What is the Union?
From its small beginnings as a debating society, the Cambridge Union now has over 70,000 life members worldwide. Now the oldest debating society in the world, and the largest student society in Cambridge, the Union remains a unique forum for the free exchange of ideas and the art of public debate.
In the past the Society has hosted such great figures as Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and the current Dalai Lama, and it continues to provide Cambridge students with the opportunity to meet and question the people that shape our world, and has grown into the central forum for student discussion in Cambridge.
Our public debates and guest speakers continue to generate passionate student engagement, and our university and school debating competitions remain the largest and most prestigious in the country.
The Union has a host of famous former students, debaters and officers. From John Maynard Keynes and Ken Clarke MP to Arianna Huffington and Clare Balding, some of the great figures of our time had a crucial part of their Cambridge experience at the Union, and the society continues to produce many exceptionally successful professionals and politicians.
The Society Today
The Union has come a long way from its old fashioned origins as a private members’ club. With now over half the student population
of Cambridge holding life membership, the Society is now at the heart of the Cambridge experience. From social events and workshops, to debates and speaker events – the Union is a hub of student activity in a University with no centralised Student Union building.
We now host famous and interesting individuals from all over the world outside of our debates. These speakers range
from politicians to Olympians and from businesspeople to journalists. We host them for one purpose – so our members can meet them, question them, and challenge them on their views.
Recent guests have included Germaine Greer, the Rev Jesse Jackson, Robert Downey Jr, Vivienne Westwood, Buzz Aldrin, Russell Brand and Julian Assange, to name but a few.
An Educational Charity
Education is at the heart of the Union’s charitable activities. The Cambridge Schools’ Debating Competition, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016,
is the largest in the world with over 600 teams competing. Children between 15 and 18 across the country are coached by Cambridge students in public speaking, and many cite it as the main reason they gained enough con dence to apply to university. The Union also runs the International Competition for Young Debaters’, for those between 13 and 15, to encourage younger students to try debating.
The Union also provides free debating and Cambridge access workshops to local schools, and we also provide thrice-weekly workshops for all student members in Cambridge, at every level of ability, to train themselves in public speaking and learn how to competitively debate. It is this training that produced the top two debaters at the World University Debating Championships in 2015.
At University level, our International competitions are the most prestigious in the UK and some of the best-known in the world, with teams from Harvard to Malaysia attending, and our Women’s Competition helps to redress the gender disparity across competitive debating.
Guest Speakers and Public Debates
As a pre-eminent forum for free speech, the Cambridge Union has hosted a wide platform of speakers who shape the world we live in. We offer a space for members to engage with individuals from all walks of life, and both hear and challenge the views they present.
Whilst this list is certainly not exhaustive, The Cambridge Union - as the most famous debating society in the world - has hosted such individuals as:
Winston Churchill – Margaret Thatcher – John Major – The Dalai Lama – Ronald Reagan – Theodore Roosevelt – Ted Heath – Pervez Musharraf – Lord Michael Howard* – Colonel Muammar Gaddafi – Boris Johnson – Ken Livingstone – Vince Cable* – John Bercow – Julian Huppert – Dominique Strauss-Kahn – Nigel Farage – Rev. Jesse Jackson - Lord Norman Lamont* - Ken Clarke* - Jeremy Corbyn
* Former President(s) of the Cambridge Union
Dame Judi Dench – Vanessa Redgrave – John Malkovich – Sir Ian McKellen – Harrison Ford – Derek Jacobi – Bill Nighy – Roger Moore – Patrick Stewart – Clint Eastwood – Rupert Everett – Hugh Bonneville – Lisa Kudrow – Brian Blessed – Zoe Wanamaker – Michael Winner – Lily Cole – Tom Hollander - Dominic West - Alec Baldwin - Robert Downey Jr.
Omid Djalili – Dara O'Briain – Sue Perkins – Jo Brand – Stephen Fry – Al Murray – Bill Oddie – Tim Minchin – Armando Ianucci – David Blaine – Rob Brydon – Ulrika Jonsson – Russell Brand – Tim Vine – Reginald D. Hunter - Russell Kane - Simon Amstell - Ed Byrne
Journalism and Broadcasting
Jeremy Paxman – Michael Parkinson – Alan Johnston – Sir Trevor MacDonald – Jeremy Webb – Peter Hitchens – Jerry Springer – David Aaronovitch – Alan Rusbridger – Esther Rantzen – Alastair Cooke – Jill Abramsom - Jon Snow
Lord Sebastian Coe – Fabio Capello – James Haskell – David Moyes – Sir Jackie Stewart – Mark Cavendish – Max Mosley – Clarke Carlisle - Dwaine Chambers - Roy Hodgson
Music and Dance
Brian May – Steven Sondheim – Kissy Sell-Out – Dame Kiri Te Kanawa – Bruce Dickinson – Maestro Valery Gergiev – Diana Yukawa – Darcey Bussell – Frank Turner - Bonnie Tyler
Scientists and Academics
Rowan Williams – Richard Dawkins – Professor A.C. Grayling – Peter Singer – Professor Anthony Giddens – Germaine Greer – Professor Stephen Hawking – Sir Roger Penrose – Baroness Susan Greenfield – Tim Hunt – Professor Lord Robert Winston – Professor Alison Richard – Hermann Hauser – Ha Joon Chang - Buzz Aldrin
Lord Philips – Justice Antonin Scalia – Lady Justice Arden – Baroness Hale – Sir Brian Leveson
Charity and Activism
Dr Shirin Ebadi – Raheel Raza – Shami Chakrabati – Jesse Jackson – Moazzam Begg – Camila Batmanghelidjh – Ranulph Fiennes – Jimmy Wales - David Bull - Pussy Riot - Laura Bates
Salman Rushdie – Bill Bryson – Douglas Adams – Peter Hamilton – James Ellroy – Andy McNab – John Boyne – Neil Gaiman – Jeffrey Archer – Sir Quentin Blake – Peter Hamilton – Michael Frayn
Deborah Meaden – Terry Leahy – Willie Walsh – Lord Alan Sugar – Lord Sainsbury – Lord Levy – Tony Hayward - Theo Paphitis