Image credit: Wikimedia

The National Union of Students: organised religion or political party?

Image credit: Wikimedia
Image credit: Wikimedia

The National Union of Students isn’t a union of students. Its activities go way beyond the boundaries of its purpose. It makes political decisions, spending £40,000 on attacking an established party; it dictates which ideas and individuals can be heard on campus; it divides and segregates its membership on personal grounds and encourages them to fight against the system.

No, the NUS isn’t a national union of students. It’s something much bigger, and I can’t decide whether the National Union of Students is a religion or a political party. It exhibits the traits of both at the same time.

The National Union of Students practices interesting dogmas at its gatherings. In the deeply religious ceremony, the annual conference, members of the faith must show their dedication to their cause for hours on end without breaks for food and water. They must not make noise, whether in support or disagreement, when the priests are delivering their sermons.

Like many organised religions of the past few centuries, the National Union of Students does not like change. It has had one or two grand reformations over the years but these days clamour for reform is regularly stalled, prompting a fair number of people to become apostates. ‘One Member, One Vote’ for example, filibustered for many years and rejected this year. York is considering whether to leave the faith this week and there are plenty of reasons to depart.

We live in a world where religious belief is challenged by a growing atheist movement. As such, there are many people outside the church who will admit not just their non-commitment to the faith but their criticism of it. The head honchos at this particular church are fond of denouncing these heretics and sinners. Take Spiked Online, for example, a right-leaning news outlet. Motion 408 “Defending Safe(r) Spaces and No Platforming” clearly states:

Spiked Magazine’s university rankings are vile. They are the epitome of this challenge to safe(r) spaces, and they are misleading and wrongheaded.

Another target from 2012 would be feminist activist, Julie Bindel, who was also described as “vile.” Blasphemy is another crime: the London Student coverage of the 2016 conference ended when the NUS shamed their “dishonesty.” However, like the Roman Catholic faith many centuries ago, there is some form of inquisition in the NUS, on a mission to purge the church itself of dissenters, troublemakers and bullies – for example, gay men. Reading from the same motion as above:

Misogyny, transphobia, racism and biphobia are often present in LGBT+ Societies. This is unfortunately more likely to occur when the society is dominated by white cis gay men […] Gay men do not face oppression as gay men within the LGBT+ community and do not need a reserved place on society committees [… The Conference resolves…] to encourage LGBT+ Societies that have a gay men’s rep to drop the position.

Bold atheists would also argue that religious organisations only survive through brainwashing the young with their ideology, to the point where they never question what they are saying in the face of all reason and counterargument (see AC Grayling’s Against All Gods for a brief version of this). Look no further than Mr. Richard Brooks, the NUS Vice President for Union Development. Brooks is a high-ranking cardinal in the faith and a capering loon who happily said on television that, while we all have equal rights, “some people have more equal rights than others.” What a fine chap.

While maintaining faithful practices, the NUS also displays the behaviour of an up-and-coming political party. Many of the NUS’s alumni have gone on to find careers in politics. Jack Straw, NUS President from 1969 – 1971, is a former Labour MP and Cabinet Minister; Trevor Phillips, previous Head of Equality and Human Rights Commission, was the first black president.

The possible collapse of the NUS today reminds me of the internal civil war within both the Labour and Conservative parties over unpopular leaders and the European Union. “We’re better together!” says one side, “reform can only come from within!” “We should leave this undemocratic organisation!” says the other. The top dogs have been out in force at the dissenting camps, reassuring dejected members that the party will romp to victory next year. Sometimes the whips can be harsh, as students in Exeter experienced.

At secondary school I played a role as a German diplomat in a ‘Model United Nations’ conference. It seems as though the NUS delegates did too and enjoyed themselves so much that, in 2015, they spent time in NUS conferences arguing over whether the delegates should condemn the Mexican state. The NUS has also stood against Israel and thought about standing in solidarity with the Kurdish people.

The NUS knows how to make the news for its politics and it has a number of interesting political beliefs. These range from questioning the relevance of Holocaust Memorial Day this year, to the very recent commitment to the abolition of prisons. The NUS also wishes to take on the government by escalating its “direct action” in protest. Look out, Westminster, because the NUS delegates are ready to shake up politics as we know it!

Either the NUS is a religion suffering a huge mass apostasy or a political party preparing for collapse. I feel as though the reform we seek will never be permitted by the higher echelons. Perhaps the separation of church and university is the only way forward.

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Jack Harvey

Jack Harvey

Alumni & Public Relations Officer at The Yorker
Comment and Politics Editor 2015/2016, Editor 2016/2017, Alumni & Public Relations Officer 2017/2018. History and Philosophy graduate, studying for MA in Philosophy at University of York.