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

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.

Independent, Friday, 19 August 2011