Sunday, October 25, 2009

Day 18: The Oxford Union

I attended the coolest thing I've participated in thus far in Oxford on Thursday evening: the Oxford Union.

Although expensive (apx. $300 later), this organization seems well worth it. It shames any other club or organization I've seen in parliamentary procedure, pre-planning and marketing of activities, and in the wit and intelligence of student participants.

The Oxford Union was sold to me as the breeding ground of future MPs (Members of Parliament). After Thursday night, I can see why. I attended the weekly pre and main debates for this organization. I walked in at 7:45 p.m. and found a seat in the beautifully-apportioned Union debating hall (adjoining the similarly beautiful building containing the library, bar, and basement club). The meeting was called to order by a tall, thin young man who may have barely squeaked out of his teens in full tuxedo. The issue for the pre-debate was announced: "This House believes that continuing to prosecute the MP expense scandal is doing this country more harm than good," after which debates in "favor of" and "in opposition to" the proposition, one after the other. Extemporaneous speeches were then made by "the honorable member from Madeleine, Waldham, or Christchurch college" or "the honorable member in the back" if the college was not known. Student debaters would then walk to the front, standing on the appropriate (pro or con to the issue) side of the debating table and provide his Union card to the furiously scribbling secretary (in full tuxedo) so that his name (for there was only one girl who debated all night) in the oversized, leather-bound book in which the proceedings were being recorded. The two minute speeches were made with passion, articulation, wit, and, often, punctuated by various eager "honorable members" standing to make a "point of information" or "point of order" to which the speaker would or would not yield. Each debater was in either full tux or, at least, a sport coat if not full suit. The regulars seemed to know each other. Not one speaker could have been above 21 (the graduation age of undergrads).

After the speeches for and against the proposition, a voice vote was called, and the result again recorded in the large notebook. All the while, members were starting to fill the hall and gallery in preparation for the main show, which started at 8:30 p.m.

If this was only the student level, I wanted to see the main thing, and thus stayed glued to my seat as older students, dons, and what looked like important people filed in wearing full black-tie (or, as the case with the Union president, white tie and tails) dress. The meeting was similarly formally called to order, after which each of the officers, secretary, librarian, and treasurer, gave short speeches containing business announcements regarding upcoming events, new library books, and joining of committees which were all wittily presented and concise, all in their formal attire (two women this time - the secretary and the librarian).

Then the debate began, with an undergraduate student from the "standing committee" taking the floor. He was, other than the crass humor (which seemed all very acceptable to the Brits), very well spoken in introducing his fellow debaters and the main motion for the night, "This House trusts politicians more than journalists." He was opposed by the Union ex-President, a don from Regent's Park. Speeches for and against the motion were then made in succession by a student European debating finalist, a BBC reporter, MP, newspaper editor, "The Honorable Lord Falconer of Thoroton QC (Queen's Counsel)," and "Major John Wick" with a short interlude for student extemporaneous speeches.

Upon exiting, I "voted with my feet" by exiting out of the "Aye" door.

If this is what I can expect from the Union, I am tickled by my decision to join and look forward to hearing presidents from different nations (many U.S. presidents have spoken here), participating in a debate over the UK's constitution, and using their well-endowed library.

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