The Bicentenary Debate is self-indulgent, elitist and stupid
It’s still an old boys’ club – and you’re not invited
Let’s start with some qualifications. I am a member of the Union, attend semi-regularly, and have largely enjoyed the opportunity to see challenging topics debated and interesting speakers questioned. I think the Cambridge Union Society (sponsored by Deloitte) is a pretty good institution so far as they go.
But their Bicentenary Debate is the most self indulgent, elitist thing they could have done to celebrate their two centuries of existence.
I mean seriously, who thought this would be a good way to ‘Celebrate 200 years of Free Speech’? In choosing the motion, ‘This House isn’t what it used to be’, they’ve turned the centrepiece of their bicentenary celebrations into a glorified comedy debate.
It’s little more than an opportunity for a back slapping, old boys club get together where they reminisce about the old days and how things really have gone to the dogs since they started letting women and the poor in.
Seriously, what a botched opportunity. They’ve managed to get a former leader of the Opposition, a former Home Secretary, a former Speaker of the House of Lords, and the Chair of the Arts Council of England.
Yes they’re all entrenched establishment figures, adding to the whole ‘lets meet up and talk about how well we’ve all done’ feel of the event, but it’s an impressive lineup nonetheless. This isn’t surprising, given the importance of the anniversary. So what a waste that they’ve given them this crap to debate.
It’s less than a month since the Charlie Hebdo shootings, which ignited a huge debate over the value and limits of free speech. It was only last term that the now infamous No Platform Oxford abortion debacle led to calls for one former Union president to be sent down.
Wouldn’t these have been more worthwhile topics for the big anniversary, debating the very principles the society is supposedly founded on? Wouldn’t that have been more interesting for the members the Union should really care about: the current students who need to attend most weeks to get their money’s worth for their frankly extortionate membership fees?
And the Black Tie. Jesus Christ the black tie. I know what people will say: that it’s harmless, people dress up for May Balls, everyone at Cambridge has got a set anyway.
But really, it’s a phenomenal cock up when you think about the continued problems Access has of convincing prospective applicants that Cambridge isn’t just for old Etonians. No doubt an event like this will turn up in the Daily Mail on Sunday morning, and how will it look there? It will look exactly how the Union seems to want it to look: like nothing has changed in 200 years, like we’re an out of touch elite who live our whole lives in absurd penguin suits.
And for what? For a photo. ‘To replicate the historic photography taken at the 150th Anniversary in 1965’.
But it’s not 1965, its 2015.
We don’t go to debates in black tie anymore, because of course we fucking don’t. It’s exclusionist, intimidating to many, and unnecessary for the purpose of debate. So why make it look like we do?
Maybe we should ask most of the women and ethnic minorities to leave before we take the photo, just so it looks more in keeping with tradition. I for one am quite pleased we don’t live in the same university as existed 50 years ago. The Union want to make it look like we do.
Oh, but don’t worry. You ‘might’ be allowed in the debate if you have the temerity to attend the society to which you have paid £185 to be a member in sensible clothes. You will, however, be asked to leave for the photograph, airbrushed out of its history, and asked to make way for those more in keeping with the desired aesthetic.
It’s such a phenomenally stupid idea, such a gift to those who consider Cambridge a bastion of entrenched privilege, that I can’t believe an entire committee of intelligent people okayed it.
But however stupid an idea it is, it is easy to see why it is a seductive one. Being part of the Union is to occupy a position of genuine power in the life of the university, and to have influence and contact with establishment figures in public life.
This debate isn’t just about an old boys get together. It’s a way for the Union to flex its muscles. Look at who we were, because that’s who we still are. We know all these important people, and more than that, we will be them one day.
For anyone with a healthy suspicion of the dangers of entrenched power and privilege in the upper echelons of this country, it is worrying that the next generation is so keen to identify itself with the last.
This debate is a sad symbol of a Union far too in love with itself.