It’s time for us to rediscover our national character

Sophie Livingstone, City Year UK’s Chief Executive, Co-Chair and Co-Founder of Generation Change, and a Trustee at Royal Voluntary Service, writes for Clore Social Leadership.


Make no mistake, this country faces huge challenges.  We have an epidemic of loneliness and isolation, a mental health crisis, girls growing up with extreme levels of anxiety about the pressure to conform, and a high rate of young male suicides.  We are a world leader in educational inequality, social mobility is ever more entrenched, we have a social care crisis and a subsequent near NHS meltdown. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 13.5m do not earn enough to get by.

The people we rely on to manage the consequences of these challenges – doctors, nurses, care workers, teachers, social workers, prison officers – are generally underpaid, undervalued and facing severe staff shortages.

Additionally, those we need to lead us through to the other side – the politicians who have stepped up to contribute to our nation through their service – are increasingly trolled, threatened and abused as ‘career politicians’.   A sense of meaning and connection is missing from our public discourse amidst the value placed on sound bites and showbiz over experience and compassion.

My belief is that a lack of collective meaning and purpose is tearing us apart. We have gone too far in valuing the cognitive over the human and emotional.   It’s certainly been my recent experience during interaction with a wide range of public services as a result of a family tragedy.

But there is an opportunity to do things differently. Whatever our personal views about Brexit, it does give us the opportunity to reconsider what defines our country in the 21st century, and what public service now means.  Civil Society has a proud tradition of shaping public discourse and action, whether it be the settlement movements of the 19th century, or the creation of the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS – now the RVS) during the Second World War to involve women in tackling the challenge of war at home.

The 2005 Make Poverty History campaign changed the game for international development.  Tackling domestic poverty is complex and ongoing, and the issue is entwined with our national culture. But if our great sector is not able to step up and represent humanity, compassion, values and leadership, then all really is lost.

It still feels like a huge and daunting challenge – and it is, bigger than any one of us. But unless we all feel a sense of responsibility to go beyond hand wringing towards trying to turn the tide, we are as much a part of the problem.  Civil society has been at the forefront of national movements for change before and we need it to do so again, urgently.

A few non exhaustive thoughts about what should change, and some glimmers of hope include:

  • Expand National Citizen Service, which has made a great start over the last six years, to more age groups and models, using the power of the brand to show young people their contribution is valued.
  • Build on the success of Teach First, Frontline and Police Now by creating more ways for young people to gain experience and entry into public and voluntary service, going beyond just the top graduates to all young people.
  • Change the way we treat and value older people and their wisdom, growing and supporting those organisations and networks that create more connections, such as the Royal Voluntary Service and North and South London Cares.
  • Accelerate and value emerging leaders in our sector through schemes such as Clore Social.
  • Support initiatives which give a voice to those who often feel they have no say, such as Undivided; a youth led campaign giving young people aged 13 to 30  a way to input to the Brexit negotiations.
  • Supporting the ‘Solve UK Poverty’ plan set out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in September.

The Founder of the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, Lady Stella Reading believed that the strength of a nation ‘lies not in her trading, nor in the multitude of her financial transactions. It’s not found in her banking operations nor in the acumen of her leaders. The ultimate strength of a nation lies in the character of the men and women who are that nation and voluntary service is an integral part of that character.’

We need to rediscover our national character and I believe that starts with each of us.

Please post your comments on Sophie’s blog, or you can share your views with her on Twitter.

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