The Bicentenary Debate: Just like the good old days

Simply… ‘charming’

Bicentenary bicentenary debate black tie caius Cambridge Union Society debate emma fitzwilliam johns Ken Clarke president of the union tim squirrell Tit Hall treasurer white male privilege

The motion “This House isn’t what it used to be” was, in the very best tradition of the Cambridge Union, utter twaddle. 

Precisely no points were made in either proposition or opposition; instead, there was a lot of ripping up of speeches and peacocking about for cheap laughs.

When a point from the floor was actually made about the motion (grave error) the speaker was dismissed by the opposing house as ‘the sort of man who drags facts into the debate like so many unwanted dogs.’ Hear hear!

“It’s completely against the rules of the Cambridge Union to be drunk while debating,” said Sir Peter Bazalgette in the press room afterwards (where the wine continued to flow unstaunched) ‘but what is a rule is that one should appear to be drunk, and that’s a very different thing.’

This appearance was indeed lived up to. Ken Clarke’s much anticipated opening line was: “we, ah, had a dinner before we came here.” Yes Ken, we did. There had been a dinner John’s before and the wine there had been rather good, too.

Rivers of wine

Spot the woman

When a woman from the floor challenged Clarke on why he had, in his time as President, stood against letting women into the Union, he replied sheepishly that he didn’t see the point – after all, he said, “I already had a girlfriend.”

Later, a speaker for the opposition said: “Don’t you know poor Ken Clarke’s an endangered species? Be nice to him!”

During the ‘debate’ there was plenty of opportunity for nostalgic reminiscence. It seems ex-Tory leader Lord Michael Howard had a different and more beautiful girl on his arm every week while he was a student. Lord Turner, meanwhile, apparently always had a “colourful posse” of Peruvian lesbians surrounding him – “such an internationalist.”

March of the penguins

March of the penguins

The most striking difference in the chamber was the sound. That sweet music of hundreds of PRIVILEGED CIS WHITE MEN IN BLACK TIE braying, hear-hearing and chuckling to their heart’s content.

While we’re on the pernicious subject of black tie, it should be mentioned that Sir Peter (or Baz, as he is known to his old Union pals) had spurned the dress code in favour of a golden tunic teamed with pinstripe trousers, pink socks, and Nike trainers. It out-glittered even Madame President Amy Gregg’s floor-length sequin gown.

The black-tie rabble was, according to a very accurate head count made by The Tab from the gallery, around 87 % male.


All women’s ground floor toilets were taken over by men for the evening

The motion was a landslide victory in the Noe camp after Baz stole the show with his dazzling closing speech. People said afterwards it was the best speech they’d ever seen in the chamber. His parting line was “of course this place is what it used to be – that’s why we love it.”

Afterwards in the bar, the conversation between old Presidents invariably went like this: “When did you take your silk?” “Oh, 22 years after coming down.” “Oh I was 23 years, you trumped me, you bastard!” Back slap back slap, more wine more wine.

Inspired outfit

Inspired outfit

From there, things got lairy. Being one of the approx 13% women, (and having taken the black tie dress code to mean ‘very short little red dress’) meant that as the evening progressed and the free champagne flowed in the early hours you were – no other word for it – hounded.

This writer was – albeit rather charmingly – propositioned three times. A young former female president had a significantly older red-faced former secretary run his hand down the length of her dress. Reams of QC’s businesscards were pressed into girls’ hands at every opportunity.

The old Presidents were all being put up by their Colleges and did not miss this golden opportunity to once more utter that immortal line: “Do come back to my rooms in Emma/Caius/Tit Hall.”  Just like the old days, eh.

 But lets not be prim about it. A really rather lovely time was had by all, and for that night, this house really was what it used to be.