Theme: Public Policy | Content Type: Blog

Taking National Service Seriously

Sanjit Nagi


Eddie Kopp

| 6 mins read

The Conservative Party have just released a notable general election manifesto commitment: a form of National Service. The plan would mandate 18-year-olds to choose between a 12-month placement in the armed forces or voluntary work for one weekend per-month. The policy quickly attracted criticism and Rishi Sunak’s aim of fostering a culture of service was dismissed by liberal-minded commentators and other political parties. Additionally, the Labour Party were reactionary and rejected the idea as costly.

However, while the policy does have flaws, its aim of creating a dutiful citizenry and greater community has, historically, been just as important to the Labour Party as public ownership, industrial strategies, and other socialistic goals. This post attempts to remind readers of the Labour Party’s communitarian tradition that placed importance on social cohesion and the moral character of society.

Early Labour Party figures like Ramsay MacDonald and George Lansbury rejected a laissez-faire society that was atomised and created a self-interested citizenry. In response, they advanced ethical ideas like fellowship which envisioned an interdependent and cooperative society – a society where rights correlated with societal duties. Importantly, key figures in the post-war Labour government continued to harbour such ambitions by a belief in civic participation (citizenship).

The Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, didn’t believe citizenship could only be fostered during times of national emergencies nor that economic policy was the main agent of societal change. For Attlee, stress also had to be placed on the duties owed to the community by citizens. He often claimed that “socialism was a way of life” and it demanded a “higher standard of civic virtue” – his desire was to reorganise society around service. Herbert Morrison, Leader of the House of Commons, also claimed the contribution of citizens was vital to the development of a true socialist society.

While there was support for public ownership, planning, and full employment, what truly underpinned the programme for government, according to Morrison, was ensuring that people could add to the common effort. The Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Arthur Greenwood, argued citizenship via voting was insufficient to produce an electorate imbued with a sense of duty. As such, it was important that citizens were put in positions to undertake societal responsibilities. Stafford Cripps, Chancellor of the Exchequer, explored ideas of citizen participation in relation to a planned economy. Moreover, even Aneurin Bevan, Secretary of State for Health, asked the working class to show an advanced maturity in accepting responsibilities that helped to move towards a socialist society. Lastly, Michael Young, Secretary of the Labour Party’s Policy Department, produced research that stressed people worked best and were happiest when their communities were an engaging forum to develop personal relationships and provided a sense of belonging.

Although it was recognised that encouraging duties could not be isolated from the extension of social entitlements, Attlee stressed that the Labour Party would always fight for a society that was “bound together by rights and obligations, rights bringing obligations, obligations fulfilled bringing rights”. This ideological position carried over into practical policy, where there was active support for and expansion of voluntary services.

For example, voluntary services were included in the provision of elderly care under the National Insurance Act 1948, support was also given to the Citizens Advice Bureau who were able to focus on non-material needs like active participation within the community, and grants were distributed to voluntary organisations who provided employment for disabled persons. The Labour Party peer Lord Pakenham endorsed the role of the voluntary sector and welcomed its developing partnership with the state under the Attlee government: “the voluntary spirit is the very life blood of democracy” and that they must be “encouraged to render great and indispensable service to the community”. Similarly, in 1947, Attlee claimed that his government was wholly committed to Britain’s voluntarist tradition: “the country will never become a people of an omnipotent state…I believe that we shall always have alongside the great range of public services, the voluntary services which humanise our national life and bring it down from the general to the particular. We need to stretch out to new horizons”. Lastly, Morrison regularly encouraged volunteering at community centres in the distribution of foods, in assisting the elderly, and in hospital services.

Even after full implementation of its policy programme, political exhaustion, and electoral defeat Attlee et al would continuously refer to the network of duties citizens owed to one another and that bound society together.

For a long time, the Labour Party has been liberal in its response to policies that subvert individual interests to wider community or nation-based policies. Perhaps it is time to re-embrace the policy-aim of evoking an internal desire within citizens to assist others and the community.

The idea of National Service is a start.

  • sanjit_nagi.jpeg

    Sanjit Nagi

    Sanjit Nagi is a PhD researcher at SOAS, University of London researching at the intersection of constitutional law, rights, and Labour Party history.

    Articles by Sanjit Nagi