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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?