I’m not a member of the Oxford Union. And I’m proud of that.
As a naïve freshling, I certainly toyed with the idea of joining the Union. The illustrious halls, inspiring speakers, and the reputation which seems to precede this institution almost inspired me. But, in the end, I decided that I had better things to do with over £250. Looking back, and with the benefit of retrospect, I made the right decision.
Over my two-and-a-half terms at Oxford, the Union has had no less than three race-related scandals. Whether this is hosting a speaker who has attacked and gaslighted Jews, dragging a blind black man out of his seat in the chamber, or, most recently, having half of a slate resign when one of their members exploited George Floyd’s murder to get votes. Time and again, the Union has shown itself to be an institution deeply mired in racism.
I don’t hold all members of the Union responsible for this; it is often due to severe misjudgments of a minority of individual students in the leadership. And, to be fair to the Union, they often host interesting and inspiring speakers who one might otherwise never get the chance to hear from.
The actions of the Oxford Union inevitably reflect upon the University as a whole.
But it seems that despite being seemingly unaffiliated to the University, the actions of the Oxford Union inevitably reflect upon the University as a whole. While the two are not formally linked, when the Oxford Union has these racism problems, people conclude that this must represent the University. It is a fair assumption for an outsider to make that the University has the ability to change the Union despite the latter being a private and independent institution, itself worth millions of pounds due to the exorbitant membership fees.
Every single term, without fail, candidates for the Union’s hotly coveted elected positions promise to make a change. Standing on manifestos of access and outreach, they claim that in just eight weeks, they will be able to undo and revamp the Union’s deeply problematic two-hundred-year history of discrimination. And yet, at least from the position of an outsider, it seems as though nothing has changed. Why is it, after every racism saga involving the Union over the years, that these continue to occur?
Every term, plagues of prospective politicos desperately solicit everyone who they’ve ever bumped into in Magdalen Street Tesco, begging them to consider voting for their slate
Although I am sure that there are many students running for these positions who do actually care about making the Union a better place, it seems that many others are involved merely to advance their own future political careers. This means that every term, without fail, plagues of prospective politicos desperately solicit everyone who they’ve ever bumped into in Magdalen Street Tesco, begging them to consider voting for their slate (which inevitably has a name which sounds as if it’s snatched straight from a bright spark in the first episode of The Apprentice). While I do understand, especially in a term such as this one, messaging a few friends asking for their vote, it seems that the campaign for the right to sit on the fancy chairs at the front of the Union’s chamber has devolved into something so much more than it’s actually worth.
Fundamentally, it seems ridiculous that a bunch of people in their late teens and early twenties are able to manage and run a multi-million-pound association whose reputation defines that of the University as a whole. The consequences of this are the repeated and disgusting examples of racism and other forms of discrimination that seem to crop up multiple times per year. Looking at the likes of Oxfess, it is clear that disgust with the Union is widespread. And that’s why I’m proud to not be a member.
Image credits: Barker Evans