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Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Does being a Lib Dem mean my kids shouldn't be made to pick up litter in the street?

I did a degree in geography because (as I said once in a job interview, perhaps unwisely) it meant I could study pretty much whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, which rather suited my butterfly mind. Economics, politics, biology, urban movement, history, even historical literature - as long as you could find a spatial element to it, it was geography.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I read Ed Rooksby's piece in The Guardian, 'what does it mean to be a liberal?' It's a good summary of both the history of liberalism and the catholic groups and individuals who claim ownership of it as a philosophy.

And Ed makes the excellent point that all these diverse groups do have one core belief in common, which is:

'Liberalism is founded on a particular view of human nature and society – the assumption that human beings are, first and foremost, individuals. This foundation is simultaneously ontological and ethical. That is, it sees the individual as more fundamental, more real, than society, and at the same time regards the individual as much more morally valuable than any collective entity.'

Co-incidentally this has strong echoes of Nick's closing remarks in his Q&A with party members in London last week, in which he encouraged us to use more liberal vocabulary and to put the cherishing of the individual foremost in everything we do.

And I absolutely believe in this.

Which brings me on to picking up litter. No really, bear with me here.

I've blogged before about the fact that I've no real problem with the notion of 'The Big Society' if it means people volunteering to come together to do good things in their local community. In fact, I quite like it.

Now, a confession. While I'm not a fan (understatement) of the reintroduction of National Service, I can't get nearly so worked up about the notion of a period of compulsory community service for young people. I don't see there being much wrong with my kids spending a short period of time coming together with the rest of the local young people to do some good work in the community. Don't get me wrong, I'm not buying into any ludicrous suggestion that this would sort out all our problems and prevent a riot ever happening again. But I can still see the positives in it as a notion.

Then someone tweeted me yesterday (I'm sorry, I can't remember who but get in touch and I'll credit you). Their tweet said 'I'm very uncomfortable with the notion of compulsory community service. Implies state ownership of the individual'.

Which is of course logically quite right.

So there. Does the fact that I don't find the notion of my kids being made to do a period good in the community utterly unbearable, undermine all my Liberal principles?


I'd value your views.


As I was typing this on the train. Nick Clegg was announcing his rather brilliant Community Payback Scheme. To quote The Spectator..

'Cometh the hour, cometh Nick Clegg. The Independent reports that the Deputy Prime Minister is to announce that first-time offenders convicted of looting but not given custodial sentences will be forced to do community service in the very streets that they ransacked. The government hopes to ensure that community sentences are robust, inculcating a sense of responsibility in first-time offenders and insulating them from malign influences in prison. The Probation Service will oversee this programme, which Clegg has called ‘Community Payback’.'

First class


  1. I will personally riot in the streets myself before I allow the state to conscript my children.

    It isn't the idea of them sweeping the streets or painting walls or even, for that matter, undertaking military training that offends me, it's the idea of them being forced to do so against their will.

  2. well, yes, I perfectly understand that view and largely sympathise (though I'm very against the military connotations to which you refer). But i can't help but say that I am conflicted on this. How about if the process was part of the schools programme? We 'force' our children to be educated until they are 16. Would adding community service to the curriculum feel such a bad thing?

    Not sure why I'm finding this so tricky - it does seem in principle rather illiberal - but in practice a generally good thing.

    Maybe if everyone was offered it but you had to actively opt out if you objected?

  3. Hi Richard

    Thanks for the kind remarks about my article. I'm glad you liked it. I have to say that I think that liberalism's basic philosophical individualism (though attractive) is quite flawed.

    On your specific question, incidentally, balancing social duties and the demands of citizenship (which I suppose conscription would come under) with an ethic of individual liberty is one of the key concerns that liberal thinkers have always grappled with.

    I'm not a Lib Dem and I'm not really a liberal either, but isn't one problem with the sort of community service your considering (beyond ethical issues) the amount of bureaucracy, admin and policing it would require? Some agency would have to enforce and supervise it - chasing up people trying to dodge it and so on.

  4. Wow, that's quite a reaction.

    I'm actually with you on this Richard. I feel that it is completely illiberal and that I should be against it. However, I'm sure many teenagers would opt out of school if they could before they finished - we force them to go there why should a small period helping their community as a right of passage once finishing school be anything different?

    I think back to when I was 16 (9 years ago now) and I think it would have been a rather good thing. I don't think allowing opting out would be good though as those who would benefit most would be the most likely to opt out.

    The problem is though like your tweeting correspondent said is the association of State ownership of the individual - which I would obviously be very much against. I guess school is for their personal development, where as this would be less obviously so. So yeah, I'm conflicted too! I guess to get me behind it there'd have to be plenty of choice with regards activities.

  5. No, it seems my opposition is absolute. I've tried, and I cannot think of any form of compulsory community service that I would not oppose, not least because, even if I had no positive objections, I cannot see what the point would be anyway.

  6. Thanks All

    Ed - yes, though if liberalsim was truly all about rejecting a contribution to the structure of society, this would lead you to anarchy and hedonism, neither of which are terribly liberal! But i take your point.

    On the organisation - I guess the easiest solution is to run it via schools (who would need to be funded) - but here I am solving all the practical problems before I've even resolved if I agree with it philosophically!

    Great blog by the way, and much enjoyed your piece.

    Radar - yep, bummer isn't it. I can't help but think I would have enjoyed it too. But it's not very liberal...Doh!

    Anon - well, i think teaching kids that they can make a useful practical contribution to society is a good thing - but again, philosophically, I empathise with your position.

  7. I don't really dispute that teaching kids the value of contributing would be A Good Thing, what I question is whether compulsory community service would achieve this.

    I rather suspect it would be more likely to teach them to resent society even more.

  8. How about if we paid them?

    Doh? Why am I getting into an argument over something i'm not sure I agree with .

  9. We had to do Community Service at my school.
    We also had to do Geography.
    The latter felt like a far greater violation of my human rights.
    Seems like commom sense - which effectivley rules it out as a policy.

  10. Yes, compulsory meteorology. That would sort a few rioters out, no doubt.

    Hope you're well BTW!

  11. I think it is a good idea. Liberalism is not all about the freedom of the individual, in my opinion. It is about the balance between the rights of the individual and those of the community. The balance has gone too far towards the individual at present.

    By the way, Community Payback existed before Nick Clegg mentioned it. We have already had the Community Payback team removing knotweed in my ward. (Knotweed is a persistent weed and hard work to remove. A very suitable project.)

  12. Thanks. Yes, i think Community Payback seems such a good idea if handled sensitively and appropriately - surely a lot more effective than prison. Good to hear it's working well for you.