The Oxford Union Society is no stranger to controversy. Founded in 1823 by Oxford students desperate to have a space to freely discuss matters of religion and politics, for 200 years our members have debated the state of international relations, theology, genetics, nuclear policy, civil rights, the environment and everything in between, often prompting fierce discussion across the world. However, we do not, and have never, sought controversy for controversy’s sake; rather, in recent years we have found ourselves in the spotlight merely for hosting speakers who hold views that some find disagreeable. Our ex-Librarian and former UK Prime Minister Harold MacMillan once described the Oxford Union as the ‘last bastion of free speech’; I do not think that statement has ever been as true or as necessary as it is now.
Nevertheless, it is true that many moderate thinkers are now shying away from the mere mention of certain issues in case they should they fall victim to a small minority with a disproportionately loud voice. Before I came to Oxford, I thought that tales of cancel culture at universities were exaggerated to sell papers. How wrong I was. To digress from – or even merely challenge - certain viewpoints is to be labelled as some sort of outlier or extremist, amplified by social media channels. We therefore have to ask ourselves: if we do not train and encourage today’s students to ask difficult questions, how will we tackle the most challenging issues of tomorrow, both at home and abroad?
As the chilling effects of self-imposed censorship on university campuses, social media and the arts show no signs of dissipating, there has never been a more important time to defend free speech which, after all, is a principle enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: freedom of opinion and expression. Indeed standing up for this, is the greatest challenge facing anyone who undertakes a position of student leadership. This term alone, I have been called a fascist for hosting Mr Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of PayPal and initial Facebook investor, a racist for inviting Dr David Starkey to speak in a debate on theories of history, and I have been accused of ‘denying the right of LGBTQ+ to exist’ for hosting a debate on same-sex marriage in the Church of England in the week of the General Synod. I have been called an antisemite for hosting George Galloway before being accused of being an agent of the State of Israel for hosting the Israeli Ambassador to the UK the following week.
These insults and accusations are not the comments of lone voices. They are dozens, often scores, of messages sent to me or my colleagues, tweeted, or posted anonymously on social media. I have been physically threatened and shouted at on the street. It is no surprise, therefore, that students up and down the UK are scared to stand up for free speech; to do so means opening oneself up to ritual humiliation, bullying, and harassment.
Those that suggested, late last year, that we had ‘de-platformed’ speakers ought to reflect not only on the profile of our guest speakers and the nature of their visits – often under challenging security environments – but also the resilience that it takes for a student led organisation to proceed with an invitation to a controversial speaker.
As we celebrate our Bicentenary, there is much to reflect on - notable debates that have reverberated around the world, our guest speakers who have been questioned and challenged by our members and, of course, our alumni life members who have shaped our heritage and history in the making. So far this year, we have celebrated 60 years since women were finally granted membership on equal terms as men after decades of campaigning by men and women alike. We have celebrated the 90th anniversary of the Union’s most famous debate ‘This House Would Not Fight For King And Country’, noted in the diary of Mussolini and reported to have persuaded Hitler to believe the British would not fight. Perhaps most notably, in late February we hosted our Bicentenary Debate, welcoming back hundreds of alumni life members including Baron Heseltine of Thenford (ex-President, Michaelmas 1954) and Amanda Pritchard (ex-Librarian, Hilary 1996) to celebrate 200 years of free speech at the Oxford Union.
Amidst the celebrations, however, we remain more determined than ever to echo the University’s affirmation that ‘free speech is the lifeblood of a university…it enables the pursuit of knowledge…it helps us approach truth.’
5 April 2023 will mark 200 years to the day since our first every debate. Whether you are a life member of the Union or a supporter of critical thinking, join us in raising a glass to free speech on this date – it has never been more necessary.