The difference a few years make

It wasn't me sir. He said it.

These last few years have changed us in so many ways. One that’s noticeable is that subjects which were once toxic to mention politically are now accepted by a larger section of the public. An example would be tax. Polls suggest that a majority of the public would like to see higher taxes on the wealthy to help balance the budget. But I’m not going to talk about a subject that now has majority support, instead I will tackle one that probably is still toxic.

A few years ago on this blog I bought up the subject of national service. it’s a difficult subject to discuss if one hasn’t had to endure it oneself. I was lucky and missed it as did Will Self, pictured above, who missed it by a lot more years than myself. Yet two days ago Will Self bought it up again on BBC Radio 4′s A Point of View. You can see the description by clicking here.

Now I don’t agree totally with Will Self who sees national service being just military conscription, but it’s interesting how he links it with the lack of real life experience our politicians seem to now have, which I don’t think I did when I wrote about it. Anyway I do think he is correct to see this as a way of improving our political class.

Now my view is that national service shouldn’t just be military, but should include the policing, public sector service and even parenting for young mothers. Reaching eighteen, for example, young people should have the chance of choosing the service they would like to spend a year on. Many will probably want to follow a military path, or perhaps some sort of environmental job. Who know foreign aid may come into it like Kennedy’s Peace Corp. Perhaps for unpopular work like possibly policing, a financial inducement can be offered.

Where we gain is that we would then a truly citizen’s army and citizen’s police force and so on. Young people would have some experience before having to look for work or continuing in education. I can imagine some little Asian girl, probably with an arranged marriage in front of her, being told the facts of life by a white girl from a Liverpool estate or a black girl from Tottenham and discovering the ability to resist parental pressure. There is a lot of going for this idea, better integration being just one. Maybe this could be part of an FDR-like New Deal for Britain.

I think the rules would have to be pretty strict. There must be no separate entry point for an officer class. From princes to travellers it should be equal. Also no student deferments as this is a way of bringing the system into disrepute. Anyway don’t most better off students want to have a gap year.

Just a dream of course. Still maybe Will Self will make it just a little less toxic. As he says it doesn’t have to be reserve of the right or I would say the old Tory shire warriors. Of course some may rather make jokes about Will’s connections with toxic substances rather than with toxic ideas, but I can’t but help think he is just that one step ahead of where public opinion may be in couple of years.

  • Johndclare

    Absolutely correct – I keep saying ‘Civilian Conservation Corps’ without anyone taking any notice at all.

    • LesAbbey

       John, anything that helps integrate society has to be a plus. It’s not just integration of race or culture, it’s integration of social class. If all kids had this one year together I think we wouldn’t see the wide disconnect between for example, a cabinet of millionaires and the people in the street. (And yes the shadow cabinet could also be used as an example I suspect.) I’m pretty sure the ‘One Nation’ Tory ideology grew out of serving with all parts of society during WW2.

      • LesAbbey

         The above should be from LesAbbey.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting how National Service is promoted by those who would be too old to be conscripted. When we had National Service the maximum conscription age was 51. Will Self will be 51 in September 2012. And you Les have previously told us that you are no spring chicken, counting yourself lucky to have avoided it.

    National Service is massively unpopular among the young in those countries that still have it (those who actually have to do it). It is close to the ultimate nanny state piece of direction (Do this job, its good for you; and if don’t, you will go to prison).

    That is even before the destruction of the capabilities of the armed forces. Professional soldiers, unless the country is under direct threat such as WW2 or Israel, are better trained and motivated than conscripts who only serve 1-2 years. That is why so many European countries have moved away from conscription in the last 20 years (Germany ended it last year).

    I’m always leery of opinion polls that suggest people favour things that might negatively effect them (such as pay more tax or have national service they or their children will have to endure). Economists note revealed preference where people say one thing and do another. Both those are cases where the revealed preferences have pretty much always been to vote for less tax for themselves and less obligations. They really support higher tax and conscription for other people.

    • LesAbbey

      Interesting how National Service is promoted by those who would be too old to be conscripted.

       Do read the post old chap. That’s why near the top I put in this.

      it’s a difficult subject to discuss if one hasn’t had to endure it oneself.

      Of course if we couldn’t speak of it because we hadn’t done it then the logic would say Defense Ministers could only be ex-military men, and so on.

      A country doesn’t have to be under threat to have some form of national service. I’m thinking of Switzerland and Norway, although I haven’t researched whether they still have it, so I’m ready to be corrected. What we have seen with professional armies is that reduces one of the checks and balances on governments to commit to a war. Blair was able to be very gung ho because he knew there wasn’t going to be a large anti-war group of mothers on his back.

      Still as I said at the beginning this is not a view that has anywhere like majority support, so is unlikely to be carried out by any government in the near future. Having said that if youth unemployment continues to worsen I suspect an FDR like work program may be needed to fix damage done by the present government, and that is half-way towards a national service, or at least on the road. Tax is whole different subject best left to another day.

      • LesAbbey

         The above was posted by LesAbbey. Not sure why I’m Info now.

      • Anonymous

         Never said you couldn’t discuss it old bean, just that nobody who wants it seems to want to do it themselves.

        The only Western European countries that still have conscription either have a land border with Russia or have a citizen’s militia concept of defence like Switzerland where every male has military training and keeps an assault rifle at home, ready to blow the passes and run into the mountains if the EU hoards descend. This is only possible for a neutral country who forswear operations outside their borders, even for the best of reasons. Also with the wide availability of guns it has the highest percentage of murders with firearms in Europe. Not sure we want to import that.

        It seems to me that you are channelling Jim Hacker. He wanted to bring back conscription too, “It would give them a comprehensive education, to make up for their Comprehensive education”. Little has changed in 30 years.

  • Ian Stewart

    My father was a regular during the 1950s. He volunteered out of boredom, and self interest – as a trained chef, he had seen his classmates get drafted, and, seeing “Westminster Tech College” on their education forms, get placed in the Royal Engineers, RASC or Tank Corps…
    He did say that NS did one thing; it mixed large numbers of public school boys with those who grew up in slums – no bad thing really.

    • LesAbbey

       Yes to the social mixing. This is especially why there should be no separate officer’s entrance into a national service or a university exemption if it were ever adopted.

  • uglyfatbloke

    Devon chap has a good point. The concept of a citizen army is emotionally atractive, but it as impractical as drafting people to be citizen surgeons or accountants. Modern infantry skills take a long time to learn and require a high degree of dedication. and that just can’t be achieved in a unit where there is a contuous high turn over of personnel.
    Higher taxes on the wealthy? Yes. Miliband and balls should not have simply opposed the cut in the 50% rate, they should have urged the coalition to extend it to income over 50,000 per annum. That would have brought all MPs into the fold. At £1300 per week plus ludicrous allowances they can afford to fork out a bit more.

    • LesAbbey

       See my reply above to Savepenrhos for the first part and not in violent disagreement with the second;-)


    The Armed Forces do not want National Service back.   The Forces of today are a far different beast to back then.   

    It has been shown over and over again that conscript soldiers struggle with conflicts that are not a direct threat to their own country.  Professional soldiers care not for the politics of it all – they don’t even expect to win,  just fight until the politicians say stop. France, Italy, Holland & Germany got rid of Conscriptio in the last couple of decades for precisely that reason.

    Technology and weaponry has advanced beyond all recognition even for the humble infantryman.   To get to Grade 1 Private soldier in the British Infantry takes 2 years.   You have no rank at that point other than Private (you can’t attempt the pasing-in tests for the JNCO Cadre until you are a grade 1 Private) ,  and you can’t ‘specialise’ – mortars, heavy anti-tank missiles, heavy machine guns, transport platoon etc – you have to be a grade 1 Private first.

    The cost of training just an Infantryman is astronomic just for their 20weeks basic training it’s over £100,000.  By the time they have done 2 years to get to Grade 1 you are on the way to a million – and all they are is a basic bayonet wielding dog of war.   That’s one of the reasons the basic contracts are as long as they are – cost effectiveness.

    • LesAbbey

        It has been shown over and over again that conscript soldiers struggle with conflicts that are not a direct threat to their own country.

      That to my mind is one of the good things about a citizen army. It 
      makes politicians think twice before committing into wars. On the
      question of cost of training you are probably correct, but there are
      always other ways around problems like this. The year’s national service
      could be based on a Swiss or Norwegian style training while those that
      then wanted to continue in the military as a career could go into the
      more expensive training regime afterwards. The same could work the
      police and remember the national service doesn’t only have to military

  • LesAbbey

    The comment that was here has been put where it belongs as a reply to Fat fingers again I’m afraid.

  • Robert Latchford

    I think National Service  is an excellent idea. My Dad absolutely loved his time with the airforce. He got stationed in Kenya for most of it – learnt his trade as a mechanic then went on to be a fitter and turner and own his own business.

  • Anonymous

    What a load of reactionary C**P .

    Apart from the politics of it how could the UK afford it [and i realise i am talking military service but the same applies to the other examples] when it cannot afford aircraft for new carriers? and this situation is not going to improve any time soon since the economy is going to tank soon and add that to that the loss of revenues from scotland after Independence. The people who are most against National service are the military generals.

    I had to make a double take whilst reading this to make sure I was not on the daily mail site.

    in any case the tories have beat labour to it with the proposed work for  welfare  program