The bid for Conservative leadership was always going to be overshadowed by Brexit. But out of the fog, centrist sweetheart and Tory leader hopeful Rory Stewart has cut through with an idea for a domestic policy that he hopes will unify the nation: compulsory national service for 16 year olds.
The Conservative Party has never been known as a mouthpiece for the young. Given that only 14 per cent of Conservative members are under the age of 34 perhaps that’s not surprising. Nonetheless, Stewart’s solution to national division reveals a blind ignorance about the state of British society and the role of young people within it.
If, come 22 July, Stewart finds himself in possession of a new home at 10 Downing Street, every single 16 year old in the country will be facing four weeks’ community service. Teens will mix with other teens working together on a community project, whether that’s gardening, cleaning the streets or helping the elderly. As Stewart emphatically stressed, it will not be military service, but about giving back to the community and building a sense of “national pride”.
Packing off a group of teenagers from diverse backgrounds into nature to bond and bridge divides is not a new idea. In fact it already exists. Officially launched in 2011 by then prime minister David Cameron, the voluntary National Citizen Service (NCS) was designed to improve “social mobility, social cohesion and social engagement”. Since its inception around half a million teenagers have taken part.
Unity is at the heart of this vision. Cameron introduced the scheme as a part of his attempts to build a “big society” and Theresa May expanded NCS under her idea of a “shared society”.
But it’s no big secret that the Britain we’re living in today is not shared. Brexit both revealed but also entrenched the country’s divides, so in Stewart’s defence, thinking about how to tackle these divisions head on is a pretty good place to start.
But Brexit is not the only unspoken backdrop to Stewart’s proposal. Us “millennials” are relentlessly ridiculed and undermined in the media. Whether we’re smart-phone addicted Netflix slobs, anxiety crippled snowflakes, or knife-wielding, marginalised young black men in London, young people are seen as the problem. A good bit of public service will snap us out of it and instil in us a sense of national pride, seems to be the thinking – as if it’s our individual failings that are the cause of our society’s ills.
There are also historical undertones. With a Winston Churchill wannabe waiting in the wings, vying for the same job as Stewart, calling for a NCS undeniably evokes World War nostalgia. In our Brexit-addled public imaginary, the years when Britain was at war with Germany are remembered as a time when the country was genuinely unified, working together in true Blitz-spirit style to beat off foreign powers. In many ways, Stewart’s proposal isn’t too different from what is being offered by his competitors: grandstanding and hollow promises to return broken Britain to its past glories.
In fact, the NCS in its current form has been a success in many ways. When participants return from the summer programs, they give overwhelmingly positive feedback. Society is divided and those four weeks crack open a space for building friendship and bonds with people that sixteen year olds would otherwise never meet.
But the idea that Stewart has found the solution to Britain’s inequality problem is a fantasy. Cameron’s original NCS program was rolled out three years after the biggest economic crash of the century and one year after Cameron revealed that his response to the crisis was to impose savage budget cuts. As so many have already articulated, his “Big Society” was a kind of patronising preamble to what was soon to become austerity Britain.
When it comes to austerity and young people, the reality has been devastating. Youth clubs have been annihilated; the housing market is unaffordable; employment is increasingly precarious; young people of colour have disproportionately shouldered the burden of cuts; and we have such a divided schooling system that by the time you’re 16 years old your future is essentially already written.
Stewart’s plan was controversial as soon as it was announced. In France, President Macron’s plans to unveil a similar scheme has been estimated to cost 1 billion euros. Some are saying it’s just too expensive. But if this was an effective scheme, the price tag would be worth it. The problem here isn’t to do with cost, nor does it have to do with how much fun the 16 year olds will have. A bunch of teenagers away from home over the summer? We know they’ll have a good time.
The problem with Stewart’s plan is ideological. Imposing a compulsory NCS is nothing more than slapping a pretty plaster on a massive gaping wound. To truly overcome division within British society today, there can only be one solution: a profound conversation and rapid action to undo inequality that decades of free market policies have left us with.