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Artillery Row

Against national civic service

Citizens should not have to bail out the government

Imagine your boss has made so many terrible decisions that the business is teetering on the edge of collapse. Sales are down, debt is up and the air conditioning has broken. Morale is at an all time low. Never fear! The boss has a plan. All employees are going to do unpaid work to salvage the situation. 

How does that sound?

Now, a nation is not a business. As Adrian Pabst — the author of Postliberal Politics — would rightly inform us, we have deeper loyalties to our homeland than to our employees. Yet if governments imposed Professor Pabst’s plan to mandate “national civic service” it would show at least some of the staggering audacity of my fictional boss. How could governments do so much to tear up the social fabric of Great Britain and then insist that Britons patch it up themselves?

To be clear, much of the work Professor Pabst imagines being done is righteous indeed. Planting trees? Excellent. “Rebuilding communal spaces like village halls”? Wonderful! People who conduct such work voluntarily are kings and queens among men and women. I’m sure there is a case for schoolkids to do more of this sort of thing — not just for the sake of “building character” but to learn good technical and interpersonal skills.

Yet to insist that all able-bodied Britons do this work on a “compulsory” basis — on, then, the necessary pain of prosecution — is hard to swallow. In fact, it is downright unswallowable.

As Professor Pabst observes, we are experiencing “a marked decay in the relationships and institutions that make up everyday social life”. Some of this is hard to blame on politicians and not modernity at large. Some policies might have exacerbated family breakdown, for example, but family breakdown is so widespread across developed nations that it would be silly to suggest that governments are entirely at fault. But there are some things we really can blame them for — and “national civic service” would bail them out for their mistakes, or, worse, prop them up so they can continue making them.

“Cleaning up graffiti” is good, for example, but it would boil my guts if I was compelled to do it while the cops remained blissfully incapable of doing anything to avert property crime and antisocial behaviour. Cleaning rivers is virtuous as well, but reforming Thames Water sounds like a more efficient and effective plan than forcing random people to do the job.

British governments have done a lot to pull Britons apart

Britons are fragmented and mistrustful, yes, but can governments force them back together? British governments have done a lot to pull Britons apart. It is state institutions, not citizens, which have encouraged more immigration than is assimilable, enabled the dire ubiquity of crime, imposed protracted lockdowns which bankrupted local businesses and starved civic institutions of funds. There is a significant extent, in other words, to which instead of putting citizens to work, politicians should be doing their own darn job.

And this is without considering how governments would enact “national civic service”. I doubt that it would be with the energetic pragmatism with which Britain’s wartime government encouraged people to dig for victory. A quick look at the charity sector reveals how the Conservatives, continuing the work of New Labour, have funded all sorts of ineffective or outright malign organisations. I would bet at least half of my internal organs that a Labour government, and perhaps even a Conservative government, would have hapless Britons working for the sake of various corrosive political causes. You’d imagine building a ramp for the disabled and find yourself taking down statues and organising hideous performance poetry events. This is not Professor Pabst’s intention, of course, but many are the well-intentioned ideas that have been misused by opportunistic activists and politicians. 

“In our state of chronic emergency,” writes Professor Pabst, “Sticking to the status quo means we face the frightening prospect of sliding into an ever-more atomised society and authoritarian politics.” Not untrue. Yet like or loathe the idea of “national civic service”, it would be hard to avoid describing it as “authoritarian” (what would happen to refuseniks, after all, and who would be enforcing it?). Whether it would do anything to ameliorate atomisation seems unclear as well — and it could even aggravate the phenomenon by enabling its causes.

Say no to national service. We should all be invested in the places where we have made our homes but the answer isn’t top-down mandates from the people who have done so much to damage them.

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