The March edition of Prospect Magazine makes a bold and convincing argument for the introduction of compulsory civic service in the UK. The authors observe worsening attitudes towards the younger generation, just as young people themselves struggle to plot a course into adulthood. Civic education is therefore a moral imperative.
There is no doubt that the UK is becoming ever more fragmented. The worlds we create for ourselves continue to shrink just as the barriers between us become more visceral. A scheme that promises to bridge these worlds and facilitate greater cross boundary exchange can only be a good thing.
But does this concept of ‘the civic’ have anything to do with politics? The authors argue that producing better citizens is the main purpose of their scheme. However, their conception of the good citizen seems to be one fully engaged in the social sphere, but not the political.
It may be the case that social civic engagement leads to greater political awareness. However, this linkage needs to be questioned. What if the civic becomes a substitute for the political?
Part of the problem is distance. Westminster is both physically and metaphorically miles removed from the everyday lives of most young people in this country. The idea that one can affect political change seems remote. In fact, it is not even rational to vote: the time and effort needed to get informed seems to outweigh the miniscule impact you are likely to make.
Creating a better citizen entails not only promoting civic responsibility but also giving young people real political empowerment. This would entail politics taking a central place in school curriculum as both a subject of study and ongoing experience.
Doing this would go some way towards assuaging fears that civic service is a way of getting the state’s work done on the cheap. Rather than a benevolent government looking down on its people as they construct civil society, the distance between these two realms would shrink as the civic and political become entwined.
Creating a sense of belonging in no easy thing. But it is clear that creating more socially and political aware citizens is a step in the right direction.