‘I promise that I will do my best’
‘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.