, and eyes all around the building must have lit up as the Guardian, The Telegraph, the BBC, and even Russia Today hastened to cover last year’s Marine Le Pen protest. The would-be politicians of Frewin Court thought to themselves: “Finally, I’m embroiled in a political controversy and the world will pay attention to me.”
Sometimes, the publicity-obsessed Union finds less abhorrent ways of attracting attention. Talks given by Ian McKellan, Morgan Freeman, Nick Jonas, and K-pop star PSY are prime examples of this. But then, rappers Lil Jon and Kanye West both spoke at free events at the Oxford Guild last year, so perhaps the Union doesn’t even have a monopoly in this area any more either (in this columnist’s opinion, Kanye West outclasses all the Nick Jonases in the world). Anyway, your chances of getting into one of these big-name talks are significantly worse than the president’s odds of being parachuted into a Tory safe seat in ten years.
Most of the students I’ve spoken to regret joining the Union, as they feel they never attended enough events to justify the membership fee. If it’s your own money, there are so many better things you could spend it on. If your parents are offering to pay, it’s a different choice. You just have to decide if the Oxford Union deserves to have you propping it up.