“Get scrubbin’ that Youth Centre you ‘orrible lot!”
As you will see, in the Independent this week Terence Blacker has resurrected the old chestnut of reintroducing National Service. As always, its thought that anti social kids will learn a bit of discipline by training them to be killers.
Quite what form this would take is open to discussion. Some advocate a return to the post war system of drafting young men into the army for two years and sending them off to wherever the army goes. Others, including “call me Dave” Cameron, suggest some sort of national service based on community action, sending groups of kids round picking up litter and cleaning the graffiti off the walls.
The arguments against the re introduction of compulsory military service are so obvious it is hard to believe that anyone seriously thinks it would be a good idea to bring it back. It is often said that you ‘Learn a trade’ in the army, but how? And what sort of useful trade are you going to learn? It could be said that if you can change a tank track in the arctic wastes or guide a smart bomb up Bin Laden’s bottom you are well qualified on civvy street for becoming an mechanic or computer programmer. But the majority of British industry now lies in the service sector (between 1995 and 1999 the Gross Value added of the service sector increased by 14%, that of the production sector by just 2%), working in call centres or banks, and it hard to see how the ability to remove the firing pin of an SA80 in 10 seconds is going to help you with that.
Then there is the economic argument. We are told that, thanks to a declining birth rate, we have a looming labour shortage, ie not enough people for the jobs available. It seems blindingly obvious that if we remove a large chunk of the working age male population and stick them in the army this shortage will be exacerbated. Look at the effects of this last time round. After world war two, as the country needed to rebuild, tens of thousands of young men were whisked off to the far corners of the globe so that the Imperial façade could be propped up that little bit longer. At home, with a diminished supply of labour, wages rose, the prices of British goods relative to those abroad rose, and our manufacturing industry collapsed. This wasn’t solely down to National Service, but at the start of our post war economic decline, it was a major contributing factor.
And even if we brought back National Service, where would we send them? After 1945 there was still plenty of Imperial pink on the map to absorb the Lads Army. National Service conscripts were sent to places like Cyprus, Malaya, Borneo, Kenya, Aden and Oman and saw action in all of them. Where would they go now? Iraq? Afghanistan? Can you imagine the outcry there would be in this country when the first coffins containing the bodies of 18 year old conscript soldiers arrive back from Basra?
And what of the cuddly option of community service? Its says a lot about British society that people leave such a trail of filth behind them that kids have to be drafted in to clear it up. It also says a lot that people wont help at a deaf centre or an old peoples home unless they have been conscripted. What we are faced with is the problem of indifference and apathy. People will drop litter in their street because they know the state will send someone along to clear it up for them. Having an army of road sweeps will only cause this to continue. Likewise with volunteering. Old people, for example, used to be cared for by their families but now they are farmed out to residential homes because of the same expectation that the state will take care of it. What needs to be tackled is the apathy and indifference that causes these problems, not the harmful effects.
The current clamour for bringing back National Service has been prompted by the increased of yobbish behaviour, an epidemic of low (and not so low) level crime and general anti social conduct most regularly represented in the form of ‘binge drinking’ and footage of young women with not much on flashing TV crews and young men fighting, vomiting and urinating in town centres all over the country every Friday night. The causes for this are many, and it is vital to note that the proponents of National Service do not seek to prevent this problem before it arises, merely to stick you in the army when it does.
In short, the reintroduction of National Service is a silly idea for silly people seeking imaginary solutions to very real problems.