Is the Prince of Wales onto something with his new initiative?


Amid the wave of publicity, could the impact of a number of initiatives (this being the latest) to re-engage young people in politics and civic society have far more radical impacts than establishment figures realise? (If so, good).

The challenge is this:

And this is what young people in East Anglia are doing with National Citizens’ Service:

Then at a local-to-me level, there’s been Puffles running riot all over the place spreading a message across Cambridge of social media for social action (see here followed up by this).

“Ah – grockles & peasants! Step up to serve me, then step back and grovel!”

There are two themes that seem to be running through the launch of the Prince of Wales’ Step up to serve initiative – one that brought David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg together. The first is the positive one of re-engaging young people, working with them to make a positive difference in their communities. The second is the more sceptical – even cynical, which is that royalty, the financial and the political establishment are the causes of the problems that young people face, so it’s a bit rich for them to be getting young people to volunteer.

Understanding the thinking of both points, and spotting the flaws in both too

An ‘Establishment’ view

In the grand scheme of things, those at the top of powerful and influential organisations and institutions will be happy – even encouraged that people are re-engaging in politics. On one side, having more people engaged and feeding into the decision-making processes could improve policy-making and also help improve public services. Having a more interactive relationship between citizen and state, or rather citizen and public service is better for everyone…isn’t it?

For a more sceptical take, such programmes give those in the offices of state and those that socialise with them a greater degree of political legitimacy over what they are doing, while at the same time mitigating for the worst impacts of the policies of the government of the day. Think of all of those under-employed who are being supported by their families because of the state of the economy and housing means they cannot afford to earn a living that allows them to afford their own place.

An anti-establishment view

Getting people to do things for free that they should otherwise be paid for means someone else bears the cost/burden of supporting those that work for free. One of the political left-right debates is over the roles of charities in public services. Some on the political left feel that some services provided for by charities (and funded by donations & fund-raising) should be provided for by the state. That such services are still needed are symptoms of failings to properly fund public services by politicians.

What some critics of the principle of such projects such as National Citizens’ Service miss is the perspective of the young people that take part. As far as many of them are concerned, it’s actually good fun.

Some of them have unleashed their creativity by making digital videos of their experiences – the above being just one of many I’ve spotted. Earlier this year, I joined around a hundred 16-17 year olds from across Cambridgeshire for their graduation event – speaking to several of those that took part, as well as the course leaders. (See my blogpost here). Some in activist groups I’m glad to say have understood the importance of both the fun element and also the ‘out and about’ element too. For me, the student-based People and Planet are exemplars in the events they organise. In the next few years, I’d love to see them hold their annual ‘shared planet’ event in Cambridge – mixing young people from the schools, colleges and universities in Cambridge with young activists from all over the country and beyond. The impact that this explosion of energy and ideas could have could be massive.

The impact of these programmes – young people are not static. Once you get a critical mass of them together, they are dynamic

That is what I don’t think the politicians or those in the institutions that hold power understand. The potential impact of all of this is definitely not business as usual. This for me helps explain why people have been shunning political parties – business as usual is not working for too many of us.

Parliament week opening the eyes of a dusty and stale political establishment

I followed several Parliament Week events on Twitter, and took Puffles along to one in Westminster too. (See here). The number of people who were ‘not the usual suspects’ taking part was brilliant to see. Even more so when Richard Heaton, Permanent Secretary of Cabinet Office threw open his institution’s doors to let a group of young coders try out some splendid ideas with government data. (See here).

There was one thing that disappointed me greatly though. That was the complete lack of publicised and linked events in Cambridge. My message to schools, colleges, universities and other public institutions in Cambridge: Let’s make Cambridge a hive of activities and events for Parliament Week 2014. I’m not just thinking about talks and debates. I’m thinking theatre and musical performances, problem-solving workshops and outreach to people and communities where both politics and civic society all too often passes people by.

Why is all of this important?

It’s important because politics is not working – whether at a local, national or a global level. Nothing could be more striking about the importance of making politics work for the people than the collapse of the International Climate Change talks in Warsaw this week (See here). I’ve been following the tweets on Puffles’ feed from several environmentalists at the talks, and they were describing how the talks got hijacked by big businesses and fossil fuel interests. See this statement from Friends of the Earth, who were there with Oxfam, Greenpeace and Action Aid.

‘We’re living in an increasingly networked and connected world, yet we’re increasingly disconnected from the politics that shapes it’

Paraphrasing one of the quotations from the first digital video above. I’ve seen what that disconnection looks like – the closed working groups where only vested interests get to have the contact with policy officials – of which I was one. Social media has given us the technology to dynamite these doors. Why should the lobbyists and vested interests only have to speak to the civil servants, politicians and ministers? Why not put those interests in front of public audiences and get them to account for themselves directly? What impact would that have if we could get Parliament to pass the necessary legislation to make that happen? (By that I’m thinking in particular of compelling private firms that deliver public services to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act for starters, so as to inform debates).

That means people and institutions that don’t normally get that much detailed public scrutiny (such as the finances of the Royal Family, or the decisions made by powerful privately owned institutions such as newspaper proprietors & editors) should be compelled to face a great deal more.

To conclude:

There are lots of us that are more than willing to step up to serve. But those with power, wealth, secrecy and influence have to do the same – and that means doing things that they may not want to. (Such as relinquishing large chunks of that power, wealth, secrecy and influence to free up the rest of us).

At the same time, those at the top of large institutions backing this scheme will need to learn quickly that for young activists stepping up will involve some radical changes to their institutions and how they are held accountable. Don’t think that the potential impact of these programmes will be political business as usual. It won’t.


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