The debate on the no-confidence motion in the current Oxford Union President confirmed what I have suspected for some time. The Union is broken, and perhaps irredeemably so.
For those that have not been following the national press story on the matter, the story began with a discussion in the Union regarding £1200 of Society expenses being potentially released for expenditure to cover up the current President’s membership of an informal drinking society, the ‘Banter Squadron.’ We still have not received an adequate answer to this question- what is the Banter Squadron, and why would someone be willing to spend a considerable sum of money covering their membership of it? Shortly later, the President, Ben Sullivan, was arrested on suspicion of rape and attempted rape and released on bail. The story has continued to balloon, with Union officers resigning, speakers cancelling their visits, and an open letter calling for the President’s resignation backed by figures including journalist Laurie Penny and the Student Union’s President-Elect and Vice-President for Women.
At the time of writing I have just returned from a debate which proposed a motion of no-confidence in Ben Sullivan in his capacity as Union President. Those of us who supported it made perfectly clear that the motion was not a presumption of guilt. It was not a political conspiracy, and it was not even a personal attack on Sullivan. Most of us don’t even know him. Supporters of the motion backed it for two reasons. The first was that many members felt let down by the Union’s behaviour during his tenure. Half the Union officers and two of the five Standing Committee members have resigned citing an untenable working environment. Socials have been cancelled, speakers pulled out and a general air of confusion pervades the place.
Like many others, I paid a considerable sum of money for the Union’s services. It was though, the second issue that primarily concerned me. It is not the fault of the Union President, or the Union, or Oxford that we live in a society in which sexual violence is rife. It is not their fault that the overwhelming majority of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported, unconvicted or not brought to trial. It is not their fault that victim-blaming myths permeate society, or that as recently as the 1980s Oxford’s own Thames Valley Police had an institutional target of regarding the majority of rape claims as false. It is, however, our collective responsibility to recognise that and to do what we can to ameliorate it. That is why OUSU’s VP Women, Sara Pine, was joined by others in calling (not aggressively, despite claims from her detractors) for speakers to withdraw. That’s why I think all public figures, regardless of innocence, should step aside when accused of such crimes and during an ongoing investigation. A jury trial is a human right; being Oxford Union President is not. That was the debate we were hoping to have at the no-confidence motion, in a mature and civilised manner.
However, when a speaker for the no-confidence motion raised the allegations in her responding speech, she was shut down for ‘legal reasons.’ She was, without mentioning Sullivan, trying to talk about how endemic sexual violence is in society. Next up, the President-Elect would have been selected to speak for both sides of the debate had people not shouted him down. Meanwhile, the suggestion that the Union should install consent workshops for its public officials was laughed at by people on the floor. And despite all I have outlined so far, ‘innocent until proven guilty’ was screamed at us repeatedly- including at one juncture when a speaker decided to make a ‘joking’ false rape allegation from the floor to prove a point. To top the lot, someone had to shout from the floor in order to get the chair to pick more than one woman to speak.
The entire spectacle was as farcical as its endpoint, which consisted of Union members voting to not vote on the no-confidence motion. After a harrowing and protracted argument, the Union decided to not even follow through with the democratic process.
This was never about the innocence or guilt of the Union President, but how we respond publicly and politically to serious allegations. The Union has demonstrated woeful ineptitude at it; but what would one expect from an institution that essentially asks people to leave real life at the door? It is an institution that embodies the very stereotypes that most of Oxford are trying to dump, replicating the elite’s culture and social form. Draped in convention and grandeur, the Union’s committee members swan around in dinner jackets and bow ties. Their debates are irrelevant to real politics, consisting of abstract thought experiments and theatrical performance. It is a house of self-aggrandising tradition junkies. Whilst there may be principled and excellent individual officers, the institution’s commitment to ‘free speech’ is farcical. The Union was founded to push the envelope and exchange radical ideas. It has ended up instead inviting fascist and Holocaust-denying politicians to enjoy three-course meals, engendering a destructive culture of perennially nasty elections and now is shouting down those fighting for policies to combat sexual violence.
It is a grotesque self-parody and should be treated as such.
Read David Browne’s response to this article here.
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