The Union is the world's most prestigious debating society, with an unparalleled reputation for bringing international guests and speakers to Oxford. It has been established for 182 years, aiming to promote debate and discussion not just in Oxford University, but across the globe.
The Union is steeped in history. It was founded in 1823 as a forum for discussion and debate, at a time when the free exchange of ideas was a notion foreign to the restrictive University authorities. It soon became the only place for students to discuss political topics whilst at Oxford. W.E. Gladstone, later to become one of the greatest British Prime Ministers, was one of the leading figures of the Union's early years. Gladstone was President of the Union in 1830, shortly before entering the House of Commons. Many others have followed him into politics, and the Union can boast dozens of former members who have been active in its affairs whilst at Oxford and then gone to become both nationally and internationally prominent figures.
Unlike other student unions, the Oxford Union holds no political views. Instead, the Union is a forum for debate and the discussion of controversial issues. For example; in the 1960s, Malcolm X came to the Union and demanded black empowerment "by any means necessary". In the 1970s, Richard Nixon in his first public speech after Watergate admitted, "I screwed up - and I paid the price". In 1996, O. J. Simpson made his only public speech in Britain after the controversial "not guilty" verdict in his criminal trial. The Oxford Union believes first and foremost in freedom of speech: nothing more, nothing less.
The Oxford Union has been at the centre of controversial debate throughout its history. As the most prominent debating platform outside Westminster it is no surprise debates have been unrivalled in their quality and impact. One of the most famous motions, "This House will under no circumstances fight for King and Country", was passed in 1933 by 275 votes to 153. The result sparked off a national outcry in the press, and Winston Churchill denounced it as "that abject, squalid, shameless avowal" and "this ever shameful motion"; some say that the result encouraged Hitler in his decision to invade Europe.
In 1975, days before the referendum on EEC membership, the motion "This House would say 'Yes' to Europe" was carried by 493 votes to 92. This debate was arguably a considerable influence on the referendum result.
The Union has managed to absorb the greatest diversity, the wildest firebrands, the most outspoken and non-conformist people. Diversity and outspokeness, central to the Union's foundation, remain its guiding principles to this day.