An Olympian national service
The Olympics undeniably stoked the passion, wonder and patriotism of Britons – and the praise of the rest of the world. But as the debate shifts to the Olympic legacy, particularly on the economic regeneration of East London, what will be its legacy on the regeneration of the pride and patriotism among Britain’s citizens?
The British tend to think of themselves as averse to the unabashed flag-waving patriotism of some countries, notably the USA. But the past two weeks – and really the past year, since the Royal Wedding – have shattered that rusty and outdated self-image. Union Jacks have been ubiquitous; the cries of support have been deafening and wildly enthusiastic. As Demos Director David Goodhart argued on the Demos blog the Olympics marked 'an important moment in the evolution of the national identity story'.
New polling of Britons following the Olympics shows a huge boost in good feeling towards the usual targets of ire: politicians, transport, the BBC and the Royal Family. 70 per cent of those polled reported an improved opinion of the Royal Family, 81 per cent reported an improved opinion of the BBC, and 49 per cent had an improved opinion of public transport. Perhaps most surprisingly, the politicians also received a boost: 60 per cent had improved their opinion about Boris Johnson, while 43 per cent reported an improved opinion of David Cameron.
But the question many people are asking is how to sustain that level of pride now that the last medal has been awarded. Is Britain’s new-found patriotism and pride a mere fireworks display: an exciting but short-term show of flash and fury, that disappears suddenly in a cloud of smoke and silence? How can we ensure that the next generation receive the baton of Olympic-fuelled patriotism?
Demos research suggests that volunteering could be the answer. In a recent Demos report, A Place for Pride, our research discovered a link between local volunteering and feelings of patriotism. Boris Johnson and David Cameron have cited the incredible number (80,000) of volunteers who were critical to the smooth running and good feeling of the Olympics (in the survey cited above 58 per cent said the success of the Olympics was down to the volunteers), and wondered aloud how these selfless and motivated individuals can continue to volunteer in their local communities – particularly in supporting local sports networks. Strangely, neither mentioned the Government’s National Citizen Service for young people.
The focus on volunteering has rightly been at the centre of the Government’s strategy to regenerate patriotism and active citizenship. The flagship National Citizen Service for 16 year olds is the prime example of this. The programme is only in its second year but initial evaluations suggest positive outcomes: over 90 per cent agreed that NCS had given them the chance to know people they wouldn’t normally mix with, while 85 per cent reported feeling more positive towards people from different backgrounds. Moreover, 77 per cent of participants said that they were more likely to help out locally.
There are outstanding questions about the NCS. The programme is too short-term (only 4 weeks) and too closely tied to political objectives: the latter forcing it to grow at a rate that appears unsustainable and risks sacrificing quality. It also remains unclear whether the grand ambitions of the Government – to have every 16-year-old (which is over 700,000 people) take part without making the scheme compulsory – can actually be realised. At that level, the scheme would require a sizable army of qualified staff and volunteers: the perfect task, it seems, for 80,000 Olympic volunteers.
But beyond logistical considerations, the success of the National Citizen Service depends on how it sits in people’s minds. For many, the scheme is allied to the riots of last year because of the Prime Minister’s announcement of NCS as a solution to Britain’s unruly yobs. But the scheme can and must be more than this. National service must be projected as something exciting and inspirational, not punishment.
In August 2012 we saw the best of Britain, while in August 2011 we saw the worst. The Government should seek to capitalise on the good will of the Games and align NCS with something positive and inspirational. Otherwise national service will be draped in a familiar cloak of cynicism, rather than the Union Jack.