Oxford Union

The Oxford Union Society, commonly known as the Oxford Union, is a prestigious debating society in Oxford, England, that boasts a rich tradition of hosting some of the world’s most prominent personalities across politics, academia, and popular culture. Founded in 1823, the Union remains one of Britain’s oldest university unions and is distinct from the Oxford University Student Union.

The recent invitation to BJP MP Varun Gandhi to participate in a debate on the performance of the Narendra Modi-led government was turned down, citing that such issues should be raised within India. The Union’s debates are hosted every Thursday evening during term time, and speakers argue in favor of or against a pre-determined motion.

Origins and Prestige

In the early nineteenth century, student members of the University of Oxford were restricted in the matters they could discuss. In opposition to these rules, 25 young men established a set of rules that would govern a new society, and the United Debating Society was born in March 1823. The Union is one of the earliest examples of debates being allowed on a formal stage at a university. Given the prestige associated with Oxford, the debate began to see the participation of renowned personalities from across political ideologies, and a range of fields – sciences, arts, politics, and more.

Notable Speakers

The Union has welcomed renowned personalities like US Presidents Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, civil rights leader Malcolm X, the Nobel Peace Laureates the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa, and scientists Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. The speeches of these speakers have gone viral worldwide, with Shashi Tharoor’s speech in 2015 arguing for the motion on why Britain owes reparations to India going viral in India.

Format and Controversy

The Union’s debates typically involve three to four speakers on each side, who alternate to present their case. The debate’s result is determined by the number of individuals who depart the chamber by walking through the doors marked ‘Ayes’ or ‘Noes.’ Members can challenge a speaker at any time during the debate by raising a “point of information.” However, it remains at the discretion of the individual speaker whether to accept it.

In 2007, the Union invited Holocaust denier David Irving, leading to protests and sit-ins. Nonetheless, the Union continues to maintain its reputation as one of the world’s most prestigious debating societies.

Free Speech

The Union describes itself as the “most prestigious debating society in the world” on its website, emphasizing its tradition of free speech. In the early days, a lack of mechanisms for debates meant interruptions and questionable quality of debate topics. However, the Union’s tradition of free speech has sustained it over the years, with women being admitted in 1963 and a debate consisting of only women speakers held in 2022.



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