Conservative Home

« Graeme Archer's Diary: Brownian motion | Main | Elizabeth Truss: A new state »

David Abbott: Could national service mend our broken society?

David Abbott, journalist and author of Culture and Identity, argues that it is worth considering resurrecting the idea of National Service.

It’s not often that I find myself in agreement with the Daily Express, but when they welcomed David Cameron's proposals for a short version of national service - a "national citizenship service" - I thought they had a point. Further scouring of the Express website revealed that no less an authority than Andrew Marr, normally more to the left of things, had declared it a good idea in his latest book.

So could bringing back national service work? The idea has numerous attractions.  I challenge anyone who’s viewed ‘Bad Lads Army’ not to be impressed by the apparent changes in the featured delinquents. You might think the last thing we ought to be doing with our young people is teaching them even more about how to use guns and kill people, but this would be to miss the point.  OK, it’s a television programme; I have no idea what was edited out, nor the degree of recidivism.  Nor was it all pretty viewing.  However, on the face of it, being subjected to the discipline of a few worldly wise NCOs seemed to have an enlightening effect on the dodgy delinquents.

Now, your idea of NCOs may be either wildly idealised or darkly pessimistic, so let me sing their praises for them.  The Bad Lads Army NCOs were not saints, but neither were they sinners.   They would swear and curse and yes, at times, bully. But it was benevolent bullying.  And later on, these were blokes who could ask the dodgy boys some tough moral questions.  One of the lads was put on the spot by an NCO who asked him whether he loved the girlfriend with whom he had a baby, yet had refused to marry.  On another occasion a lad was put under severe moral pressure because it was believed he had cheated in a physical task by using pain killers. He caved in, confessed and was punished.

These moral improvements were made by a man with the body of a gorilla and up until those points his chief pleasures appeared to be shouting at the lads, swearing and giving the intimation, if nothing else, that what he would actually like to do is use physical violence on them.  Of course, all that is a bit of a pose – but it works.  At this point of course, some will start muttering, ‘Deepcut’.

Yes, indeed and certainly, real NCOs will be a varied bunch. But I believe that the general picture of the British NCO given in Bad Lads Army is generally enough reflected in real life. There are martinets of course, as in any walk of life, but their negative influence is marginalised by the majority and extremes like Deepcut are the exception. And of course, there are many subjects where the NCOs might not be your first choice of tutor, such as, er.., English Language and Poetry.  Ah, some smart Alec at the back will say, ‘Yes, and Citizenship and Morals as well’.  Well, I beg to disagree.

It would be a crude tutoring, that is true.  But from what I can see, it would be good enough. It would knock over-confident egos down to size. It would teach respect for others and the vital self-knowledge of one’s own limitations.  It could indeed, as Cameron hopes, teach people that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

Many objections are made of this sort of idea and some are worth raising here.

Firstly, the Armed Forces may be reluctant to help. They may argue that they are not here to provide adventure training or remedial socialisation for delinquents. They may also point out that they have neither the resources nor the time for this task or national service full stop; such duties would distract them from their chief task - defence.

A response to this would be firstly, that they would be training young people to be soldiers or in other trades, not to have a good time per se.  As to time, resources and focus, this should be seen as an addition to their resources and capabilities; as an opportunity, not a threat. For sure there would be costs: these would need to be assessed accurately and the burden fairly shared.   

Some would say that such a scheme would make for an overly militaristic society. Not necessarily.  Switzerland, Germany, Sweden and Denmark, all have compulsory military service, but don’t seem to be excessively aggressive and militaristic societies. 

National service would not be a panacea.  We would still have crime and sometimes vile and horrific crimes, as ever.  It might be though, that national service, in a new guise and carefully organised, could help to build a society with a greater degree of social cohesion. May be it’s worth giving it a go.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.