Terence Blacker: National service is the answer – but not as we know it

It would take money, planning and celebrity support, but it would help break down class barriers, and enable children to see beyond narrow horizons

Share
Related Topics

Gentle hilarity has greeted the spectacle of smartly dressed members of the royal family mingling sympathetically with the looted and burned-out people of Tottenham. Those who have little time for the Windsors have chuckled at the sight the heir to the throne and his wife, arriving in a chauffeur-driven car to offer anguished condolences, and even the odd hug, to people at the other end of the social spectrum.

Royalists, meanwhile, have been dismayed by what Prince Charles said. It was all very well visiting the blackened streets of London, rather as the good old Queen Mum did back in 1940, but expressing the opinion that joining a gang was "a cry for help" was going rather too far. In the punitive mood of the moment, this kind of liberal hand-wringing plays very badly. Some people will be reminded of the satirist Michael Wharton's creation, the psychoanalyst Dr Heinz Kiosk whose reaction to every antisocial incident was the same: "We are all guilty!"

Yet, embedded in the Prince's remarks is one of the few genuinely radical ideas to have emerged over the past week. He suggested that what our society needs above all is a sort of national service – what he described as National Community Service.

The idea of adding a gap year towards the end of a child's schooling, providing a social element to education, is unlikely to find favour in political circles. To Conservatives, it will look nannyish and interfering, while liberal opinion will find it uncomfortably close to the much-derided military national service of the past.

Politicians, though, have revealed over the past few days how enslaved they are to traditional solutions and posturing. The mindlessly vengeful idea of attacking wrongdoers by withdrawing their benefits and kicking both them and – a genuinely sinister move – their families out of council houses combines idiocy and nastiness in equal measure. How to reach an angry, alienated generation? Make them even more angry and alienated.

The arguments from the left – about jobs, education, youth clubs and so on – have made more sense, but only the truly innocent will believe that the bleary contempt for the rest of the world felt in some parts of the community is entirely caused by economic or political failures.

What is being ignored, or at least seen through a haze of sentimentality, is what happened after shops were burned and looted. People from all classes and of all ages and colours did the right thing by their community, by setting out to clean it up and repair it. Their reaction was altruistic, but not entirely selfless. By giving, they were not only looking after their own back yard, but were making themselves happier and more fulfilled as a result.

The reason why the idea of a National Community Service is intellectually radical, and politically tricky, is that it turns today's acquisitiveness on its head. The "Because You're Worth It" generation is used to being on the receiving end of things, whether those things are accessories, lectures or court sentences. After a while, nothing given to them, or imposed on them, has much meaning.

What could truly change people, and give them the chance to escape from the defeatism and selfishness they pick up from their parents' generation and parts of the media, is the chance to give rather than take, and to make a difference to the lives of others. It is on that sense of self-worth that a future can be built.

The idea of engaging teens in work for the community as a matter of national policy may seem absurdly Pollyannaish in the context of what has happened this month, but it is not as inconsistent with the spirit of the times as it may appear.

The lift in the mood of the country at times of shared charity – the Children in Need campaign, Red Nose Day, the big charity concerts – transcends class and background. It may be sentimental, and unhealthily close to the celebrity culture, but so what? The spark of empathy, of gaining pleasure from giving in a taking society, is real enough.

That spirit is present in most children, but often gets snuffed out between the ages of 10 and 14. Anyone who has spoken to classes in the state sector of education will know that there are pupils on whom the world has given up while they are still at an extraordinarily young age. They are beyond the reach of normal authority and of appeals to their better nature, and they know it.

It is surely worth considering a type of national service which would have nothing to do with militarism or square-bashing. As part of every child's education, marking the moment when they are about to join adult society, a year would be spent in community activity, offering many of the lost generation the chance to escape from the downward spiral into which they were born.

It would take work, money, planning, and celebrity support, but, with the right balance between discipline and encouragement, it would help break down class barriers, and enable children to see beyond the narrow horizons created by their often hopeless parents. As teenagers entered adulthood, a part of their education (perhaps replacing all those worthy citizenship lessons) would require them to contribute to the society to which they now belonged. It would be a break from their past, their background, the lowly assumptions which may have attached to them from an early age.

Some children will rebel against that new type of education, but for others it could open doors to a different kind of life and a new sense of self. "People have to be involved in their own redemption", according to Shaun Bailey, the prospective MP who, unfashionably, has credited his own escape from a problematical youth in North Kensington to a spell spent in the Army.

A type of national service that had nothing to do with square-bashing or humiliation, where the emphasis was on helping others, may be controversial and would certainly be difficult to achieve, but, given the events of recent days, the time may have arrived for a brave government to give it serious consideration.





terblacker@aol.com

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own