Cambridge Union Lent term card promises controversy

Joanna Taylor 12 January 2017

The Cambridge Union Society has released its term card of speakers, debates, and events for Lent 2017. 

At first glance, this term’s bookings seem to be a repeat of Michaelmas: some interesting motions for debate but few big names, the exception last term being Reggie Yates, and this term being Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. 

Flicking through the speakers, few are of major celebrity status (and one is a Made in Chelsea star): there is no Ian McKellen or Robert Downey Jr of recent years. But, for what the term card lacks in A-listers, it more than makes up for in influential political figures and journalists — and, on closer reading, Union members are in for a far greater treat than Michaelmas. 

From the motions chosen and speakers booked, it’s clear that the Union’s aim is to go bold and accommodate as widely as possible for students' interests and political beliefs. As President Katherine Dunbar puts it, “there should be something in it for everyone” and indeed, we’ll see Peter Hitchens debate in the same room as Ben Chacko — editor of Britain’s only national Communist paper — on the same side

Motion-wise, the weekly debates are also bold, to-the-point, and get straight to the heart of a range of relevant issues, from the end of the American hegemony, to regretting the Brexit result, to Islam being compatible with Western liberalism. There’s no clever wording or niche topics, meaning members will be able to spot quickly the debates they feel passionate about. 

The Union will also continue to make good of its promise to defend free debate and avoid becoming an echo chamber for any particular political alignment. Whilst on one hand we’ll see an all-female comedy debate, co-leader of the Green Party Jonathan Bartley and Labour upstart Owen Smith, on the other we'll hear the opinions of Neil Wallis, former editor of The News of the World, Diane Smith, briefly leader-elect of Ukip, and Sir Edward Leigh, who served as Secretary of State under John Major. 

Whilst last term we heard much about the Israel-Palestine conflict, this term there seems to be an American/Iraq theme. As well as David Petraeus’s speech event in late February, speaking in the first debate is Lord Richard Dannatt who oversaw operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and John Lehman, a Gonville and Caius alum who served as the US’ Secretary of the Navy. 

A particular highlight is ‘This House would Liberalise Prostitution’ as, although again it is not an unheard of motion, we’ll hear the conflicting opinions of two sex workers and one former sex-worker, alongside those of the Bishop of Colchester, promising a fiery and engaging debate. The jewel in the crown this term is, however, ‘This House believes Westminster is Dead’ in which Jon Snow and Nick Robinson are set to go head to head. 

As mentioned, the major speaker highlights are the Doctor Who and Sherlock co-creators, and David Petraeus, former director of the CIA and leader of the 2007 US military campaign in Iraq. Keep an eye out also for Janice Charette, Canadian High Commissioner, Brian Cox (not the one you’re thinking of), and Simon Gillespie, CEO of the British Heart Foundation. 

There are also some exciting events which are not to be skipped over: following the success of last year’s cinema trip to Spotlight, there’ll be a film screening of Bitter Harvest and a Q&A with its producer, a sake tasting and talk, Superbowl Party, and the somewhat pretentiously-themed ‘Bacchanalia’ Spring Ball. 

Anna Bockmuehl, the Union’s Speakers Officer commented on the term card’s release that a “breadth of perspective is exactly what the Union aims to help provide” and it is a promise which has been delivered, with the speakers and motions alike each being clearly relevant to the biggest political issues of today. Union members who were disappointed last term will welcome this new line-up —and may find themselves spending more time at the chamber in Lent.