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The students are still revolting

On 21 February, many of the great and the good will gather at the House of Commons to help the National Union of Students celebrate its 90th birthday. The parliamentary host will be Jack Straw - former home secretary, foreign secretary and NUS president - and several other famous figures are likely to put in an appearance. The NUS has friends in high places.

It's an extraordinary paradox. Students - young, carefree, with a reputation for irresponsibility - decide all its policies at feverishly excitable conferences, and elect other students to carry them out. Sometimes they rage against the world, more often they rage against their own leaders.
And the result is a 90-year-old organisation - solid, dependable, grounded, often effective, with establishment friends and a sense of its past (its official history is out later this year).

Of course its respectability makes the far left suspicious and the far right apoplectic. In 1970 Enoch Powell worked himself into a state about vice-chancellors who took the NUS seriously, comparing a "humiliating scene" where the chairman of the vice-chancellors stood "with Jack Straw at his elbow, like a baron standing over King John", to Maoist China, where professors were "paraded in dunces' caps and made to read confessions
to their students."

The NUS could afford to smile indulgently. A few years previously it had helped pilot a splendid system of student support through parliament;
a year later it successfully took on the then education secretary, Margaret Thatcher, who once dined à deux with the NUS's communist president.
That wouldn't happen now.

I don't see Michael Gove sitting down for dinner with Liam Burns, today's sure-footed NUS president, nor Peter Tapsell comparing Burns with Chairman Mao. But that's not Burns's fault, nor the NUS's. We of the baby-boomer generation don't have the same respect for the young as our parents' generation had for us.

Trade unions are widely reviled for having once been powerful, and the NUS looks a little like a trade union. What's more, democratic organisations have gone out of fashion. Everywhere - in local government, education, the NHS - power has been taken from elected bodies and passed to commercial ones. It's called modernisation, heaven knows why.

Fee country

Nonetheless, the NUS still matters. In his previous job, running NUS Scotland, Burns helped ensure that the introduction of tuition fees was ruled out for the present Scottish parliament.

When the politics are ever shifting, how does the organisation remain stable and influential? First, right from the start, student leaders built up
a strong, professional, permanent staff. Second, the union has always, almost without exception, had high-quality leadership. Being NUS president is an extraordinary job for a young person. In your early- to mid-20s, you are given charge of an organisation with a large turnover and volatile politics.

All three presidents I worked for there as press officer, from 1972 to 1976, were remarkable young men. John Randall won the job without the support of the political machine - a considerable achievement in itself - and has one of the most efficient minds I've known. Charles Clarke coped with the financial collapse of the NUS's travel and insurance businesses, which was a lot to ask of a young man recently down from Cambridge.

Since then, whenever I have stopped to look at it, I see other young men and women of that quality leading the union. In 2006-08 Kat Fletcher - elected, like Randall, without the support of the machine - dragged the union away from the perilous embrace of New Labour and carefully positioned it on the side of striking lecturers.

NUS presidents learn faster than most the foolishness of playing "lefter than thou". But the last president before Burns, Aaron Porter, was probably the first to be escorted away from student protesters by police. He was also the first to decline to stand for a second year in the job, recognising he had become a divisive figure.

Former presidents also include the columnist David Aaronovitch, the EHRC chair Trevor Phillips, and Phil Woolas, one of the brightest and brainiest, whom I would have tipped as a political high-flyer until he was banished by the courts for reasons I still think inadequate. Gordon Brown was a key power broker and Greg Dyke helped run John Randall's campaign for president.

Students don't always appreciate the benefits of a national union, especially now when achievements are hard to come by. But nothing can replace the authentic, democratically decided voice of students, which is why it regularly attracts some of the best political operators of each generation.

Francis Beckett's new play “The London Spring" is at the Etcetera Theatre, London NW1, from 6 to 25 March

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?

Photo: Getty Images
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It's time for the government to think again about Hinkley Point

The government's new nuclear power station is a white elephant that we simply don't need.

Today I will welcome Denis Baupin, Vice President of the French Assembly, to Hinkley.

His own choice to come and visit the site of the proposed new nuclear power station reflects his strong desire to prevent the UK disappearing up a dangerous dark alley in terms of energy policy. It also takes place as France takes a totally different path, with the French government recently adopting a law which will reduce nuclear energy in the country.

Greens have opposed Hinkley ever since the government announced its nuclear strategy. Hinkley, with its state aid and an agreed strike price of £92.50 per megawatt, has always been financially and legally suspect but it is now reaching the level of farce. So much so that George Osborne is required to be economical with the truth in front of a House of Lords committee because he cannot find anything honest to say about why this is a good deal for the British people.

Mr Baupin and I will join hundreds of protestors – and a white elephant – to stand in solidarity against this terrible project. The demonstration is taking place under a banner of the triple risks of Hinkley. 

First, there are the safety and technological risks. It is clear that the Pressurised Water nuclear reactor (EPR) – the design proposed for Hinkley C – simply does not work. France’s nuclear safety watchdog has found multiple malfunctioning valves that could cause meltdown, in a similar scenario to the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the US.  The steel reactor vessel, which houses the plant’s nuclear fuel and confines its radioactivity, was also found to have serious anomalies that increase the risk of it cracking. Apart from the obvious safety risks, the problems experienced by the EPR reactors being built at Flammanvile in France and Olkiluoto in Finland have pushed the projects years behind schedule.

Secondly, Hinkley poses risks to our energy security. Hinkley is supposed to produce 7% of the UK's energy. But we now know there will be no electricity from the new nuclear plant until at least 2023. This makes power blackouts over the next decade increasingly likely and the only way to avoid them is to rapidly invest in renewable energy, particularly onshore wind. Earlier this week Bloomberg produced a report showing that onshore wind is now the cheapest way to generate electricity in both the UK and Germany. But instead of supporting onshore wind this government is undermining it by attacking subsidies to renewables and destroying jobs in the sector. 

Thirdly, there is the risk of Chinese finance. In a globalised world we are expected to consider the option of allowing foreign companies and governments to control our essential infrastructure. But it is clear that in bequeathing our infrastructure we lose the political control that strengthens our security. The Chinese companies who will be part of the deal are part owned by the Chinese government and therefore controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. What a toppy-turvy world globalisation has created, where our Conservative British government is inviting the Chinese Communist party to control our energy infrastructure. It also seems that China National Nuclear Company is responsible for the manufacture of Chinese nuclear weapons.

Of course it is the Chinese people who suffer most, being at the hands of an oppressive government and uncontrolled companies which show little respect for employment rights or environmental standards. By offering money to such companies from British consumers through their energy bills our government is forcing us to collude in the low human rights and environmental standards seen in China.  

Research I commissioned earlier this year concluded we can transform the South West, not with nuclear, but with renewables. We can generate 100 per cent of our energy needs from renewables within the next 20-30 years and create 122,000 new quality jobs and boost the regional economy by over £4bn a year.

The white elephant of Hinkley looks increasingly shaky on its feet. Only the government’s deeply risky ideological crusade against renewables and in favour of nuclear keeps it standing. It’s time for it to fall and for communities in the South West to create in its place a renewable energy revolution, which will lead to our own Western Powerhouse. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.