Co-production and the conscription scare


The world of young men was seriously upset last week by the canard promoted by the Daily Telegraph, that war with Russia was somehow imminent – which meant we faced a manpower crisis that could only be solved by conscription.

My 16-year-old was very worried about it and he never reads the Telegraph – or much else, it has to be said – but he told me that Tiktok was absolutely alive with fearful complaints about it.

Rishi Sunak was forced to issue a denial, which can’t have been easy for him.

But General Sanders was speaking the truth as far as it goes – which is that there is a recruitment crisis in the armed services at the moment – hardly surprising given how much their accommodation and pay has been penny-pinched.

Which means that the last thing Sunak needs is suddenly for the government to be responsible for paying and equipping every young person in the UK for two years each.

I told my son that, in the run-up to war, we would know it by the sound of every wealthy or posh person pulling strings to get themselves to be officers for the duration. Just like last time.

Also just like last time, there are bound to be ancient, crusty former military types  in Parliament making tut-tutting noises about ‘young people these days’ – just as they did after the 1936 vote for the Oxford Union debate that “this house will not fight for king and country”.

It means nothing. Three years later, there was no problem finding people to risk their lives for the nation as a whole (although, it is true that conscription had been reintroduced by then).

Perhaps because I’m at the other end of my life – I am 66 in May – I’m not as against the idea as perhaps I ought to be.

But it is also because of my experience in the USA, where ‘national service’ is a left issue, not a right-wing one.


Because an all-volunteer military in the USA means that an overwhelmingly black army had to bear the brunt of the fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan – while the children of those who ordered them there were let off the hook.

Would America’s leaders have been quite so keen on invading Iraq if their own children were going to have to do it? Under this argument, conscription would actually make war less likely.

It was huge relief in the UK when conscription stopped in 1960, but there were some positive benefits to national service in the UK which we should not forget.

It undermined the class system. It gave young people insights into the sheer range of their fellow citizens. It gave them a stake in society, and confidence in their abilities. It increased national cohesion.

So the real question is how to achieve something similar here – without going back to anything like compulsory military service?

So yes, this is a discussion about volunteering, but with a difference – or rather two differences.

One, we are talking about it the opposite way round to usual. Ministers talk about volunteering – when they talk about it at all – as something that meets needs.

The point here is that it also has enormous benefits to the volunteers – and these may far outweigh any benefits to the people who are volunteered to (I will come back to that later).

What I think the American approach recognises is that most people also have a serious and largely unrecognised needs – unrecognised at least by politicians – to make a contribution.

To find what Kennedy called “a cause beyond self”.

The other difference is that we are talking about volunteering policy and its possibilities, not as the last conceivable item on any manifesto list, but one that puts it potentially absolutely central to what any government wants to do.

On the USA, Kennedy’s potent phrase led to the Peace Corps. A similar scheme dates back to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty: Vista Volunteers are paid a basic stipend to work for a period of two years with non-profit groups.

Then there is Americorps, which dates back to the 1992 presidential campaign when Bill Clinton found, to his surprise, that his ‘civilian service’ idea got the loudest cheers in his campaign rallies.

The Republicans fought AmeriCorps every inch of the way, but it has actually proved extremely popular.

So when George W. Bush was criticised for asking ordinary Americans to go shopping to help the economy, as their sole contribution to the post 9/11 world, lo and behold, a new organisation emerged called Freedom Corps which was originally intended to subsume the others.

So in the Budget speech in 2004, Chancellor Gordon Brown announced his intention of launching a British Americorps, dubbed by the press as Britcorps.

There was a pilot scheme running already, basically paid volunteering for young people. but 20 years on,we are still waiting. It could have been an enormous potential boost to the voluntary sector and community endeavour at every level.

It could have provided a means whereby anyone of university age could find some cause beyond self, and experience the way other people live.

It could also have broken down some of the old-fashioned categories that still get in the way. This is paid volunteering, after all, but it’s still volunteering.

But there are three other things to say about this. First, if Britcorps had become a major model of UK volunteering, it would also have left some of the structural problems of the voluntary sector pretty untouched.

The emerging division between the new mega-charities, which are government agencies in all but name – using public money, measured and micro-managed by targets like a government agency, carrying out tasks that would once have been done by government agencies – and the smaller charities, whose lives are entirely focused on the bizarre funding arrangements ushered in by short-term grants from the Lottery or otherwise.

It is for example now relatively easy to raise money to evaluate a community project. It is possible also to raise money to start an innovative new idea. But once that idea has proved itself, shown that it works successfully – can have a major effect on people’s lives – it is next to impossible to raise money to continue it.

You have to to the statutory sector, say the funders – but there is no statutory sector prepared to fund them any more.

This is the big lie of modern philanthropy. And simply providing charities with a constant supply of stipend staff via Britcorps wouldn’t have solved the problem – though there’s no doubt that it would have helped.

Second, there was another kind of divisiveness potentially at the heart of Britcorps. The one between the volunteers and the volunteered-to.

This is not a dig at the tremendous work that indefatigable volunteers do all over the country every day. But it is to point out that sometimes, when you ask for nothing back from the person being helped – maybe for their entire lives – you give a damaging and erroneous message. 

That the person has nothing whatever to offer that society needs – which is a deeply damaging, disempowering message which is at the heart of a great deal of contemporary social collapse.

“Charity wounds,” said the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, and this is what he meant.

Third, and following on from that, Labour’s policy in government in this area has been skewed for some year – towards semi-professional volunteering: trained, mentored, measured.

It is middle class volunteering, parachuting into poor neighbourhoods. What was at one stage referred to in government circles as ‘meaningful volunteering’.

Well, I say we need more meaningless volunteering. Volunteering below the official radar, something unmeasured.

Not just because the people who are volunteered to or mentored have great skills, experience and time that we need. Nor just because we are currently wasting these. But because the need for a ‘cause beyond self’ is actually universal.

It doesn’t just exist in students or the middle classes. It exists in people with long-term depression, in disabled people, in unemployed people and bedridden elderly people.

What’s more, our experience with time banks is that, once people found they were needed after all – doing something useful, something that allows them to look themselves in the face – their lives could be transformed.

So what we need, and need urgently, is some kind of infrastructure that allows anyone – whoever they are – to do the work that neighbourhoods need.

And do so, even while they are receiving help themselves – to end, in other words, the old division between giver and receiver.

Reciprocity, in other words, is the great missing moral principle in so much of recent policy on volunteering.

We need gap year students, certainly. It will make an enormous difference to provide them with stipends on the same scale as they do in the USA. But actually, even more, we need everyone.

Doctors can’t make people well without their co-operation, but also the co-operation of family and neighbours too.

The police can’t tackle crime.

Our new infrastructure would allow everyone to do these very little things, in other words, but things that professionals can’t actually supply, however well-resourced they are. Engaged people. Friendly faces.

This is the missing element in public service reform that keeps being forgotten. It has nothing whatever to do with public representation on boards, and everything to do with volunteering – but meaningless volunteering, reciprocal volunteering, that requires some kind of infrastructure to make it work.

This is an idea increasingly known as ‘co-production’, and there are more and more examples of how this can break the back of otherwise intractable problems.

It’s about redefining citizenship along these lines, so that we no longer have an increasingly exhausted professional class and an increasingly disempowered client class for whom time hangs heavy.

But it’s also about reforming public services so that they are efficient, and welfare services so that – maybe even for the first time since Beveridge – they actually work.

It’s about recognising that nothing the government can do, with their regulations and targets, is able to make things happen without the active involvement of the clients of services, working alongside.

This is also a plea really to roll back technocracy, the miserable Fabian-inspired creed that has so undermined our neighbourhoods. 

To shift professional practice so that they no longer simply categorise clients for what they can’t do, but start looking for what they can.

And to reform a welfare system that asks nothing of anybody except that they should demonstrate constant need in order to access anything from the system.

This is, after all, a system which forgets that, at some point, professional support will end, prisoners will be released, patients discharged – yet has done nothing to provide effective, informal family support systems to hold things together.

The thought that we may have to persuade another generation of Labour politicians that this is the case is certainly exhausting

We need experiments in this country like the youth courts in Washington, which now try half the first time non-violent offences in juries of teenagers. Who earn credits for being there they can spend on computers and training. Or like the peer tutoring system in Chicago public schools, also able to engage young people as advocates of good behaviour.

We need a network of reciprocal systems – maybe time banks, maybe similar – in every public institution from doctor’s surgeries to schools and housing estates, that are able to measure and reward the small efforts people make.

We need a major fund for charities and public sector organisations to back experiments with co-production – reinforced by regulations that they must use some system whereby professionals and clients can be equal partners in the delivery of services.

We need an understanding by Lottery funders that any grant must be matched by time put in mutual support by local beneficiaries.

This is really the only way we can tackle the culture of empty community centres staffed by professionals, and lottery funding for middle class professionals that may or may not have any permanent impact on the ground.

Those four things are intended to bring volunteering policy to bear on wider social and political issues, to try and break out of the glass bubble where it currently exists – so that it is once again a key element of health policy or schools policy or housing policy.

Lying behind all of this is the question of how governments can act upon the world. In social policy it often seems that they can’t, but having said that, there are important caveats.

They need new ways of helping people make personal change happen, and this is something governments and professionals simply can’t do alone. They can’t just do it with billboards and remonstration either. They have to work with ordinary people, giving their time and effort, at local level.

It means, perhaps to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, asking not what your health centre can do for you, but asking what you can do your health centre.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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