Who heard the item on the Today programme about introducing a non-military national service? Admittedly it came after the surprising skewering of the Israeli military spokesman over white phosphorous, but it was important nonetheless, and covers the article in the latest Prospect by Frank Field and James Crabtree. This is why I think it is vital for Lib Dems:
1. Because none of our intractable social issues are susceptible to permanent change without an absolutely massive injection of voluntary effort by ordinary people, way beyond our current volunteering infrastructure.
2. Because in the USA, this is a leading liberal issue. Clinton used it in his 1991 campaign and found that it got the biggest cheers from Democrats.
3. Because it provides a potential way forward for national cohesion that genuinely mixes classes and cultures.
4. Because it provides a political way forward for students to earn their tuition fees rather than having to pay for them – the very least the state should owe them after national service is university teaching.
5. Because, bizarrely during the recession, we might have the political will to raise the money to pay for it. It is a good deal more useful than paying people to do nothing on the dole.
How would it be organised? I haven’t the foggiest. I find it hard to imagine local authorities managing it very effectively, but there seem to be few potential infrastructures at national level capable of delivering meaningful local engagement, training and mentoring, except possibly the military, but there are good political reasons for not asking them.
But the basic idea is deeply Liberal. That everyone has a basic need to feel useful, whether they admit it or not – to find, as Kennedy put it, a cause beyond self. There are problems for Liberals with a compulsory scheme, but there is no doubt that anything less than compulsory would simply exclude those who stand to benefit the most.
The party has flirted with the idea behind closed doors for years now, and have now allowed the initiative to go elsewhere (oh, what a surprise!). I had a go at discussing this at a Centre for Reform event in 2004 (see http://www.david-boyle.co.uk/systems/britcorps.html). But I still think we should think about it more seriously. Am I mad?