'The Union has matured': A week in (student) politics via Julian Assange

Image credit: Sevenoaks School

“I would like to put this on record that I have not gone through puberty yet”. Somewhere in the distance I can just about make out the sounds of Azeem Ward’s flute recital downstairs in the Cambridge Union Society’s Chamber.

“Surprisingly good, actually”, was how the steward on duty described it to me on my way into the building to meet Oliver Mosley, Union President, and Charlotte Ivers, Union Treasurer. In the Chamber sat an audience comprising almost entirely men, whilst Vice President William Howard bustled past cheerily. “Hello there – would you like me to get them for you?” he offers, jovially.

In the meantime, I take up my spot on creaky and important looking chair left strategically nearby, and wait, rather confrontationally facing the door of the President’s Office. It’s been a very strange few weeks at the Union. The most remarkable termcard for (Cambridge) generations has been announced, the Freshers’ Fair has seen lots of smug-looking Union hacks in green hoodies dropping sly references to full sign-up sheets, and now the term has begun in earnest with – as per time-honoured tradition – a flute recital from a parody internet celebrity.

The flute-playing, beat-boxing, “surprisingly good” calm before the storm, it seems. Then came the announcement on Saturday that the Union would hold a referendum on whether or not to host Julian Assange as a speaker via video link, followed by the resignation of the Women’s Officer Helen Dallas, and then what has been described as “a shitstorm” over the following few days.

My first question, as we head up to the grandeur of the Union’s library and sit at one end of a rather stupidly long table, is “how are you?”. Both of them reply that they’re fine, but I can’t help but notice a certain deflated edge, and a moment in which Charlotte’s ankle buckles in her heels, and she looks at Oliver in a mildly helpless way and giggles.

They insist, though, that it’s all part and parcel of the job. “Journalists can ring Oliver and I up at three in the morning and bully us”, Charlotte says, “harass us down the phone, and we’re still fine with that because that’s the level of responsibility we’ve chosen to take up on this issue. That’s our job. That is not the job of anybody in the lower ranks of this institution.

“They did not sign up to do that and I think on the occasions where that has happened – whether that be The Tab or anywhere else – that is something that I find unacceptable and is a failure of both us to protect our team, and of those journalists who don’t due diligence in realising who they should and shouldn’t talk to.”

The issue of The Tab’s latest step “over the line”, as Mosley puts it, is a hot topic. “The reason we’re angry, if you want to use that word, is because the Tab has characterised this whole episode as a crisis, or as an emergency, or as a pernicious atmosphere that’s consumed the organisation.

“It’s unfair, ridiculous, and over the top, and frankly insulting to say when the Union has matured to such an extent that it took six hours for us to decide [to host a referendum on hosting Assange], rather than just going ‘oh, controversial speaker, oh we host those, let’s go’. I think it’s insulting to suggest that that’s somehow a crisis, or that’s somehow an emergency.

“I was in that room and so was Charlotte, and I think we both feel that was a discussion that was difficult but that was conducted incredibly professionally, and took long because there were a lot of things to go through, and we examined everything, because we didn’t want to make this event damaging to people within the Cambridge community, to people around the world.”

Part of what’s been tricky about this is that they’ve been fired at from all sides – from student press, from ultra-free-speechers, and from the radical feminist lobby in Cambridge. “We’re a free speech society”, Charlotte says, unashamedly. “Like, the easy option and I think the option that is the kind of knee-jerk free-speech reaction is just to say ‘platform for Assange, platform for everyone’.

“We are about to have a public debate in which any of members can attend, and can express a view – exercise their free speech. We’re about to have a referendum in which any of our members can vote, and in doing so express their free speech. We’re about to have a conversation in the media, we’re about to have a conversation throughout Cambridge about this, about the platform of the man, about the importance of his voice, and about exactly what is at stake here.”

Oliver nods, encouragingly. “To a lot of people who say that this is just a standard no-platform issue that the Union’s tried to chicken out of, it’s not a standard no-platform issue.”

“If it was, the discussions wouldn’t have taken six hours. He is one of only a few people across the world who are in this unique situation, and as a result I think it’s fair to say that the elected officers are not in a position to make such a significant decision on hosting him because we have no past precedent to work off.”

Charlotte jumps back in. “We’re not having a referendum because standing committee couldn’t come to a decision, or anything like that. The decision to hold this referendum was unanimous among standing committee after six hours of conversations.”

With a slightly apologetic look and a feeling of mild awkwardness, I plunge straight into the main issue. “What do you say to the accusations that the Union is an unwelcoming clique – that the culture of toxic internal politics is pernicious and unworkable?”

“At the end of the day we are students”, says Charlotte. “Someone will get upset with someone, someone will date someone and it will fall apart. Such is life. But I completely disagree with the idea that there is a toxic atmosphere or anything.”

With reference to the now-mythical ‘six-hour meeting’ – which was actually spread over several days – Charlotte adds that “obviously there were different opinions that were expressed, and everybody came out of that room and remains friends. Everybody came out of that room and is still working with each other. The one person who resigned from that room – James Riseley – remains one of my closest friends.

“Frankly, if the atmosphere in that room had been all jolly and happy then we’re completely unqualified to do our jobs, because we’re completely aware of the seriousness of what we’re doing.”

The responsibility they take on is impressive. The building itself requires extensive upkeep, before even coming to the employed staff, the practicalities of handling such a large membership, and the technicalities of running events with significant national and international figures.

Oliver agrees. “It’s an incredibly difficult job to have I think, sometimes, and I don’t think it’s me being arrogant to say it’s a big and difficult job to have, because it is.”

“I think this week has revealed that Presidents are also under a lot of pressure from student media, some of whom just want the headline, they want the story, they want to show that something’s going wrong, when in fact a lot of things have gone right, and in fact this episode shows that a lot of things have gone right and some things went wrong.

“I don’t think it will damage our reputation in the long term. If anything, I think it just proves that you may think you’re doing something good, and the minor things you think you’ve done wrong will be highlighted, and that’s a shame, but it’s not all ‘woe is us’. We’ve done a lot of good things this week, and we’ve come out of it a lot stronger, I think, as a team.”

For Charlotte, though, the biggest challenges are yet to come. “We are taking that choice to people, and we’re going to stimulate a debate, and I think that’s actually some free speech we can be really quite proud of here.”

With a debate that is bound to ricochet around student newspapers, societies, activists’ groups, and the hall tables of every college for the rest of the term, the Union will have to make sure it can balance a strong termcard with a potentially damaging referendum and speakers’ event, should the motion pass.

Whatever else you can see, within the first week of term, the Union has ignited a conversation that people won’t stop talking about. And as Charlotte says: “that looks a lot like free speech to me.”

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