National service: just what’s needed

At first glance, the hypothesis of Anthony Seldon’s new book Trust would seem to make it a shoo-in for this year’s Statement of the Bleeding Obvious Prize. We have lost trust in one another, says the headmaster/ biographer/ media pundit. Politicians, bankers, rugby players, journalists: we’ve come to believe they are all at it in one way or another. This universal distrust is eating away at the fabric of society.

It is hardly the most startling conclusion. This week, one survey revealed that only 13 per cent of people trusted politicians; another claimed that two-thirds of the public trusted supermarkets – but then who would really trust a survey?

Yet beyond the general keening, Seldon’s book contains an idea so brave and brilliant that it is doubtful any political party will dare touch it. In order to rebuild social and personal trust, Seldon argues, a form of national service should be re-introduced for 18-year-olds. For a year, there would be army training, and environmental or pastoral work. The emphasis would be on learning social and practical skills which would include “making clothes, growing food, building furniture, leadership and emotional intelligence”.

Cue laughter. There is enough material here for an entire episode of Mock the Week. Politically, the idea has drawbacks too. Not only would it be expensive but, because it runs against the grain of individual self-realisation, it would also be unpopular – indeed, distrusted. Yet any government which is serious about addressing our knackered national morale should take it seriously.

Of course, the term “national service” presents serious image problems. For the middle-aged and old, the phrase has a whiff of militarism, sergeant-majors and square-bashing. For the young, it sounds suspiciously like “community service”, something deemed so unpleasant that it is used as a punishment by the courts.

Considered without these unhappy connotations, the idea of a year which would take a teenager away from home, marking the moment when he or she moves from the family into the wider community, has everything to recommend it. There is a powerful strain of idealism in many young people, a hankering to do more than just get a job or have fun. You can see it in gap-year voluntary work, in the environmental movement, even in TV events like Children in Need. There is also, in the same age group, a lost generation who have caught defeat from their parents and who are drifting into adult life, bored, self-obsessed and pessimistic. Leaving education at the age of 16, they are then pretty much abandoned by the state.

A Community Year would break the cycle of self, remind participants of a wider community and different values, and enable them to meet people who are a world away from their own background. In many case, it would, to use a much mocked phrase, help them to find themselves.

Politicians like to praise local initiatives and those who do voluntary work in the so-called “third sector”. That kind of social engagement works well in the adult world, but is more urgently needed for those who are growing up. A Community Year would give a much-needed shake, a leg-up into society, to a generation which really needs it.