31st Aug 2023

We are a nation of people who step up and take responsibility. Onward shows how we can help empower the next generation.

No one is more effective at helping others than a willing volunteer. Nothing is more rewarding than serving your community and nation. Many young people are struggling with their mental health, to find purpose, and feel a sense of belonging. Stepping forward to help others could be part of the answer. Service can help build the resilience, skills, and pride in their community and country that many need.

National service is an old idea, but today, the centre-right think tank Onward has unveiled its proposal for a modern version. I can understand its motives for doing so. They hope to harness young people’s goodwill and community spirit, tap into the energy and imagination of an exciting new generation, and promote good mental health and resilience. I applaud these objectives.

Other nations, including Switzerland, the USA, and Germany, have long used civic service to help new generations grow and develop. But for a scheme like this to work, it needs to work with the grain of Britain, like the ‘whole of society’ approach I embedded in our new National Resilience Strategy. Let me explain why.

Throughout history, Britons have felt a strong instinct and motivation to protect each other. We see this most at a time of national crisis. It’s been called the Dunkirk spirit, but it is on display every day, all year round. From winter, when tractor drivers help clear the snow, to summer, when volunteers run community programmes.

We saw it during the pandemic when a million people stood forward to deliver food parcels and administer injections. As a coordinator for National Resiliency in the Cabinet Office, I witnessed this first-hand. It was deeply moving. That’s when I knew that the full answer to national resilience lay in willing, capable, organised, motivated, and skilled volunteers. These acts represent the values of our nation. Personal responsibility is at the heart of it. And this is something that we should be encouraging in the next generation.

I’ve often thought about what makes someone take personal responsibility. For some, it’s a necessity. For others, it’s personal pride. For me, it’s duty. You can’t grow up in a naval town and not understand this. There is no greater personal responsibility than risking your life for your country. You can’t witness that duty, service, love and dedication without feeling a direct and personal obligation. That’s why the notion of military national service endures.

Thirteen million of us regularly volunteer. We are the nation of the RNLI, Mountain Rescue, Search and Rescue, St John Ambulance, and the National Trust. These charitable organisations are often more nimble, responsive and innovative than many of their public sector counterparts. Why? Because a volunteer is worth twenty pressed men.

The belief in taking personal responsibility for yourself and others, is what took me into politics. I believe it defines Conservativism. Socialism dilutes personal responsibility. Conservatism concentrates it. A responsible state needs responsible citizens.

Onward recognises government should have an interest in this. However, I believe this should be in convening and enabling citizens. A new national service scheme should be optional, not mandated. The more government intervenes, the less scope there is for enterprise, social and commercial. The more government compels a behaviour, the less likely it is to be sustainable. The volunteer armed and engineered with personal responsibility, enterprise, and initiative is one of the most powerful agents on earth. It harnesses the most natural instinct we have.

The pandemic necessitated a greater government involvement than our country was used to, or comfortable with. And like wartime, this was necessary but not sustainable. Too much government threatens to extinguish the fuel that keeps the national engines turning.

If personal responsibility is efficient in the public sector, then private enterprise is essential outside of it.  Both represent the key benefits of freedom. We are, as a country and as individuals fiercely self-reliant, hugely inventive and highly capable when we are allowed to be. It’s deep in the character of all four nations.

Onward is to be congratulated for this work. Their objectives and motivations are right.  But for them to succeed they should limit the role of the State. Let’s be bolder. Let’s trust the higher motives and values of the British people. This could be assumed to be naïve because it does not guarantee cooperation. It does though create possibility, opportunity, and hope. Onward’s research shows that’s also what young people want. Let’s harness their eagerness to help others and connect them with their communities and nation.