The Chancellor’s Fabian Society speech at the weekend echoed a similar speech David Cameron gave in August. Since July 7, the idea of how to give young people a sense of belonging and civic duty has been high on the national agenda. Muslims from Beeston who feel British will not blow up tube trains, so goes the argument. Feral youth from Brixton, Toxteth, and Moss Side who have a sense of civic duty will not happy slap the bus driver, is the thinking.
Community service is seen as one way to foster national cohesion. Such schemes are used in various countries, which include both voluntary and involuntary participation. The unifying factor, however, is that community service is introduced in times of great national upheaval. The US Peace Corps, which Gordon Brown mentioned, was a Cold War creation of President Kennedy to evangelise for democracy against the communist missionaries from China and the Soviet Union. The Third World was the ideological battleground, and the volunteers were the foot soldiers.
In Germany, where military conscription still exists for men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three, “civilian service” is used as an alternative to military training. Instead of running around the Black Forest wielding weapons of war, young Germans can opt to drive ambulances or read bedtime stories in old people’s homes. The German army has relied on conscription since the Allies allowed the newly sovereign country to have an army in 1955. As the country seeks to end conscription, community service is also under threat. Charitable organisations fear the loss of up to 90,000 men, which civilian service has provided since the Cold War.
The Nigerian youth service corps was introduced after an ethnicity charged civil war had killed more than one million people. The military president at the time said it was established “with a view to the proper encouragement and development of common ties among the youths of Nigeria and the promotion of national unity.”
Young people from the mainly Christian urban south are thrust into village life in rural Muslim north, vice versa, and everything in between. It is the Atticus Finch philosophy of walking a mile in another’s shoes writ on a national scale. A northern “youth corper” on being sent south said, “I thought they were cannibals in that part of the country, and they thought we were cannibals in my part of the country. It turns out none of us eat people.” This might appear as a piece of trivia among noble savages, but breaking myths is an important way of nurturing understanding between estranged people.
David Cameron and Gordon Brown must believe that British society is facing an identity crisis similar to a country recovering from war. And perhaps the bombings on July 7 was the tipping point. Where both men might learn from Nigeria is the relationship between youth service and political office. One is barred from political office if they haven’t done youth service. Where would that leave both men?