Oxford Union’s spring of scandals

Credit: padraic [CC]

IT’S BEEN A rough few months at Oxford Union, with President Ben Sullivan fighting off several controversies – including allegations of rape – with fellow Union officials resigning left, right and centre.

The sequence of scandals came to a head on Thursday night as a vote of no confidence in President Sullivan was brought to the Union for debate and voting.  We’ve storified the sterling coverage of that drama-filled epic by Cherwell and The Oxford Student elsewhere on Pandeia, but here’s the narrative of what’s been going wrong in 2014.

Sullivan’s drinking club membership

Firstly, the Oxford Tab ran an article on Sullivan’s membership of a ‘controversial’ drinking club – the Banter Squadron.

Sullivan at first denied it, and began the process of taking legal action against the publication.

Helpfully (read: not), the Tab chose to update its original article with the news of Sullivan’s admittance of Squadron membership – so Pandeia was unable to analyse Sullivan’s claim that: “My objections to the article were not primarily based on the references to ‘Banter Squadron’. Other claims made in the article were inaccurate.”

Sullivan tries to use union funds for court case; resignations begin

Whatever the grievance, the President then got into hot water over the use of Union funds, to the tune of £1,200, for his legal challenge.  This is where the flow of resignation begins, too.

Firstly a member of the Union’s standing committee, Kat Connolly, jumped ship, citing “completely intolerable” behaviour on the part of “some members”.

The same week, the Union’s librarian Kostas Chryssanthopoulos stormed out of a weekly meeting before resigning a few days later, citing “repeated and continued attacks which have been personal from the start”.

The Union’s standing committee were divided.  Having originally voted in favour of granting Sullivan his money, Sullivan relented and and the committee reversed that decision.

Credit: The Freedom AssociationSullivan arrested and released

Mere days later Sullivan was arrested on suspicion of rape and attempted rape, with the president-elect of Oxford Union, Mayank Banerjee, standing in for him temporarily.

Sullivan was released on bail without charge, remaining on bail until 18 June.

Another Union member resigns, campaign against Sullivan starts

A motion of no confidence in Sullivan was posted for signatories less than a week later.  The vote needed the signatures of only 40 members for it to be brought before the Union for debate and vote.

Meanwhile, the Union Treasurer Charles Malton – who had elsewhere defended Sullivan in the row over legal fees – resigned from his post, citing concerns over the Union’s handling of Sullivan’s recent arrest.

In his resignation letter, Malton said: “Two weeks ago I voted in favour of the Union paying for Ben Sullivan’s legal fees, believing that in doing so I was protecting the Union against rumours rather than what have now transpired to be formal allegations. I later made a speech defending this decision. These decisions were taken in good faith, but I now recognize that they were misguided.”

Meanwhile, MP Nigel Evans expressed his sympathy with Sullivan’s situation.  Evans himself had to resign from the position of deputy speaker of the House of Commons having been charged with various sexual offences in Spetember last year, before being found not guilty on all counts.

Anti-Sullivan campaign releases open letter, ups the ante

An open letter demanding Sullivan’s resignation appeared on the New Statesman, before being taken down for legal reasons.  The report on Cherwell listed the signatories:

‘Students who have signed the letter include OUSU Vice-president for Women Sarah Pine, former OULC co-chair Helena Dollimore, and President-elect of OUSU Louis Trup , as well as OUSU Vice-president elect Anna Bradshaw and OUSU Women’s campaign officer Lucy Delaney.

‘Other signatories of the letter include journalist Laurie Penny and feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez.’

– Robert Walmsley, Cherwell – 20 May 2014

The letter called for a boycott by all prospective speakers at the Oxford Union, and though many responded positively to the call, philosopher A.C. Grayling was among those who declined, writing a letter to the Sarah Pine to outline his reasons and citing the principle of innocence until proven guilty.

Jennifer Perry, a digital stalking campaigner and author, also rejected the boycott of speaking at the Union, and told the London Evening Standard:

“I offered to hold an additional talk at another venue, because the campaigners said some women were so afraid to go to the Oxford Union that they would not attend. But they said that would not be acceptable. At that point it became obvious that this isn’t about women’s safety and more about their campaign.”

Sullivan responded to the campaign against him with an open letter of his own,  saying that he thought the calls for his resignation were premature but that, if things changed, he would review his position.

He added that “if there is one place where an allegation must be treated as just an allegation, then it is in this Society”.

The ‘no confidence’ vote results and what happens now

The evening of the vote, last Thursday, was a whole saga in itself – which we’ve storified for you on Pandeia.  There were some serious points, but there were also moments of near-laughable despair.

After lengthy debate the motion of no confidence in Ben Sullivan was rejected.  Fears of contempt of court in any possible forthcoming court case involving the embattled president prompted a separate vote to adjourn the whole thing.

Sullivan gave an interview with the London Evening Standard last week that covers well all aspects of this big mess.

Stay tuned for more updates – on Pandeia as well as the Oxford Student and Cherwell.  This surely won’t be the end of the matter.

Words: Sean Gibson

Photo: Padraic (top); The Freedom Association (inset)

One response to “Oxford Union’s spring of scandals

  1. Pingback: Oxford Union votes on motion of no confidence in its president – #UnionNoCon |

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