In last month’s Prospect Frank Field and I wrote a piece calling for a gutsy, ruinously expensive and rather illiberal national programme of national service. It kicked off a bit of debate—and is still being debated, for instance here last week by Nick Spencer, head of the think tank Theos. In the next edition, out this Thursday, we’ll have some reactions too—from everyone from communitarian giant Amitai Etzioni (broadly supportive) to a 15-year-old letter writer (broadly dismissive.) But no one thinks it will actually happen, right?
Perhaps not. Relatively well sourced rumours reach Prospect towers that, indeed, the government is looking into a new programme, on exactly the lines we describe. For sure, it would be small in the first instance—perhaps numbering in the tens of thousands, concentrated in areas of deprivation and focused on prevention of the “summer of rage,” anticipated not just by Frank and I, but also by various senior coppers. But the gist would be the same: service programmes doing good works, providing—apologies, but it will doubtless be called this once its gone through DCSF—an “offer” to young people which is better than unemployment. Its not even that different from the Tory plans, which plan to start small before moving up to that oddest of aspirations a “universal voluntary” system. Watch this space.
If Number 10 need a little steel, they can look to the US, where President Obama continues to aim for as many targets as possible, where last week the house of representatives approved what the New York Times described as the “largest expansion of government-sponsored service programs since President John F. Kennedy first called for the creation of a national community service corps in 1963.” The US, even more than the UK, has a problem with the compulsory element of such a programme. (One story I didn’t manage to get into our essay concerned Andrei Cherny’s abortive attempt to get John Kerry to sign up for such a mandatory scheme, an attempt which didn’t last a minute longer than the first story accusing him of bringing back the draft. The inside story is well told in Joe Klein’s inside account of the campaign.) The Obama plan wants to set up “a national day of service” too. Why not do that here?