‘I promise that I will do my best’

Rivkah Brown

‘Scoutcraft,’ Robert Baden-Powell said, ‘is a means through which the veriest hooligan can be brought to ... God.’ It was in a similar spirit that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport last week gave £5 million to uniformed youth groups to create 5500 extra places in deprived areas across England. It won’t offset the projected £2 billion shortfall in children’s services by 2020. But the minister for sport and civil society, Tracey Crouch, says the money will equip ‘vulnerable young people’ with the ‘friendships’ and ‘important life skills’ they need to ‘reach their full potential’.

The initiative has its origins in David Cameron’s rebranding of small government as the Big Society. In July 2010, he said that the ‘three big strands’ of the ‘Big Society agenda’ were ‘social action’, ‘public service reform’ and ‘community empowerment’: the term ‘power’ and its cognates appeared 16 times in the speech. ‘It’s about liberation,’ he declared, ‘the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street.’

As the ‘big local leaders’ of tomorrow, young people were to lead the charge, and in 2012 the prime minister commissioned a report on how they might do so. ‘In the Service of Others: A vision for youth social action by 2020’ recommended that youngsters be given more ‘opportunities to tackle difficult social challenges’. It led to the creation of the National Citizen Service, a two to four-week programme from which 400,000 15 to 17-year-olds have so far graduated; #iwill, a campaign to promote volunteering among 10 to 20-year-olds; and direct funding for uniformed youth groups, of which last week’s was the latest instalment (an earlier windfall came in 2014 when the government turned £10 million of Libor fines – talk about ‘redistribution of power’ – into a Uniformed Youth Social Action Fund). Cameron's hope was that these groups would foster ‘social action’ in two ways: by putting young people into the voluntary service of their communities now, and by giving them the ‘life skills’ to become future community leaders.

Uniformed youth groups have always talked a big game about social action, but they have never been remotely interested in facilitating the oppositional forms of collective endeavour required to enact social change on any meaningful level. Social action for them, as for Cameron, is empty of political potency; a milk-and-water do-goodery manifested in ‘simple, everyday, neighbourly acts’ such as running a coding club or befriending someone with Alzheimer’s.

They may look like collective movements, but everything that uniformed youth groups do is geared towards individual development as measured in badges. Whether the ‘Girls Matter’ campaign that the Guides ran during the 2015 general election actually furthered gender equality is less important than that a few dozen girls earned their Protesting stripes. The goal-oriented managerialism of uniformed youth groups steers young people into differentiated, predetermined social roles that actively inhibit group agency. Which works for government, since a good citizen is easier to manage than an engaged demos.

Perhaps worst of all, the intrinsic individualism of uniformed youth groups transmutes social ills into personal problems, social transformation into personal ‘potential’. This assigns young people what Ulrich Beck called ‘the impossible task of finding biographical solutions to systemic contradictions’. It's the reason uniformed youth groups love case studies. A young man’s brother may have been stabbed at school; his friend may have died in Grenfell Tower; but as a Police Cadet, ‘I’m representing a positive force in the world.’

Expecting children to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, to be the change they want to see in the world, deliberately obscures their entanglement in structural inequalities. How much good is a DIY badge for a Scout living in a squalid rental home, or a Backwoods Cooking badge for a Guide who’s too poor to eat healthily? Under the guise of civic enfranchisement, the government is individualising child poverty in a way that makes poor children responsible for social justice while preventing them from joining forces to effect it.


  • 25 September 2018 at 2:54pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    'Friendship', 'life skills', 'simple, everyday neighbourly acts'. A young man with a troubled, deprived environment now 'representing a positive force'.
    No, this doesn't constitute a social revolution but, little by little, it may just make the world a slightly better place.

  • 25 September 2018 at 3:11pm
    Aristote says:
    Red guards loathed "individualism".

  • 25 September 2018 at 5:17pm
    John Cowan says:
    You can hardly expect a group founded in order to provide (military) scouts for the British colonial wars to support social revolution. That said, there is no doubt that having an organized opportunity to learn and to help others is good for everybody, not just the children of the elite. Marmaduke Jinks nails it.

  • 26 September 2018 at 11:18pm
    gary morgan says:
    The penultimate sentence of the 3rd paragraph from the end is the nadir of a less-than-sparkling piece of prose redolent of management-speak the ethos of which the writer correctly seeks to oppose.
    I find it frustrating than someone with whom I am in agreement is either unable or somehow unwilling to write clearly. This is not pedantry, this matters. Why the obscurantism? Why blunt a good case?
    Stefan Collini manages to oppose boilerplate with sharp prose. Try reading his pieces and write more pointedly. Please.

  • 4 October 2018 at 3:49pm
    semitone says:
    I read this post, after a long absence from reading the lrb blog, in my car while my two sons (eight and ten) played strenuous, interesting, complicated and fun team games with their cub troop and another from the neighbouring town on a field, torches on, as the sun set and play continued in the darkness.

    The care and support they receive from the volunteer cub leaders, including some special provision (my eldest is autistic) is sometimes amateurish but always well-meaning and kind. The benefits both boys gain from their association with cubs are undeniable.

    There is no "goal-oriented managerialism" that I can see; just support for children of very different abilities and social backgrounds to spend time with each other. Uniforms are unobtrusive and only really required at the odd church service or parade (which we don't attend). No-one is being steered into anything resembling differentiated, predetermined social roles and no group agency is being inhibited.

    If they weren't running round this field developing social skills and having fun, they'd be at home reading Lemony Snicket; probably not, or not yet, experimenting with oppositional forms of collective endeavour to enact social change.

    This article was offensive, not least to all the volunteers who spend their evenings and weekends organising games and activities for other people's children. I wonder whether Ms Brown would care to share with us her own experience of voluntary work with young people, and how it is so superior to the milk-and-water do-goodery of sharing friendship, teaching life skills and the simple, everyday neighbourly acts that sets my children an example I hope they follow throughout their lives.

    • 15 May 2019 at 10:30am
      semitone says: @ semitone
      Probably I need to get out more, but the article in today's Guardian about the revival of scouting membership reminded me of this article.

      I note that Ms Brown has declined to defend her piece or describe how her own voluntary work is superior. Fair enough, no need to respond to everything on the internet, but in that case why call it a blog?

      Two Fridays ago I took my eldest to Scouts and, as the troop is short-staffed, stayed for the duration. A dozen boys and girls aged 10-14 watched the David Attenborough film about climate change. I think about climate change and energy policy for a living, so with permission of the Scout leader I ran an impromptu discussion and Q&A afterwards. Their enthusiasm for the topic and willingness to imagine the gravity of the challenge and ideas for solutions was infectious and exciting.

      So maybe it's Rivkah Brown who needs to get out more.

Read more