“National service is an idea whose time has come (again)”. With these words the Times columnist Clare Foges chimed into a renewed debate — adding that “this would be a way of mixing our woefully segregated country”. Her comments came after a proposal last week by Tory leadership hopeful Rory Stewart that he would introduce a “national citizens service for all young people” should he become PM.
Beautiful in its seeming simplicity, the idea has never really gone away. The reason is simple: its popularity with many older voters, most of whom never had to serve any kind of similar scheme themselves, makes it an easy point score for politicians looking for a quick hit in the news.
The launch of the French version of a National Service initiative this week has also encouraged proponents of the policy to come forward, despite the fact Emanuel Macron had to climb down significantly from his initial proposal. After the army raised serious objections about playing nanny to millions of teenagers the French president is now promoting something closer to a citizens service. An opposition politician in France called the final shape of the scheme “a mountain giving birth to a mouse”.
But it is precisely the superficial simplicity of such a proposal that leads us to potentially very wrong conclusions about the virtues of such schemes. A national citizens service is not necessarily a bad idea. The schemes already in place, like National Citizens’ Service in the UK, consistently produce glowing results. Young people spend a month in the countryside learning skills, working on projects with their peers and later volunteer in related fields in their communities. They seem to achieve many of their targets: these young people report higher levels of confidence than other people their age, they feel closer and more integrated into their communities and their peers. Perhaps most importantly, the effects seem to follow them for years after the programme.
The problems arise when we move from the voluntary nature of the current programme to a mandatory one.
Here, to begin with, we must ask a very simple question: what if a teenager refuses to participate? What will be the punishment? This is important, as it alters the spirit of the existing scheme and we must take into account a factor people seriously underestimate: that a voluntary scheme ensures that by and large only the most eager students will participate. This eliminates from the existing sample of schemes the negative attitudes of teenagers who will not want to be there, therefore biassing the results.
Then comes the cost: the programme already in place in the UK works with 100.000 teens every year, at a cost of £180m. Given that there are around 1.5 million teens between the ages of 16 and 17 in the UK, the cost would quite quickly. At a time when youth services across the country have been reduced to virtually nothing, spending these sorts of sums on a month-long programme but not permanent services seems misplaced at best.
Of course, the form the National Citizens’ Service takes is nothing like serving in the army. Spending time in nature, working on a project with your peers and then volunteering in your community: these are all good things that we should cheer on and promote. However, if they are forced upon teens by an elderly demographic who themselves didn’t serve in any kind of such programme, it would simply deepen the generational divide that is so intensely felt across our society at the moment — and frankly, some boomers need such an initiative to help break down barriers and impart civic spiritedness at least as much as teens.
Another objection to making a citizens’ service mandatory is an example from my home country, Greece. One of the last states in Europe to retain mandatory conscription for 9 months, Greek society suffers from exactly the same issues as other western countries that don’t have conscription. It is divided, political polarisation has now reached extreme levels and mutual suspicion abounds. The mandatory co-existence of young men for nine months simply doesn’t seem to have the desired effect.
One of the reasons for this is precisely because service is mandatory and so for many people just something they need to get through, rather than engage with and gain from.
A more sensible approach is to expand the voluntary initiatives already in place and provide further encouragement for young people to join them. Perhaps a discount in tuition fees or vouchers to travel the country cheaply (a form of which used to exist) could be attached to participation. The cost of the expanded programmes and the potential bursaries attached to it would likely be lower than the cost of a mandatory scheme. If we want young people to feel like they have a stake in society, we must show them why, encourage them to engage with it. Forcing them would be just an admission of failure.