Books: Intellectual playground of the 20th century ruling class

Written By: Mike Parker
Published: November 8, 2016 Last modified: November 8, 2016

The Golden Talking Shop: The Oxford Union Debates
by Edward Pearce
Oxford University Press £25

Being neither an Oxford alumnus, nor, indeed, an alumnus of any academic institution other than Hard Knocks College (cue violins), it is not easy to avoid “the glib and ready mistake of patronizing the [Oxford] Union as some do, for a self-indulgent coterie of privileged persons, sounding off in image of elders and supposed betters”, as Edward Pearce puts it in his Preface.

After all, my abiding image of the Union (an aural one, at least) is of the stentorian (and slightly squiffy) Gerard Hoffnung: “And on the way up I met the barrel coming down”, “A French widow in every bedroom”, etc – in other words, “striving light comedy” rather than “a seriously valuable institution”.

Hoffnung isn’t mentioned in Pearce’s magisterial collection of extracts from the Union debates – it was a post-1956 contribution, as was that of Frankie Howerd, another visitor. (Scope  there for an Oxford Union Joke Book … if someone hasn’t thought of that already).  This is the “serious” stuff, though in our current era it has to be said that some of the contributions sound as quaintly comedic as anything a scriptwriter could come up with. The past, as the man said – sort of – is a foreign country, and they say things differently there.

In that respect, this book is a valuable contribution to social history. Here are, for sure, the thoughts and words of the yet-to-fully-mature political elite, as much our masters (unbelievably) now as they were between 1896 and 1956, the period covered. Tom Lehrer once wrote of the undergraduates of Harvard: “Soon we’ll be out, amid the cold world’s strife; soon we’ll be sliding down the razor blade of life.” Many Union contributors quoted by Pearce ended up at the cutting edge of politics and society, but I doubt many of them actually felt the sting of the blade themselves.

Actually, that’s probably unfair. Those from the early years of the century might well have experienced the horrors of the Western Front. The debates in the months prior to the outbreak of war in 1914 have a slightly surreal feel, however: approval of eugenics (carried); abolition of censorship (carried); approving the Welsh Chapel Bill (lost); disapproval of the management of the Irish crisis (carried); democracy is a worn-out creed (lost) … One debate in May does deal with the ‘elephant in the room’, condemning the Triple Entente as “unnecessary and unnatural” (carried). “I greet both [Triple] Alliance and [Triple] Entente. They will duly come together in a Holy Alliance,” said Mr CT Chevallier of Worcester College. “Mr Chevallier’s godfatherly approach towards Europe in general provided his speech some unconscious humour,” notes the Secretary. It would not seem funny for long.

The Secretary’s notes often prove the most entertaining part of the entries (“[he] had carefully thought out his remarks, but Rousseau at 10.40 has a soporific effect.”) and it is worth seeking out these often caustic little gems. The book is not one to be simply read cover to cover, anyway. Best to pick out subjects of interest, or your favourite (or least favourite) Oxford undergrad, like Mr Parker in 1929: “The Empire just means slavery which we call something else” (tired of the British Empire, lost), and a month later: “Those who object to contraception because it is contrary to nature should realize that all improvements are contrary to nature” (in favour of birth control, carried). But no relation, I think.

Tribune contributor Edward Pearce (definitely an Oxford alumnus!) has done a fine job sorting and editing all this material, and providing informative and readable commentaries to bind it together.  It’s a mammoth beast, but a fascinating insight into political and social thought through the first half of the 20th century, and the sometimes surprising opinions of Union members. There’s plenty for red-brickers to mock, but lots to think about, too.

About Mike Parker

Mike Parker is Literary Editor and Production Editor of Tribune