Rory Stewart is MP for Penrith and the Border and a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee
I have spent much of this summer walking through Northern England and Southern Scotland. On those hills I met hundreds of people who loved the British landscape, and I found that almost every person in each village was driving voluntary projects, from the hospice movement to first responder medical care. People’s energies were, however, going into charities which were either very local, or grandly global. They seemed to be avoiding the middle ground of national projects and felt that politics was a dirty word. Voluntary activity was dominated by older people – the young were much less involved.
But I also saw the beginnings of an answer to some of these challenges. National Citizen Service is still a pilot. But it is now reaching tens of thousands of 16 year-olds. I met some of the students gathering in the Lake District as part of a two week course in an outdoors centre. They were building – somewhat rickety – rafts on Ullswater with the Prime-Minister. (I saw incidentally how much this project meant personally to the Prime-Minister – who felt his own life had been changed by going through a similar experience when he was 16.) I met the students later when they were working on voluntary projects in their communities.
It was a powerful combination. The participants had often been immersed all their lives in their families or schools. They were learning to live independently in an outdoor centre, and then in a rain-soaked tent. They were pushing themselves to climb mountains, or ford streams. They were learning how to work as a group. They were taking responsibility for real projects in communities. And they were succeeding, often to their surprise, in all these things. Some of the benefits were obvious. The mentors talked of building self-reliance or ‘life skills’. Some stories were moving: a girl from London, for example, described how surviving on her own on the hillside had given her confidence for the first time.
Many of them had never lived outdoors. Students from cities were learning that the countryside was also theirs. Their activities gave them a stake in that landscape. They were experiencing directly the countryside, which is the core of our national heritage. They were working in teams with people from different backgrounds, from cities, from villages, from different ends of the country. They were learning how they were part of a larger, more varied society – that included Brighton as much as Penrith or Newcastle. And they were learning it in a very British way. They were outdoors, in a country which first discovered the romance of landscape; and they were working in charities in a nation which has a particular genius for community action.
The National Citizen Service has been piloting for three years, and growing steadily and successfully. 50,000 people should pass through the program this year in England and Northern Ireland. I believe we can grow it more quickly. We should aim to get the majority of the seven hundred thousand sixteen year olds in Britain entering this scheme over the next three years. We should expand to Scotland and Wales. We should make the experience deeper, and longer. There are already many good youth programs.
But this would be different because it would be truly national: reflecting our imagination and values as a nation. We should also aim to make it close to universal. It will cost money – perhaps as much as half a mile of Crossrail – but it is difficult to think of a single program that would make as much difference to as many people.
The students spoke of how these weeks changed their life. But its deepest benefit may be for our identity as citizens. If we are bold enough, we could help a new generation to see a potential beyond their families, or their offices. We can help them find what we share in our landscape, and in the energy of our different communities. We can stretch ourselves to be more than simply citizens of a neighbourhood – or simply, blandly, citizens of the world. We can become again, in a fuller sense, citizens of Britain.