1 September 2023

Reintroducing national service is a terrible idea


According to Ronald Reagan, the Eleventh Commandment instructed that ‘Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican’. A similar rule should also apply on this side of the Atlantic. So, it greatly pains me to be seen pouring scorn on an initiative by fellow members of the centre-right, and especially a think tank with as illustrious a record – and affable a leader – as Sebastian Payne’s Onward. 

Nonetheless, the James Boswell of the Red Wall and his disciples have produced a new report. Its reception has not been overly positive. That is because it advocates for a policy long-beloved by the Holy (and over-lapping) Trinity of saloon bar bores, arm-chair colonels, and Telegraph columnists: a return for national service.

To be clear: Francois Valentin and Adam Hawksbee (the authors) are not advocating for Britain’s idle youth to be shoved in a uniform and packed off to war. Instead, they recommend a scheme that appears to be an extension of the National Citizen Service (NCS), David Cameron’s pet project, and would involve a two-week residential course during school holidays, and six months of ‘social action’.

The need for the service, the authors argue, is because my fellow youngsters are ‘unhappy, unskilled, and unmoored’. One can’t disagree. As they point out, suicide rates amongst 15 to 19-year-olds are the highest in 40 years. A fifth of 18 to 24-year-olds are economically inactive. A majority feel they are less patriotic than previous generations. Someone call the Sex Pistols. 

But, as Payne points out, this doesn’t mean Generation Z and millennials have nothing to contribute to society. Indeed, they are eager to: three quarters of 16 to 26-year-olds helped their local communities during Covid, and polling suggests around two thirds are keen to do so. ‘Great British National Service’, the argument goes, is a way to positively channel that enthusiasm.  

The idea has merit. Schemes in Germany, Italy, and Israel have been praised for the skills they have taught those involved, and the sense of community they have created, by exposing participants to people and tasks they wouldn’t otherwise have experienced. The authors are keen to highlight that most participants in France’s Service Nationale Universel (SNU) find their time spent beneficially. 

However, any idea that’s supported by Rory Stewart must have something wrong with it. Leaving aside the obvious question of cost, one must ask whether a state-enforced programme of bake sales, camping trips, and awkward pubescent bonding is really the best way to convince our teenagers to stop killing themselves and get a job. 

The success of schemes like the NCS relies primarily upon the fact that they are voluntary. Participating young people may leave more skilful, confident, and well-rounded than their layabout peers. But that they have chosen to do the course means, by and large, they were naturally eager. What happens when they are joined by hundreds of thousands who don’t want to be there? 

The original form of National Service was wound up because the armed forces hated having to spend their time training many disinterested young men who quit the first chance they got. Indeed, I was ‘dishonourably discharged’ from my school Combined Cadet Force for poor behaviour. Teenagers may say they want to do more for their local area. But actually giving up your time for litter-picking is a different matter. 

Onward can point to polling suggesting 57% of the public support national service. Yet previous polling has made clear that those who tend to be most in favour of reintroducing some form of it are the least likely to be required to participate. A YouGov poll in 2018 found that 74% of those aged over 65 wanted national service reintroduced. Only 10% of 18-24-year-olds did.

There’s also the question of what those youngsters doing the ‘Great British National Service’ would actually do. Post-liberal types like Danny Kruger and Adrian Pabst have floated similar ideas to Onward’s. Kruger suggested a year of compulsory service on the local council; Pabst advocated for nature and community services to clean up rivers, restore biodiversity, and plug gaps in public services. 

Forgive my scepticism, but I hardly see how middle-aged politicians forcing youngsters to spend a year picking up litter or cleaning up their turds is going to foster a sense of community and close our generational divide. If anything, it will only further embitter a generation condemned to prolonged adolescence, eye-watering marginal tax rates, and a dysfunctional housing market.

The truth that any advocate for a form of national service must acknowledge is that it is usually the military aspect of any scheme that makes it most effective. Payne concedes that France’s SNU has ‘an explicit militaristic element’, including uniforms and flag-raising ceremony. Henry Hill has highlighted how the non-military side of Finland’s national service is much less successful than square-bashing. 

Advocates of national service no longer focus on the capacity for a few years in the forces to straighten out bad-mannered yoofs. Instead, we hear communitarian platitudes about fostering a sense of common citizenship in an increasingly diverse country. Hence why David Lammy, that noted intellectual, is a fan. For the left, it can conjure welcome myths of Clement Attlee’s Britain. 

Yet it is the post-war welfare state that has hollowed out exactly those institutions and values that advocates of a civic service are after. Similarly, in the absence of the Empire and with Ben Wallace’s exciting smorgasbord of hypothetical future wars, we no longer have the need of a conscript army. In that sense, any national service scheme is nostalgic and ill-suited to 2023. 

Then again, our first brush with national service came during our post-war period of state-led nation-building. Post-Brexit, as the spectre of deglobalisation looms and state capacity is back in vogue, perhaps such an initiative is required again. But one expects – and hopes – it would take a harder-edged form than an opt-out work experience programme for depressed future park keepers.

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.