David Boyle

Is it time we dusted down the idea of 'national service'?

The Reformer, Autumn 2004

The phrase 'national service' sends a shiver down the spines of Liberals. So why bring it up? Because the issue is once more back on the agenda in the USA, and there is evidence that Gordon Brown at least is listening very carefully.

The campaign for 'national service' in the United States is also overwhelmingly coming from the Democrats, the Liberal Democrat sister party on the other side of the Atlantic, and we might therefore benefit by paying closer attention.

It was the Democrat Charles Rangel from leftist New York who proposed a reintroduction of the Draft in 2003, and he did so - paradoxically - for good Liberal reasons.

Like many others, he feared that an all-volunteer military meant that a disproportionate number African-Americans were being put in danger, while the elite were being let off the hook.

Would America's leaders have been quite so keen on the Iraq war if their own children were going to have to fight it, he asked? Using this argument, conscription would paradoxically make war less likely.

Military conscription is unlikely for the time being, even in Bush's America - it's too expensive - but the argument for 'national service' there is more subtle than that.

Its main proponents envisage a law that require every citizen of college age to give two years - with a choice of the military or the voluntary sector - and their college grades would also reflect this effort and experience of real life.

Back in his original election campaign in 1992, Bill Clinton found that his 'civilian service' idea consistently got the loudest cheers in his campaign rallies.

His rhetoric was slashed back in office, but it led to the launch of AmeriCorps, which pays a basic stipend mainly to college age people, who get involved in mentoring, building low cost housing, helping out after natural disasters and the usual voluntary sector gamut.

It's a little like a home-based Peace Corps, a Kennedy innovation - part of his rhetoric for a "cause beyond self". A similar scheme, called Vista Volunteers, also dates back to a Democrat, in this case Lyndon Johnson in his War on Poverty days.

Republicans fought the idea of expanding AmeriCorps every inch of the way, but it has actually proved extremely popular.

So much so that George W. Bush - smarting from criticisms after 9/11 that the only contribution he was asking of ordinary Americans was to go shopping on behalf of the economy - announced an initiative called Freedom Corps that would expand the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and all the others.

But on this side of the Atlantic, the next regime is also paying a great deal of attention. This year's budget speech included a pledge by Gordon Brown for a UK version of AmeriCorps.

In fact, the reference had been taken out of the speech consistently by Treasury officials, only to have Brown put it back in. When he finally came to give the speech in April it was missing again, but Brown made the promise anyway.

It looks like this massive expansion of what is in effect paid volunteering is on its way here too. Liberal Democrats will find many things to welcome about it.

'BritCorps' is an enormous potential boost to the voluntary sector and community endeavour at every level. It provides a means whereby anyone of university age can find some cause beyond self, and experience the way other people live.

That's important in a divided country like ours.

But that is not quite the end of the story. Because the new scheme will carry within in - at least if it is modelled on AmeriCorps - some assumptions that Liberal Democrats need to challenge.

The key one is that it entrenches New Labour's position on volunteering even deeper: that the only kind that counts is middle class volunteering, trained, measured and semi-professional.

The assumption that lies behind AmeriCorps, like Jack Straw's Experience Corps, it is that the best way of tackling the undoubted need in inner cities for example is to parachute middle class professional types to 'provide help'.

Of course help is required, and so is money, but there remains a major flaw in this vision if 'help' and money is considered sufficient.

Another inheritance of Johnson's War on Poverty is the US National Legal Services Programme, the equivalent of our legal aid. Over its first 30 years it helped and supported an astonishing 100 million people, getting on for half the US population.

But when, a decade ago, Newt Gingrich's Republican House of Representatives targeted the programme for major cuts, its co-founder Edgar Cahn was horrified to discover that not one member of the public came forward to give evidence in Congress on its behalf.

By coincidence, his law school in Washington - the District of Columbia School of Law - was also facing closure at the time, which would have shut the only law school in the city open to anyone other than the wealthiest in the land.

But this time Washington City Council was overwhelmed with people and community groups, all helped by the law school's outreach programme, coming forward to give evidence on its behalf.

National Legal Services was decimated, but the law school was saved. But what was the difference?

Cahn says the answer was that the law school did not just provide help to the impoverished people and groups. It asked for something back: maybe to pass on what had been learned to other organisations. Maybe other kind of local community support that meant that the law school's advice was turned into something much more sustainable.

The point was that it was reciprocal, and reciprocity is powerful.

What Blairite technocracy, and its miserable Fabian antecedents, forgets is just how important it is for human beings to feel useful. And that means everyone, even those who are normally 'volunteered to'.

As it is, we have a welfare system that asks nothing of anybody except that they should demonstrate constant need in order to access anything from the system.

It is a recipe for disempowerment and depression and the main reason - apart from financial starvation - why we expect so little of it in terms of recovery and transformation.

So yes, let's have a BritCorps. But let us also hammer out a programme so that the benefits of volunteering - as much for the giver as the receiver - can be spread down through the socio-economic system, so that bedridden, depressed people, on incapacity benefit, can give too.

It is time we borrowed some of the rhetoric of Cahn's 'co-production' movement in the USA, and found ways of reshaping our public services so that they engage people as partners in the delivery of regeneration, physical and mental.

Not just by helplessly sitting on consultative boards, but on the front line keeping neighbourhood alive and caring for people, educating people and preventing crime: all things that no professional, however beset by Whitehall targets, can do by themselves.

That means not categorising clients for what they can't do, but looking for what they can - and unleashing those vast resources of experience, love and care that atrophy at the moment because of a Fabian obsession that the needy should sit tight, be quiet and look grateful.

That's not Americorps exactly: it's in some way much more mundane, and in others much more revolutionary. It recognises that everyone - not just wealthy university students - seeks a cause beyond self.

It means that Liberal Democrats, with their great tradition of voluntaryism, should perhaps try misquoting Kennedy and asking people not what their health centre can do for them, but what they can do for their health centre.

Oddly enough, that stance is enormously popular in the USA. It could also be here.


Back to top


title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers