Your country needs you: National service hits the headlines as politicians hit the streets

Grayling Associate Director and former lead for the campaign to introduce voluntary, non-military national service in the UK, Leo Watson, reflects on the Conservative Party’s first major policy announcement of the 2024 General Election campaign.

A bit of controversy to start… love or loathe the brand, the UK needs a national service offer.

Indeed, it already has one in UK Service Year. The Government has been funding this voluntary and non-military national service offer over the last few years through its last flagship youth initiative, The National Citizen Service, which was set up as part of David Cameron’s doomed ‘Big Society’ project.

The vision is a bold one: ‘unlock the power of the next generation to help solve some of our toughest challenges, putting them into paid positions of work and helping communities where the needs are greatest’. It brings together organisations across the nation that have been providing full-time volunteering offers for decades, including Volunteering Matters, British Red Cross and City Year UK.

And why did the Government fund such a pilot? Well, because programmes in the UK and overseas (France, USA, Germany and many more) have proven to have a significant positive impact on their respective economies, social cohesion and social mobility. They have even provided a return on investment for the money those Governments have put in.

Frankly, national service is a no-brainer.

Yet, in my view, Sunday’s announcement of national service by Team Rishi will set this movement back years. And not just because it’s been announced by what appears to the final days of a faltering 14-year administration; it’s because they simply just don’t get it.

The key to a successful national service programme, fit the for 21st century, are the two words: ‘voluntary’ and ‘non-military’. Whether intentional or otherwise (and the cynic in me thinks the former given Rishi’s love-bombing of the over 60s), when announcing a national service option with a side order of compulsory khaki and command, it’s always the military service that will lead the news. Cue rhetoric about how young people have lost their way, need toughening up and must learn the value of discipline.

These are nothing more than tired old tropes played out by every generation. The truth is that the majority of young people do want to serve their country. However, rather than being forced to take up arms and march in unison, they want to serve their country by supporting their schools, hospitals, care homes, museums, community groups and environment. Yes, what Team Rishi has announced would allow them to do that, but in a piecemeal way of one or two days at a time – which would significantly restrict their impact.

If I was advising Labour right now, I’d tell them to run with the idea… but to do it right.

Labour has been talking about ‘service’ for six months. It was only in January that they published their ‘Let’s Get Britain’s Future Back’ pamphlet, where Sir Keir’s own foreword proudly proclaimed that his mission-led Government would require the restoration of ‘an ethic of service’, describing this as ‘the hope of change and renewal allied to the responsibility of service’.

So, I challenge them to put their money where their mouth is.

Give people of all ages the opportunity to serve in civilian life, but for an unbroken 6-12 months, in a properly funded and branded programme, and in an area of their choosing. Reward the pioneers who take up the call with tuition debt relief, a pot of money to put towards skills development, and/or guaranteed job.

Indeed, it was a fairly successful centrist and true disciple of the ‘Third Way’, President Bill Clinton, who established the offer I’m proposing (AmeriCorps) in the States. Moreover, this was inspired by JFK’s Peace Corps, which to this day allows youngsters in the USA to serve on international development programmes. Quick sidenote, why is it that we are much more comfortable for young people to go abroad to serve than we are with allowing them to do this at home?

At a time when all the main parties in this election are struggling to create a vision and offer that will tackle our society’s significant challenges and unite a divided nation, surely a programme of voluntary, non-military national service is their answer?

Instead, Labour has seized upon the opportunity to bash the Conservatives for being out of touch and out of control with their spending commitments. As they look set to take power, the result is likely to be that a truly transformative initiative will have to wait at least another parliamentary cycle for lift off.

Another missed opportunity. And who are the losers? That’s the real blow… it’s you, it’s me and it’s just about the entire nation.

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