Interview with James Vitali: The Union President

Scarlet Rowe 25 January 2022
Image Credit: The Cambridge Union

I interviewed James Vitali, this term’s Union President, in the society’s debate chamber. James originally came to Cambridge for just one year to study for an MPhil but has ended up securing funding to stay for a PhD in Politics, for which he is in his final year. We discuss the society’s plans for the term ahead and his own views on the topic of free speech.

I begin the interview by asking James some general questions about his life at the University. James’s ’favourite things about Cambridge are playing cricket (he is in the Blues team) and, unsurprisingly, the Union. He also enjoys supervising undergraduates in politics and has (modestly) found that most of his students are “far more intelligent at eighteen” than he was.

Next, we go back to where it all started. I want to know what James ‘initial impressions of the Union were. James says that, like many new members, his first event was a debate, and his overriding feelings were of “fear and awe”. He remarks that he retains the same sense of admiration for the chamber as when he first arrived but that any uneasiness or trepidation has dissipated as he has got used to speaking during debates.

“Debates encapsulate perfectly what we are all about at the Union: polite disagreement, dialogue, engagement, free speech”

These initial impressions clearly had a lasting effect on James, and it is obvious that the Union’s debates are the events that matter the most to him. “Debates encapsulate perfectly what we are all about at the Union: polite disagreement, dialogue, engagement, free speech”, he says. “They will therefore be at the core of what we do this term”.

They won’t be recorded so members don’t have to worry about fluffing up their words and the focus will be on creating engaging, dialogical debate.

James notes that this Lent is likely to be more “political” and more “member-centred” than previous terms. In particular, ‘Open Debates’ are being introduced in response to concerns about the quality of debates and a lack of member participation. James says these events “will be members-only and a lot more close and intimate. They won’t be recorded so members don’t have to worry about fluffing up their words and the focus will be on creating engaging, dialogical debate.”

James also drew attention to the work being done to promote and teach the skills of debate to a wider audience. He notes his manifesto commitment to bring school children back to the chamber, and highlights the charitable work being done by the competitive debating officers with organisations like Forward Assist. There are no initiatives “more in keeping with the spirit of this society”, he wrote to Union members last week.

Debates are of course what make the Union so unique, but they have also drawn controversy. I ask James about his views on the fine line between rights to freedom of speech and discriminatory, offensive use of language both at the Union. He begins by saying that this is a “vitally important and complicated question”.

He says that “as Presidents, we have to balance the competing demands of facilitating free speech – that is our society’s very purpose – and making the Union a space where everyone and anyone feels comfortable. I think my response to this question ties into what I have been saying recently about the debate format itself.”

He continues, “the debates are not designed for me as President. It is why I am neutral in the chair and why I don’t vote at the end of proceedings. They are for the membership! My job is to make sure the rules and convention of debate are observed and to facilitate the right of every single member to participate if they would like to. I will be doing everything I can this term to make members feel comfortable and confident doing exactly that.”

James claims he “will not let guest speakers go unchallenged” and that he will “take more interventions and floor speeches than any other term in the recent past”. He says he “sincerely believe[s] that standing up to say something in the chamber is one of the most significant things you can do as a member of the society.

He adds, “I should say, though, that often it takes a great deal of restraint for me to not comment or interrupt when I hear something I disagree with. But it would completely undermine what we are trying to do at the Union if attendees thought I was biased in one way or another on a given motion.

“the great shame in all of this is that the story has become ‘Keir Bradwell fails to cut off Andrew Graham Dixon […]”

My next question for James is whether he would have stopped Andrew Graham-Dixon mid-speech in last term’s good taste debate that garnered national attention. He responds that “the great shame in all of this is that the story has become ‘Keir Bradwell fails to cut off Andrew Graham Dixon’, when the story should have been about the brave woman who stood up after Andrew had finished his speech and chastised him for its tone-deafness. That is hugely sad, because what she did is exactly what we are trying to promote at the Union.”

“would not have intervened as the chair that night […]”

James asserts he “would not have intervened as the chair that night, because that is not the responsibility of the chair, and it never has been. A member should and could have intervened at any time though, because guests should be challenged and contested, and I would have been immensely glad to have facilitated that.”

He says that he “fully recognise[s] that it is unreasonable to expect people new to our society to know how all of this works straight away, but I will work really hard to introduce and familiarise everyone to the format this term. To someone unacquainted with the Union, it probably looks like the chair is not taking responsibility when they do not intervene.”

However, James says that “that is not what is going on at all. The chair is probably straining to not say something, but if they understand what their job is, they will refrain and will encourage attendees to do so instead.”

The Union term card for Lent was released last week and James hopes to welcome as many faces, both old and new, as possible. After talking with James, I am very excited for the events to come this term. To keep on top of all of the speaking and social events at the Union this term, follow their social media pages which are: @cambridgeunion on Instagram and Twitter and @The Cambridge Union on Facebook.