The Oxford Union has made the national press twice in recent weeks, both for unflattering reasons. First, there were allegations of computer hacking, sexism and blackmail in the termly elections, and, secondly, an incautious Twitter invitation to EDL leader Tommy Robinson sparked an angry backlash from students and the group Unite Against Fascism. For a society that has produced multiple 20th century prime ministers, and breeds Tory MPs like a Thatcherite rabbit, these are troubling times.
The Union describes itself as the “world’s most prestigious debating society”, and with its roster of past-speakers (which include Churchill, Einstein, Mother Theresa and Kermit the Frog) it’s hard to argue with that. But the speakers are really just there to sell memberships—which cost a prohibitive £229—while the Union serves a secondary, and more important, purpose: allowing future ministers and corporate bigwigs to play at politics.
The committee-based hierarchy of the Union is designed to replicate the circles of UK politics; secretary’s committee is the young backbenchers, while the officers represent the president’s trusted advisors. The bitter fighting over positions like librarian and treasurer must seem crazy to an outsider, but the reality of these roles means that what the scrapping is actually for is the opportunity to become closely involved with famous names and companies offering sponsorship. It’s the perfect training for years of getting suckered by lobbyists.