Should one venture into the Oxford Union this term, one is likely to encounter plenty of free and democratic discussion, debate, and speech. Esteemed politicians, scientists, and academics will describe their work, thoughts, and ambitions. Students and MPs will formally debate some of the most pressing social and political issues of our day. Books will be borrowed from the library, and discussion will fill the Union’s hallways. All these instances are representative of one of Oxford’s most venerable institutions at its best. However, behind all this democracy and free speech lies a frighteningly undemocratic oligarchy that may threaten the institution’s ability to serve its purpose.
As a Union plebeian, I am usually unconcerned with what goes on in the committee meetings. I’m grateful for the hard work of those running the place, whatever their motives. I content myself by attending debates and speaker events, asking questions, and contributing to the governance of the library. This smooth-functioning system, which manages to bring in some of the worlds most important and fascinating people term after term, often obscures whatever controversies or disagreements might exist behind the scenes. However, the recent events, in which tensions among the Union’s top officers erupted into scandal and mismanagement, do concern me.
The recent controversies, culminating in Kostas Chryssanthopolous’ resignation and President Ben Sullivan’s arrest, did not begin with the Tab’s revelations about Sullivan and the ‘Banter Squadron.’ The enmity among Union hacks existed prior to the recent slew of events, and seems to be part of a broader trend in Union politics. At the best of times, the Union’s officers might all be aligned for their own interest, and everything will go without a hitch both internally and externally. However, the nature of the institution makes division and disagreement the norm, as the ambitious vie for power and influence.
Most of the time, whatever animosities might exist behind the scenes stay there, and it is a rare occasion that the public becomes overwhelmingly aware of the fractiousness. What worries me is that the disagreements inside the Union’s governance may at many times have unseen consequences for ordinary members. Though the news of the drama between Chryssanthopolous and Sullivan is entertaining, as a member I am more concerned by the fact that their disagreements resulted in the Union’s officers logging fewer vacation days inviting speakers and organizing events. The disgraceful actions of those in charge, which are inexcusable, have brought considerable harm to the Union’s reputation. Even so, the potentially chronic damage to the quality of the Union’s speakers brought about by its political system quietly but undeniably greatly damage the interests of all members. These problems, hidden from public view, are not reported, but remain potentially endemic to the Union.
Though there is a great fuss over the elections which take place every seventh week to choose officers, which give the illusion of frequent change, the Union is not democratic. The majority of the time (last term’s election being an exception), the president, and many top officers, are elected unopposed. The candidates are decided upon by the current leaders of the Union, and even the contested elections rarely feature any significant differences between candidates. This oligarchical system in which one must win the graces of the leaders in order to stand a chance, selects for officers who are more concerned with their own advancement than with the good of the Union’s members and the quality of the events (though fortunately the two are often correlated). As Francis Underwood puts it in House of Cards, which bears a striking resemblance to what we now see in Oxford: “Democracy is so overrated.”
Concluding his President’s Welcome in the Trinity termcard, Sullivan writes: “thank you for putting up with me.” Perhaps we must accept the internal rivalries and power-seeking nature of Union politics as necessary for its continuation, and the benefits of our membership. Then again, the recent events, and the nature of the Union’s governance point to the need for us to consider shaking things up a little. When infighting among officers detracts from the quality of speakers, debates, and events, it should disturb all Union members. I don’t pretend to have an answer, but it might be time that the running of the Union become aligned with the principles of free and open discussion and debate among equals, which lie at the core of all that the institution does. We can do better.