The Union's president resigned last month following allegations of election riggingExecElect / Wikimedia Commons

“Cambridge Union president quits after vote-rigging allegation” read the headlines of The Times, Sri Lanka Weekly, and Eastern Eye, to name but a few. Reaching into newspapers far from a small town in East Anglia, the Cambridge Union is certainly more than a student society. The Union’s reach, conduct, and press attention says something particular about Cambridge, a place that appears to be both a playground and a court. But is the Union simply a byproduct of the institution to which it is (loosely) attached, or is it an arena for something more – and at what cost?

“I don’t think the Union is any more important than any other institution in Cambridge,” Lara Brown, the Union’s president in Michaelmas, tells me. Fundamentally, nothing separates this student society from any other, whether a feminist society, a JCR, or even Varsity, she believes. Her Lent-term successor, Chris George, agrees: “The Union reflects, probably, most other societies,” from Cambridge’s political associations to its sports clubs. The main difference, he says, is the magnified scale: “Imagine a student society, but with a hell of a lot going on,” he explains, drawing attention to the size of the its committees, budgets, and events.

Such scale allows the Union to establish an “oasis for debate”, says Brown, recalling that her decision to join was motivated in response to a UCU-proposed motion, which she believes attempted to “curb free speech”. Chris George too ran his presidency on free speech, telling me that the Union is at its best when using its profile to host speakers and debates which “challenge the status quo”.

The Union’s attachment to free speech can be dangerous, though, believes trans-rights activist Christoffer Andersen, who has served as trans and non-binary rep for the SU. This “oasis” can allow the Union to “merely provide sensational, controversial speakers for the sake of it without providing adequate weight to platforming an opposition who can, with nuance and lived experience, speak on the subject at hand,” Andersen tells me.

“There’s something so intoxicating about exclusivity that I think really plays out in Cambridge”

Alice (not her real name), a former member of the Union’s Standing Committee, has experienced the Union’s wide reach first-hand however, following the vociferous press response to her condemnation of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Hitler impression in the chamber in 2021. The Union is an “inflammatory place,” she tells me, in which the binary framing of debates “homogenises” discussion and “strips away the nuance of things”. Having become involved in the Union as a fresher during the lockdown years, when the society was largely online, Alice stepped away when she found the environment to be “intoxicating”. “I was consumed by the idea of running for president,” she recalls.

Much that is criticised about the Union is a symptom of the Cambridge environment, believes Alice, inevitable given the University’s history and profile. “It says so much that we have things like drinking socs, the Pitt Club,” she explains. These “ready-made” spaces “speak to the elitist, exclusive history of Cambridge,” she continues, and serve as destinations for those from upper-class educational backgrounds: “There’s something so intoxicating about exclusivity that I think really plays out in Cambridge.”

Alex Horan, one of the Union’s two welfare officers between Easter term 2022 and Lent term 2023, believes that neither the Union, nor the University, are “separable from privilege”. But, “that doesn’t make it a bad thing that we need to write off completely. All it means is we need to reassess how we look at and interact with the Union and those in it,” Horan believes.

Chris George too sees the Union as a reflection of its ecosystem. “People who work in the Union are ambitious,” he concedes, “but I think a lot of people at Cambridge are ambitious generally. I don’t think ambition is a bad thing.” Incoming SU President Fergus Kirman, however, sees ambition in the Union as being motivated by its particular “prestige and wattage”. The downside to the Union, as Kirman sees it, is when “people lose sight of the forest and become over-engaged in this one engaging, but still only one, part of their time here.”

“If I tried to run for Union election, it would just kill my mental health”

Political ambition is inherent to the Union, believes Lauren Tucker, who has served as a welfare officer for the past academic year. Political ambition and a desire to contribute to the Union are “one and the same”, she explains: students running for positions “have to be politically minded and motivated and ready to go through all of this”. Tucker chose her role in part because it blocked her from running for a different one the following term: she recalls deciding “that if I tried to run for Union election, it would just kill my mental health.”


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Regarding the Union’s current situation, Lara Brown believes that this too can be seen in Cambridge’s wider political context: “I don’t think there’s any more risk of rigging in the Union than in any other society,” she states. Christian Owen, the Union’s current events management head and six-time member of Full Committee, similarly asserts that recent events reveal “the factional nature of student politics at Cambridge in general, rather than necessarily pointing at a specific problem with the Union”.

While Chris George asserts that the Union is simply “viewed as a political place”, this can feel all too real for those submerged within it. Though the comparison with Westminster was rebutted by some I spoke to, Alice feels that this comparison rings true: “Ten trillion per cent – it’s essentially practising these bigger dynamics of the Commons.” Alice recalls an environment “obsessed” with Max Weber and the “immorality of politics”, one that she sees as synonymous with national governance: “It says so much that I couldn’t watch the [Tory] leadership elections without thinking of my time at the Union.”

“People like playing Westminster dress-up, so it is kind of like the Tory leadership contest, or worse sometimes,” agrees Sammy McDonald, a debates candidate in the postponed Easter elections. “Politics doesn’t work like that,” McDonald stresses, and Fergus Kirman tells me the “low-stakes” environment of the Union is in reality one that has little “positive concrete impact”. It is precisely this low-stakes arena that allows people to get caught up in a “cosplay of Westminster” – “That’s my least favourite side of the Union,” says Lauren Tucker. Lara Brown too admits that “people who want to go into politics are probably attracted to the Union.”

“People like playing Westminster dress-up”

The Union’s attitude to sensitive topics too renders it a microcosm of the wider political climate, Christoffer Andersen tells me. The Union “essentially mirrors the hostile and deeply violent societal circumstances around us with grave impact for some of us,” they explain.

If the Union is to become “a place [...] of lively political discussion”, which “brings together intelligent, lively, wonderful people”, it must resolve the conflict between the personal and the political, says McDonald. The Union can suffer from a lack of “delineation between personal friendships [or] rivalries and [the] political,” but a cultural shift can be achieved, he believes. This will only come if the Union stops being viewed as a potential “LinkedIn post”, but welcomes “people who are genuinely interested, genuinely passionate about making a change”. Drawing on her own experience, Alex Horan says that the Union “has been frustrating, hurtful, and downright depressing at times, but it has also made me a better person for it,” she insists.

“We must ask ourselves, how can we foster debates that actually represent the population, provide multifaceted nuances and prevent harm to widen our knowledge about the world we live in?” according to Christoffer Andersen. Applying this to the Union’s inner workings as well as its events, there seems to be an anxiety, for some, about the Union’s current balance between the personal and the political, between debate and sensitivity.