Bicentenary debate: A “nightmarish, ten-hour long version of Newsnight”

Anna Carruthers 8 February 2015

The Cambridge Union Society’s first 200-year anniversary celebration event, the Bicentenary debate, was full of tradition last night but also looked to highlight the progress that the society has made, especially in regards to women.

The motion 'This House Isn't What it Used to Be' was debated by distinguished Union alumni in front of 250 ex-presidents and officers, in a generally light-hearted and sentimental manner.

The debate was also open to current students but the gallery in which they were invited to sit was not full to capacity. This may be due in part to publicity which stated that seating priority would be given to those in black tie. Black tie was required in order for a photograph replicating the 150th anniversary in 1965 to be taken.

Appearing to anticipate student discontentment with such arrangements, the Cambridge Union stated in an email to members: “This event is the first of four Bicentenary events this year, and is the only one geared primarily towards former Union officers and non-resident life members around the world.”

Speaking for the proposition, Lord Michael Howard, former leader of the Conservative Party, looked to place the debate in the context of other notable anniversary celebrations this year before proudly declaring that they “pale into significance” when compared to the Cambridge Union. This, along with numerous other statements through the course of the debate, was met with loud cheers from the assembled audience, which was predominantly male. 

Declaring himself the “commoner of the opposition”, barrister Gareth Weetman compared the debate to a “nightmarish, ten hour long version of Newsnight” before arguing that the Union was a bastion of calm and open debate which cannot be found in institutions such as the House of Commons.

There was disagreement between the two female debaters, Baroness Ann Mallalieu and Baroness Hayman, who were also the first two female president of the Union. Whereas Mallalieu felt that time had led the Union to become “more puritan… less tolerant, more conventional”, Hayman argued that it was in fact “politer, kinder and more egalitarian”.

On the topic of female admittance, Francesca Hill (President Easter 2011) challenged Ken Clarke on his opposition to the idea in 1963. In reply, Clarke argued that it was under his presidency that the motion was put on the table and that his opposition stemmed solely from the involvement of CUSU, who he believed were attempting to bring down the Union.

Germaine Greer’s recent controversial appearance at the Union was used by Lord Turner, in opposition, to argue that the society certainly has changed, pointing to the fact that she was previously hailed as a leading feminist. He stated that she “used to be a feminist but has now turned into a batty, old woman”.

When asked whether he believed certain topics should not be debated in arenas such as the Cambridge Union, Lord Michael Howard told The Cambridge Student: “We have laws which prohibit racial hatred and that sort of thing, and so those laws have to be observed. But anything that is not prohibited by law I think should be allowed.”

Sir Peter Bazalgette was also asked to comment on the issue: “There’s nothing I think shouldn’t be debated… the parallel would be what happened in Paris recently. We would defend the right of those people who published Charlie Hebdo to publish what they did. We’d actually rather they didn’t, many of us, because it was juvenile and offensive but we defend their right to do it. So there are many motions which could be extremely offensive. I defend anybody’s right to debate them but if they were genuinely offensive I’d prefer they didn’t.”

Speaking on gender inequality in public speaking, Baroness Ann Mallalieu told TCS: “I think it does still happen a lot and I think it happens socially. If you have a gathering of men and women you get the men talking very loudly across the women, almost as if they’re trying to display their feathers.

“It certainly helps I think, having times when there are just women. I think they talk much more on the level and there’s not so much of the posturing and positioning that goes on. Women are easier to work with.

When asked whether the Union could do more to encourage women, Baroness Mallalieu stated: “I was disappointed but perhaps tonight wasn’t a typical group of people there. I hope that when it’s a largely undergraduate audience that there are more women than there were tonight because there was still the same imbalance. When I was here there were only six or seven women who ever spoke. They just didn’t get up. They’d go and listen to the debates but not in huge numbers but they simply didn’t play a part. I hope they do now.”

The final result of the debate saw the Noes take a victory.