Meet Your Union: Lent 2019

Molly Bolding 14 January 2019
Image Credit: Molly Bolding

The Cambridge Union, in its unique position as the largest society at the University and the oldest free speech union in the world, straddles two of the greatest challenges facing the student body and the world at large today: how to create spaces that encourage, facilitate and protect open debate; and how to make such spaces accessible to the people who need their voices heard. To explore these ideas and more, I sat down with the people striving to mould their vision for the Union: President for Lent Term 2019 – Will Smart – and the Executive Officer, Rachel Tustin, and Speaker’s Officer, Cecily Bateman.

As a fourth year at Peterhouse College who was involved from the start, Will Smart is a veteran of Union roles: Events Management, Audio-Visual and Executive Officer (Easter 2018) roles amongst others. I asked what he saw as his responsibilities in office, and whether his experience as President-Elect had had any effect on his perception of these. In Will’s own words, “the boring answer is the president is responsible for everything that is going on [at the Union]” but his idea of ‘everything’ is far from boring: “putting on a series of events that interests our members – a diverse range of views…and types of people” and “co-ordinating the efforts of [the committees]” is an immense number of plates to keep spinning. He acknowledged “the excellent example…and work ethic” of the previous President Charles Connor and the Michaelmas 2018 team and noted the sheer “amount of work that needs to go in to ensure we create a good time for our members”. When discussing his new mantle of President, he reflected on the importance of his past experiences in informing his approach to the post.

“I got to see a lot of different aspects [of the Union] and see what was working well and what wasn’t, and I thought I could provide some experience to improve those areas…also I felt it was very important that we put on a series of debates and that we make the union a more central hub of student discussion and debate at the university…rather than merely a place where you come and watch some celebrity speakers and leave, without engaging in anything. I thought things seemed very promising and I wanted to ensure that we maintain that improved relevance in the university because of the way debate and the ways people engage with politics are changing at the moment. Fifty years ago, if you wanted to talk about politics in the university, you had to come to the Union because there was no other place to do it: now everybody goes online…it can be hard for us to maintain a relevance [to the student body] and I wanted to help ensure that we stay at the centre of university debate.”

Building on those ideas, Will also considered the reputation of the Union; one of the greatest social barriers that faces the committee when it comes to membership numbers and turn-out for events.
“I hope at least that its got a less stuffy image than it once did…obviously, any organisation like this has got history and tradition attached to its name that its never going to shake off – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing – but there’s been a lot of effort in the last few terms [to make change]. We’ve seen Union+ introduced to open up the society to everyone at those events, we’ve increased the roles of the women and diversity officers for example…I like to think that its becoming more of a diverse society and more of an open one and fits more people.” He also commented that they’ve “managed to decrease membership prices – it’s roughly the same as it was 10 years ago if you account for inflation.”

When he mentioned this, I prompted him a little on the topic of access and inclusion at the university. It was a fairly constant feature across student media last term and I was curious to see if the incoming president had considered any specific policy in tackling the inherent issues of which the Union has often been a symbol. Will pointed out that “it’s harder for Lent [term] when it comes to some of these things; if you’re talking about access you’re mainly talking about joining the union and most people do that at the start of the year – but there are difficulties with what we can do…in an ideal world we’d slash the membership price…but the most important thing is engaging with people who have joined and make everything as transparent as possible so people know how their money is being spent.”

One question that I felt was important to consider is where the Union sits as a locus of student politics in the context of the wider world. The President was clear on his view of the position it occupies – “it should be a politically neutral space” – because in his view it is a way of situating political disparity in the real world, rather than its usual, virtual manifestation. He drew on an example of this from a debate last term: ‘This House Believes The Left Is Losing Its Way’. “Two of the speakers, Eddie Marsden and Dr Aaron Bastani”, noted Will, “appear to absolutely hate each other according to Twitter, very viscerally, then they came here and actually they got on very well and they seemed to really make friends and it made the debate far more civil and informed and useful and informative than anything you’d have had on the internet.”

Looking back, the incoming President shared his favourite Union event from last term: “The presidential debate was particularly interesting – lots of people came, the chair was one of the most extraordinary speakers we’ve had…favourite though has to be the special relationship one…perfect showpiece for what the Union can do.” And with today’s release of the term card, his hope is that “our events will reflect [this capacity] and stay relevant to what is happening in the world.”

QUICK FIRE: PROP OR OPP? Key Debates from Michaelmas 2018

THB all Cambridge colleges should divest their corporate holdings and offshore funds immediately

  • PROP – “nuances immediately aside, I’m an environmentalist, I study climate change as part of my degree and I feel quite strongly that any steps should be taken to mitigate climate change and to get us off fossil fuels are the right thing to do”.

 

THB ‘platforming’ openly controversial speakers like Jordan Peterson invites protest

  • PROP – “I don’t think you can dispute that it does, but as long as the speakers are properly managed and properly challenged and everyone has the right to protest – we’d prefer you challenged them formally inside the chamber but protest is to be expected”.

 

THB we should cease to debate on Brexit

  • OPP – “I would have to be opposition on that, I can see the appeal – it is boring and dull and overworked – but also it is the most important political achievement in a decade. Since the leaving hasn’t been finalised yet, while the reasons are compelling for stopping debating Brexit, I think that would be a poor decision.”

 

Next I spoke to incoming Executive Officer Rachel Tustin, a second year HSPS student, who has a wealth of experience in competitive debate and who served as Women’s Officer from Lent to Easter last year. Her view on the term to come at the Union was optimistic, and she made it clear that she is hoping to build on the changes she began to put in motion in her previous role. “The Union is becoming more diverse and open and improving access is essential”, she stated, “having a genuine representation of women…[and] maintaining gender balance at debates is really important”. With the release of the new term card, Rachel seemed keen for the first of the debates, but also to see if the “broader picture of whether I have implemented my vision in terms of diversity, gender etc” was falling into place. Certainly, her work organising ‘Breaking the Silence’ panels in conjunction with WomCam and the international movement reflects her genuine passion for this issue, and she pointed out that meeting “the Time Person of the year before, one of the ‘silence breakers’, [Adama Iwu]” was a key part of her enjoyment of the role. Supporting these panels with talks on a new anonymous online reporting system for sexual assault – “it was interesting to talk about institutionalising responses to it, both in a university setting and in the wider sense” – and women’s debating workshops, Rachel made it clear that “you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile” in the role.

When I asked Rachel what made her want to run for the prestigious role of Executive Officer, she acknowledged her rather last minute timing in wanting to stand: “I wasn’t one of those people who spent the entirety of summer term planning on running – I didn’t have the agenda to run until maybe 3 weeks before it started, but then sort of gradually having conversations with people who were running, I came to the realisation that if I wanted to institutionalise the changes that I wanted to occur within the Union – where it was less dependent on the people that were elected and instead something that was ingrained within the constitution – I realised I would have to take on a role.” She reflected on the skills she picked up as a Executive Officer-Elect – “time management” and “being present” – and enthused about her new power as a standing committee member: “you have a vote and the capacity to make solid changes rather than just pushing against the grain”.

My final question was on the impact of student speakers in main debates at the Union. Reassuring me that the scheme is set to continue into the debates of Lent Term, Rachel also picked out Alex Murray’s performance in ‘This House Has No Confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’ as an example of “adding a very different voice to the speakers that were there at the time”, and noted the inclusive element of the scheme: “it should be something where even if you’re not a part of the community [being discussed] you’re able to participate and able to voice your opinion”.

Finally I sat down with the effervescent Cecily Bateman, a second year at King’s, whose enthusiasm for the Union is matched only by the sheer amount of time she has spent in a variety of different roles there: Deputy and then Head of Events Management; Debates, Speakers and Ball Committees; and Speaker’s Deputy, respectively. In her latest gambit as Speaker’s Officer, she took a moment to appreciate the bounds of the role.

“I think my most important responsibility is bringing in speakers that are going to challenge people’s perspectives – because we’re in Britain, even with our diverse student body, we have a general set of life experiences that will be very different to, say, an Iraqi Nobel Peace Prize winner who’s been campaigning against sexual assault, and it brings us these perspectives that we haven’t really thought about and really opens up our minds. I think that if I’ve gone through a term and I’ve made even one person either change their view on something because they’ve considered a new perspective or made someone even more confirmed in their view and be able to advocate for something even more, then I think my term has been a success.”

Thanks partly to her roles in Events Management but also to her boundless ardour for all things Union, Cecily has attended more events than most, but her favourite events, it seems, are those that no-one suspects: “particularly the events that get low turnout but they’re actually the most amazing events, absolutely fascinating. One of the things I’m thinking about as Speaker’s Officer is how we can publicise these more and make people interested in these events because people tend to dismiss them and not turn up, but if they did they’d have an absolutely incredible time.”

“Obviously everybody remembers the flashy events, like Sir Ian McKellan, like Scaramucci, and I think those events are interesting because they do bring somebody to you who has been like this magical figure in the public eye, but I also enjoy a lot of the smaller events – like the first transgender mayor: it was a world that I as a cis person couldn’t imagine, and it’s in another country, another continent…I found it so fascinating because it brought to me these issues that I hadn’t ever thought about before because of my life experience. Even though it was quite a small event, it really brought me something new in terms of knowledge, that sometimes those big flashy celebrity events can’t bring and I really appreciate those kinds of events.”

In much the same vein as the incoming Executive Officer, Cecily is keen to continue the promising work of the Michaelmas term in delivering a gender-balanced term card. “We need to institutionalise this practice”, she insisted, “it needs to be normal that we have diverse speakers from all around the world, that we have people of colour, that we have a gender balance, not something that people need to pledge on their manifestos.” In particular, she focused on the limiting effect that tokenistic ‘gender-balancing’ can have on the quality of debate: “I want to really institutionalise that so that we can move beyond that to more nuanced discussions, rather than ‘now we have to get x amount of women and y amount of people of colour’. I want that to be unsaid.”

Unsurprisingly, Cecily made the most of the opportunity of Speaker’s Officer-Elect and reflected on the lessons she has learned from her predecessor. “Mo [Khan] was just incredible and has been so helpful but I think…because you only have a certain amount of speakers you can invite, because of your budget, you’ve really got to focus on what you think the most valuable conversations are, what you think people want to hear and who do you think would be most beneficial to give this platform to. You send out loads of invites and get loads of rejections, which I guess is good practice for later in life I’m sure”, she joked, “but you really need to start thinking ‘who can I justify funding?’, ‘who can I give this platform to?’, ‘who is going to give our members the best experience?’. I think it just really makes you focus on what you want the Union to be, what you want people to get out of it, and in terms of diversity, it really made me expand my world view in terms of all these speakers that I hadn’t even heard of beforehand, who now I know will make an incredible event and I’m really glad it has opened my eyes in that way.”

A question I asked the incoming President felt equally relevant to the unique view of the Speaker’s Officer – did she feel that the reputation of the Union is changing?

“Oh god, I hope so” was the short answer. “The Union, even 10, 15 years ago, used to be seen as this ‘old boys club’ – people were having conversations that were exclusionary and not relevant and I think that’s something that this year I really want to continue to change. I want to make it that everybody feels that they are welcome because that enables everything we want to do – if we’re a free speech union, we need everybody to come here and have the conversations relevant to them that we haven’t thought about before. If we just have this narrow subset of people coming here, we’re not having interesting conversations, we’re not having wider conversations, and we’re not challenging people. I think I want all the speakers I invite to be invited with a purpose: because they’re valuable, not just because they’re controversial and will get turnout. I want to make sure that this is a platform that actually challenges people, and that can actually change people’s minds and make them think.”

Obviously, as she is the Speaker’s Officer, I had to ask Cecily about her dream speaker, and her answer was true commentary: “everybody says Obama – it’s kinda boring! Charles Connor said Obama. He’s a cool dude though. Personally I want to invite niche classicists, but I’d have to balance it to appeal to our members – maybe I’d go with Michelle Obama?”

In true Cecily fashion, she ended the interview with a note of self-awareness on the Union’s behalf: “I would just like to say, if anyone feels like the Union isn’t a place for them, I would encourage them to reach out to me, to one of our Diversity Access officers-elects, or to come along to a Union+ event – I would really value their feedback, I want to hear why they think this isn’t a place for them and how we can improve that. Come along, give it a try, I’ve made so many friends here and as Speakers Officer I want this to be a place for everyone.”


This term’s President, Executive and Speaker’s Officers seem bright-eyed, enthusiastic and optimistic – with the newly released term card, and Lent term’s inception just days away, only time will tell if they can deliver on all of their high hopes for the future of the Cambridge Union.