Monday 23 February 2009

Yes to national service?

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 But I still think we should think about it more seriously. Am I mad?


Tristan said...

That is not liberal. In any way shape of form.

It is pure authoritarianism.

National service is forced labour - it is slavery.

Anonymous said...

So... its liberal to decide what people feel and need for them? What stream of liberalism would that be exactly? I thought liberalism was about empowering people to make their own decisions.

What exactly makes people of my age group more in need of some compulsory purpose than you?

If I want to pay for tuition fees I can find my own way of earning money, without being shoved into it. Note that as a party we suppose scrapping them anyway, so irrelevant until you ditch that policy anyway.

They don't have any social conflict and succesful facist parties in say Switzerland? Almost like it solves nothing!

"Mix classes and cultures" means that everyone has to go even if it is clearly of no benefit to them whatsoever! empowering! Those who benefit the least and most get to go!

As someone who is barely beyond the age range this would have affected, it would not have benefited me at all. It wouldn't benefit the people of that age I work with every day. You learn to be an independent individual by being one, not by doing what you are forced to do.

This is a spectacularly illiberal idea.

Foregone Conclusion said...

Indeed. Unlike Tristan, I would call myself a social liberal, but any element of compulsion in this is awful and illiberal to the bones.

David Boyle said...

Good lord, isn't there anyone out there who agrees with me. Or should we end compulsory schooling too on the same principle?

Foregone Conclusion said...

Of course not, but that covers children who are unable to decide for themselves. This covers young people who are quite able to make up their own minds, thank you very much.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be where I am if I hadn't "done" national service. Goodness knows whether I would have been anywhere "better", but I doubt it. It taught me and my fellow squaddies self-discipline, the lack of which seems to be at the root of society's problems today. But maybe self-discipline is the antithesis of libralism?