With the release of its (extremely) exciting Easter 2021 Term Card just this evening, The Cambridge Union is back for a brand new term. And the good news is that it is bigger, better and more diverse than ever before!
I’ve also had the honour of chatting to none other than this term’s lovely President Joel Rosen and some members of his team, who were up bright and early this morning in the Union (with coffee in hand), ready to answer the pressing questions of TCS and others. Over the past few months, a team of about 20 students have been working day and night to secure the best possible line up of speakers this term. “Definitely hundreds of hours have gone into it,” Joel tells me, but despite difficult and unpredictable circumstances, “people have thrown themselves into the Union.” Joel is, of course, “incredibly grateful” to his hard-working team for their dedication and resilience.
Just one cursory glance over the Term Card reveals speakers as varied as Theresa May, Lord Norman Lamont, Jamie Raskin, AJ Tracey and Megan Barton-Hanson (if you’re a Love Island fan like me, then this is particularly exciting!). Though I do love a good political debate, sometimes (and especially after a long day attempting and potentially failing to work,) I’m not exactly in the mood for one. What is great is that the Union- made up of students just like you and me- know this. Consequently, they have created a range of events for people with different interests, which means that you have no excuse to not show up to at least one!
In more practical new: events will be online until at least the 17th May this year, while after this, the Union hopes to open its doors to in-person events once more (fingers crossed). But don’t fear, because this term’s committee has not let the pandemic get in the way of executing a fantastic line up for another fantastic term. And what’s more, events are accessible to both Union members and non-members, so even if you haven’t been convinced to join (yet), then there is no better and cheaper) time to give the Union a go!
There are a lot of preconceptions about The Union; words like ‘tradition,’ ‘elite,’ and ‘male-dominated’ immediately come to mind. This is an impression that Joel is particularly keen to change and challenge, not least by giving traditionally underrepresented communities a voice. In fact, I was interested to hear that Joel himself found the Union a little daunting at first. “I was a fresher just over a year and a half ago, wondering what the Union is and what it’s all about.”
My respect for Joel went up even more when he said that “The Union is about making people feel at home. If there’s a Term Card that a certain segment of the university looks at and thinks ‘that’s not for me,’ then we’ve failed.” Equalities officer Sharena Shiv adds that “we have the most diverse card ever… all we are trying to do is reflect our audiences here”. I am informed that around ⅓ of speakers are people of colour this term, while a near 50/50 gender balance has been secured for speakers overall. Speaker’s officer Tara Bhagat, who is rightly “really proud of the gender diversity” in the Union, tells me that not one, but three female former Commonwealth Prime Ministers are making an appearance this term. And I, for one, can’t wait!
As someone who was initially intimidated and mystified by the Union, it is clear that the committees are working harder than ever to make the chamber as forward-thinking, approachable, and diverse as possible. Joel summarises this approach much better than I ever could: “we don’t see freedom of speech as finding the most obnoxious person and handing them the microphone. We see it as expanding who is included in our conversations.” And he’s not just saying this to sound good, his progressive approach is clearly reflected in the topics of this term’s panels ranging from discussions about sex workers, class, colonial artefacts and sexual harassment.
On top of this, Thursday debates are, of course, taking place. They always add a (welcome) structure and dependability to my otherwise chaotic and unplanned weeks. And the good thing is that you can watch the debates from bed, with tea and biscuits to hand. The first debate of term is ‘THB that We are Witnessing a Global Fascist Resurgence’. This will feature Professor Sir Richard Evans (British historian and author of a modest 18 books) as well as Putin critic Masha Gessen.
President Joel Rosen and his committee, however, have another treat in store for us: Head-to-Head debates. The inspiration? “The traditional Union debate format isn’t conducive to all conversations,” Rosen tells me, “Head-to-Head formats allow people to engage directly with each other’s ideas.” The very first of these debates is on all things Marx and Marxism featuring Communist activist and philosopher Slavoj Žižek as well as Conservative politician Lord Daniel Hannan. This is certainly one for the books!
In another exciting and innovative twist, the Union is also introducing ‘Great Conversations’. These entail conversations between two note-worthy figures on note-worthy topics, without a moderator or a ten minute time limit. Upcoming Great Conversations include a conversation about all-things-espionage between former KGB spy Jack Barsky and best-selling thriller author Ben Macintyre (!!). Noam Chomsky, widely known as the father of modern linguistics, will also be making an appearance, alongside distinguished economist Mariana Mazzucato.
Finally: if you’re anything like me, then you’ve probably missed general human contact a lot this year. Social events officer Emma Pritchard at the Union is well aware of this fact, which is why she is putting a special emphasis on social events and spaces. This Easter term, ‘coffee and newspapers’ night and Jazz nights will return, alongside the opening of study spaces and the newly renovated Orator bar on the 17th May. This begs the question, what’s not to like?
So amidst all this uncertainty, at least one thing is certain: The Cambridge Union is the place to be this term, both virtually and (hopefully) in-person too.