Chris Clarke: “We do not shy away from controversial speakers”

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Founded in 1842, the Durham Union Society has proclaimed itself as having “an integral role at the heart of the University” and a taste for controversy, per their website. In order to further understand these positions, and the role of the Union today, indigo sat down with current Union president Chris Clarke, in the Union’s bar 24s. Over a £1.70 pint, we discussed the Union, free speech and his presidency.

What would you say to a fresher to encourage them to join the Union?

The Union offers something which other societies cannot; that being a friendly and welcoming environment for all members to support one another.

Within this environment, we host a variety of talking from big-name political figures such as Baroness Warsi and former Trump advisor Rodger Stone, but also figures from sports, entertainment, social campaigning, industry and economics. For example, we have both the head of Sandhurst and the Strictly Come Dancing star Anton du Beke coming up soon, on different occasions.

Our debates, also, are topical and aim to dig deep into current issues, such as last week’s debate over whether Britain should cut ties with Saudi Arabia. The debating chamber is the perfect environment for members to engage in thought-provoking discussion and challenge their own views, and I’d encourage all to join and come along.

What do you think the role of the Union is within the wider Durham student body?

The Union is integral to facilitating discussion between students; the chamber provides a safe platform for all to express their views and have them challenged in a non-confrontational way. I also think the Union is important in developing student’s social, academic and political views – for example when I came to Durham, I held mostly right-wing views but have become more liberal and progressive in my outlook.

The Union, however, also serves as a great way for students from various colleges and backgrounds to meet one another. Usually, people would have to involve themselves in DU sports or specific societies to meet people from other colleges, the Union offers an easy and great way to mix with other students.

Would there be any limits as to who you would host?

The Union’s free speech limits are dictated by the Universities’ overall policy on speech, which prohibits speakers who promote harm to students or speakers who would require security to the extent that hosting them would not be feasible. An example occurred a couple of years ago when the Union chose not to host Tommy Robinson, which was a shame, because the security risks were too great.

This does not mean we shy away from controversial speakers, but we prefer them in debates. In a debate, we ensure their views will be challenged by other speakers and it is easier to prevent people from presenting a hate-filled narrative to the Union floor.

What are the high and most challenging points of your presidency?

My highlight would be our LGBTQ+ panel discussion, which was a great chance to discuss the changing nature of identity and sexuality in the UK; the Union hasn’t been receptive to these issues in the past, so it was great to progress and host such a unique event. Another highlight would be our ball which was attended by over 200 students.

Challenges vary as president, for example we had to be careful over the speakers at the Saudi Arabia debate given the recent of the death of Jamal Khashoggi. However, the main challenge is to ensure the Union constantly progresses in the right direction but keeps continuity with the past. Hopefully I have done this during my tenure, and I can only hope the Union goes from strength to strength in the future, especially with next term’s president Rahul Prakash.

 

Image: The Durham Union via Facebook

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