The state of the Union

The juvenile, the complacent and the snobbish cavort in shallow debates, and Oxford's students love it, says Peter Popham, after hearing the case for blondes. Where has all the politics gone?

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On Thursday night in Oxford, large teenagers practise wheelies down the steps of the station, over and over again, the multiple competing bus companies jam the streets with their clashing liveries and the yoof population of this surprisingly coarse-grained Midlands town hunkers down for another long night of boozing and brawling.

Within the Victorian neo-Gothic confines of the Oxford Union Society, however, that world seems far away. One hears tell that in the 1920s, Communist members of the union, dressed in white tie and tails, poured out into the streets of the town and beat up members of the working class, with the idea of aggravating class tensions and thus precipitating the revolution. It didn't work, of course, and 70 years later the toffs and would-be toffs remain cloistered behind the red brick walls and leaded lights.

On Thursday, they gathered for a bit of silliness, the "Farewell" debate, last of the term and of the current presidency. The theme is not original: "This House believes that blondes have more fun". But it enables the union to advertise the debate inside the programme with a particularly lubricious photograph of Marilyn Monroe, and to dangle the prospect of a bevy of guest beauties, headed by Jerry Hall, before the work-jaded eyes of the membership.

At least Jerry Hall is the name on the poster taped to the front door; but in the later editions scattered around the building it is ominously missing. Yes, Jerry has come down with a cold, and the union has been hit by another in its nasty run of no-shows. As one of the speakers put it in the debate, submitting the departing president to his customary bout of humiliation, "Damon Hill, Patrick Stewart, Sting, Jerry Hall - what an excellent term you almost had, Mr President."

The House assembles to discuss blondes and fun. We are here, while the debate grinds and grunts and farts its way to a sort of conclusion, to consider the question, does the Oxford Union have a job to do any more? Is it doing it? Or is it just a concatenation of puffed-up, prematurely pompous young Tories, best left to stew in their own juice?

Criticism of the union is probably nearly as old as the thing itself, which goes back 174 years. But the thing itself would not be worth the trouble of criticising if it had not attained a highly peculiar stature. This is a place where a bunch of undergraduates gather to trade prejudices, slurs and dirty jokes; but by some strange chemistry of desire and image and determination, it is one of the most famous debating forums in the world: a place to which world-class statesmen, politicians and public figures, including Bobby Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Mother Teresa and Malcolm X, made pilgrimages while in the prime of their careers. They came not to recycle the usual speech for the usual fee (the union pays nothing but expenses) but to engage in genuine cut and thrust, to risk their reputations at the hands of student pipsqueaks, and sometimes to be brought down.

At times it was almost an alternative parliament of the young. Harold Wilson dispatched his foreign secretary, Michael Stewart, to defend the government's pro-American policy on Vietnam, and a torrid time he had of it. When he was president, Tariq Ali hosted Malcolm X, then at the height of his influence.

Hungry and ambitious aspiring politicians such as Edward Heath, Roy Jenkins, Michael Heseltine and William Hague seized the opportunities the union offered both to debate and to rub shoulders with the powerful and famous. Debates of particular consequence were regularly transmitted live on the BBC. It was the only student debating chamber in the world with such charisma.

That is the context in which the Oxford Union has to be discussed, because the place is still in love with and in thrall to its past. Even on a night like this. The union is a cluster of diminutive buildings, comprising a bar with scarlet walls which are hung with old photographs, a large and comfortable library, and out in the garden, on its own, the debating hall, which from the outside looks like a small Victorian railway station.

Tonight the hall's entrance is filled with large photographs of foaming pints of Guinness (the beer is free to participants, within reason). Inside there is a high chamber with a balcony. The benches for the union's officers, who must wear white ties, are ranged opposite each other by the chairman's seat, as in the House of Commons. The rest, filling the hall, face the chair.

All is as it has been for many decades, with one or two special touches just for tonight. The busts of ancient eminences around the walls, for example, are wearing Union Jack bowler hats. A multi-coloured bouncy castle is being inflated behind the chair. One large Guinness ad has invaded the hall. A smoke machine has been concealed somewhere.

Of the matter of the debate itself it would be charitable to say as little as possible. Simon Johnson, an epicene blond youth, president of the Edmund Burke Society, who has conceived a perverse fixation on Nicholas Soames, is fluently funny and rude, in the preferred snobbish mode, speaking of the retiring president's "family tree - that's where he lives", and of his father, "a light blue, due to restricted circulation".

He is followed for the anti-blondes by a narrow-shouldered, carrot-haired geek in gold glasses called Charles Hoare, who has the misfortune to be related to Douglas Hogg (his nickname is Mad Cow). Hogg was president here, as was his father, Lord Hailsham, but on Thursday night's showing Mad Cow will not be following in their footsteps unless all his contemporaries are wiped out, perhaps by CJD. He mentions "homosexuals" and "lesbians" many times, like a 12-year-old, as if the words themselves were intrinsically hilarious.

The only other speaker from the university is the president-elect, Sam Gyimah, who sports a blond wig (and a nun's habit) although he is actually black. His speech is no worse or better than any of the rest; but given the routine trashing handed out to the sexually divergent, one is pleasantly surprised to note that the House refrains from making jokes about his colour.

The other speakers included two women pretending to be mutants and two blonde page-three girls, one of whom, Joanne Guest, wearing black knickers and bra and head-to-toe fishnet, declares, "I can equivocably state that I am blonde." Floella Benjamin shrewdly sizes up her audience and treated them to her Play School routine, which went down very well. The only really perceptive remark of the evening comes from the comedienne Jenny Ross, who spoke of her pity for Patsy Kensit "when she realises she's lumbered herself with a complete and utter twat for a fiancee".

Finally the lights go down, a strobe comes on, the chamber fills with smoke, and the president is carted away. I have rarely spent an evening more childishly entertained since the age of 10 - but Farewell debates, as it was strenuously pointed out, are always like that. A glance through the rest of the programme for the term shows, however, that it is not alone. Why, the equivocable Joanne Guest was here for a second night running (on Wednesday she fielded questions about how many men she had made love to at the same time). Other debates this term included such intellectual killers as "This House believes that the Beatles contributed more to British music than Oasis ever will", and "Enid Blyton's stories are still appropriate for today's child".

Devolution and Europe drew relatively big hitters and strong performances, and Lord Tebbit, predictably enough, was a massive hit. But much of the programme was taken up by the likes of Ffyona Campbell, Coronation Street, quiz nights, comedians, and the no-showing Sting. Increasingly, the intellectual and political pretensions of the past are becoming an empty pose, a tradition that must of course be perpetuated (like all traditions) but which for the sake of bums on seats is increasingly overshadowed by froth and nonsense.

The arrival of Max Clifford last year, with OJ Simpson in tow, was an augury of the way the place must go: more celebs, the dodgier and tackier the better; more book-launch tie-ins (Stephen Fry, here recently, could have filled the place twice); less and less evidence that the union believes in its guts that its amazing reputation is still relevant.

It is not surprising that many of Oxford's students have no time for the union at all, regarding it, in the words of one graduate, as "crapulous, shabby and pathetic". Anthony Howard was president in 1955, and as he sees it the union's decline is a function of the decline of the nation. "Something happened around the mid-Fifties," he says, "perhaps around the time of the Suez crisis. Up until then, it knew its place in the scheme of things. The problem is that the tradition it was carrying proved top- heavy in the Eighties and Nineties. I think the union only really had meaning when Britain was a great power, and it's been looking for its way ever since."

So with the political and intellectual pretensions of the union growing threadbare, what remains are the social ones. No sign of decline there: "Snobbish, class-ridden, puffed-up, undemocratic", fumed one former non- member, "a place for teenagers who want to be middle-aged, to be their fathers before their time." It is an irredeemable place, where the complacent and snobbish go through the rituals that confirm them in their pride and privilege. It is going to last for ever.

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