In my latest for The Critic, I argue against National Service and Minister-led ‘volunteering revolutions’.
That’s because the ever-increasing scope of government – both local and national – expunges ever more small, local forms of association, reducing the rights, roles and responsibilities born by the public realm. It is, as David Marquand puts it, a ‘hollowing out of citizenship,’ and the result has been a reconstruction of British society founded on the presumption that ‘the public realm is morally, economically and socially inferior to the private realm.’ This is the ideology that drives hub-based government, and the hollowing out becomes a self-fuelling motor to drive yet more state expansion.
This speaks to some of the tensions in conservative postliberalism. The advent of globalisation has left individual citizens more exposed than ever to global forces outside their control, and conservative postliberals believe the nation-state must become stronger in order to protect its’ citizens from those global forces, to provide increased economic and cultural security. As Michael Ignatieff writes; ‘what effective sovereignty means for an average citizen is that their state has some real, even if limited, capacity to protect them from economic harms that are not their fault.’
But the more power the state gathers, the weaker civil society becomes. The weaker civil society becomes, the more difficult the pursuit of ‘the common good’ becomes, because civil society is the vehicle by which the common good can most effectively be pursued. As Alasdair Macintyre argues; ‘the shared public goods of the modern nation-state are not the common goods of a genuine nation-wide community and, when the nation-state masquerades as the guardian of such a common good, the outcome is bound to be either ludicrous or disastrous or both.’
If postliberal conservatives want to repair Britain’s fractured public realm, they should view their task as something akin to repairing a great vaulted ceiling in an ancient church. The roof must be made strong to keep out the elements, as the state must be strong to protect its’ citizens from forces outside their control; but a torrent of ribs, each of which must bear its’ weight, hold that roof aloft. Those ribs are the local, durable and self-governing associations, institutions and groups that constitute the building blocks of British common life. Each block is largely, in its’ way, insignificant. But the gradual erosion of thousands over the years leaves our roof preciously unsupported; without them, there is no meaningful sense of British common life and no meaningful pursuit of ‘the common good,’ as Roger Scruton wrote;
If we are in a position to decide on our collective future, it is because we already have one… because we already belong together, as members of a social entity, bound by historical obligations at least some of which we did not choose. In other words, the social contract makes sense only on the assumption of an historical community, a first person plural, which is not the result of a contract at all.
The nation-state ‘is not the primary keeper of the common good.’ It is instead a means to assert national sovereignty, a way to protect citizens, the last groaning bulwark against the unrelenting savagery of the world. But you cannot turn the nation state into a national community; a roof cannot support itself. Lord knows it needs repairing, but it is the masonry that is crumbling, and it cannot be patched up.
In many ways, I agree. But I would draw a distinction between the two examples you use in the first sentence. To me, the concept of 'National Service' (at least as traditionally meant) was based on bringing people together to serve what almost all agreed was a common good - the defence of the Realm. One might not want to do NS, but at least most could agree on the underlying rationale. As such, one of the great benefits of NS was the mixing of people from all walks of life in an environment of discipline and unified purpose - which qualities people could take back to their communities when released. The danger of the second example is that we could all have vehement disagreements on what a 'volunteering revolution' might look like, and which causes should be supported. I would certainly share your implied expectation that I wouldn't like most of those causes, and I therefore completely agree that such an approach would be deeply undersrable.
To me, there has undoubtedly been a massive weakening of the bonds of community and society over recent decades. There are many obvious and natural reasons for this, and Thatcher's famous quotation about society was undoubtedly absolutely correct. So recognising that those bonds of community have weakened, and seeking to do something sensible about it is vital - and your diagnosis of how we have eroded those building blocks is, I think, spot-on.