It wouldn’t be controversial to say that The Cambridge Union Society – the oldest continuously running debating and free-speech society in the world – means different things to different people. For many, it doesn’t factor into a typical Cambridge week. Others seem to do little else but rave about it. Some see it as a source of friendship and socialisation; others, as an antiquated institution with a reputation for cliquishness and self-indulgent hackery. Charles Connor, a King’s master’s student, is acutely aware of this, having worked his way up from stewarding as a fresher to being elected Union President for Michaelmas 2018. He is following in the footsteps of Clare Balding, John Maynard Keynes, and a string of notable Cabinet ministers, and has been a familiar face at the Union for the past three years. He seems to enjoy nothing more than discussing Cambridge’s most august society. I asked when his ambition to be President first arose.
“I came out from school and – I wouldn’t say I was overly hacky – but I was very much set on following a default route, which might get me to being President in the end… But then at the end of first year I looked around and realised that there are loads of other great things to do in Cambridge. I stayed involved in an elected capacity on Standing Committee, but I had it in my head that I wouldn’t go any further… But then I got my master’s offer, and I saw that the Union is going into really exciting new territory with the building re-development going through, and I thought ‘I’m probably the most experienced person here. I know what it takes to create a good speakers and debates line-up… why not go for it?’”
Charles is keen to point out how much the Union’s reputation has evolved. A key factor has been the introduction of the Union+ scheme by Maria Epishkina, his predecessor, whereby certain events have been opened up to all rather than just paid-up members. “It’s something that I’m absolutely committed to pushing forward, because the Union is supposed to be the centre of debate in Cambridge… so, for example, the ‘town vs gown’ access panel was really excellent for getting people into the building. Because there’s a lot of mystery, and a lot of misconceptions about the Union.” He says he will “literally talk to anyone about the Union and try and put forward the experiences that I’ve had, which are uniformly positive… I think that people are aware that it’s not really an old boys’ club anymore. It was maybe ten or fifteen years ago, but it’s definitely moved away from that. Just look at the diversity of the people on Committee, at the diversity of people we bring in, at the range of events we put forward: shoehorning it as a private members’ club doesn’t really fit any more. But we definitely need to talk to people more, because we’re a bit isolated behind the Round Church. So, if people don’t see us, and only hear about us, sometimes there can be misconceptions.”
With this in mind, I wonder if there is anything specific he is hoping to achieve in order build on recent improvements to access and image, and he proceeds to outline his hopes at great length. These include holding the first ever Union+ Presidential debate, traditionally the final debate of term where the outgoing President joins a team on a topic of his or her choice. He reveals that the subject for his debate will be the controversial issue of Grammar schools. Furthermore, “at the start of every debate we’re also going to have ten local school kids there, who’ll be given the debating work-shop. It’s all part of the demystification process so that people encounter us and talk to us.” Another issue that he raises is the membership cost, currently set at £150 for life membership. “I wish I could lower it further – it’s frozen at the lowest level it’s been since 2012… and realistically it should be, if we’re going on inflation, at something like £170. Access membership is currently at £100. Our life membership is £18 cheaper than Oxford’s access membership, and also 79% lower than their annual membership. We have a long-term strategy to reduce prices, and the plan is to reduce them to below £100 in the next three or four years because of the building re-development, which will massively boost our commercial income… Sadly, you can’t just cut budgets over night, I wish we could.”
Our conversation is broad-ranging – from October’s Freshers’ Masquerade Ball, to the newly established Hawking Fellowship in the memory of the distinguished Cambridge Professor, to Charles’ dream speaker (“Obama, hands down”).
I raise the timely issue of free speech on university campuses. “Let’s make this absolutely clear: the Union doesn’t no-platform people. One of our key functions is to promote free debate and free speech, and there are other places where ‘safe spaces’ are appropriate in different contexts. We’re probably not that place.” He points out that this doesn’t mean that any speaker will be welcome, as basic safeguarding would, for example, prevent a figure accused of sexual misconduct from being invited, in order to protect members and the Committee. Equally, he stresses that the manner in which speakers appear needs to be considered. “I’ll use an example that I think is very important – the case of Tommy Robinson at the Oxford Union. If we were running an event like that – and we’d have to think very, very hard about doing so – we would not have him standing up for an hour – which is what he did – with no challenge, and lecturing our members… we’re not about that; we’re about people getting involved with the debates. So, if we had a controversial speaker, I would much rather have them speaking in a debate format and putting forward views on a particular subject, and in our rules people can stand up and say: ‘I don’t agree with that’”.
Finally, in the light of the LGBT and pro-European protests that greeted Jacob Rees-Mogg last Lent, Charles is unwilling to say what the hypothetical limit would be to protests surrounding a speaker. “All I can say is that people can protest, and it’s my job to deal logistically with whatever protest comes up… it’s their right to do so, we just need to make sure our speakers and our members are safe.”
If there’s one thing I came away with, it was Charles’ sheer enthusiasm for every aspect of the Union, which seems unlikely to abate even as he fulfils one of the most time-consuming roles a student can undertake.