National Service – the bad idea that won’t die
Let the young enjoy themselves before the weight of the world crushes their spirit
My father did National Service and was lucky enough to end up in Trieste, which was probably the best posting around. He was assigned to the intelligence corps, his job to track down former members of the Croatian Ustaše, a pro-Nazi collaboration regime known for bloodthirstiness so extreme that even visiting Gestapo were shocked by their inhumanity.
I’m not sure if dad managed to get any Nazis brought to justice, but it inspired a love of Yugoslavia which led him to move to Sarajevo and become fluent in Serbo-Croat, and for the rest of his life he was obsessed with the Balkans – always a healthy pastime.
Not everyone was so lucky; his best friend got sent to Aden, which was hell on earth, enduring a terrifying insurgency in the desert, while another pal was posted to Cyprus, where he was killed by EOKA.
National Service was abolished in 1960, the last forced recruit bowing out in 1963, by which time Britain had wiggled out of most of its empire. But most countries retained it for long afterwards: Belgium didn’t abolish mandatory military service until 1992, the Netherlands until 1993 and Germany only abandoned the system in 2011 - and since the war in Ukraine some countries have pondered reintroducing it.
In Britain, reintroducing National Service used to be an obsession of the law-and-order Right, seen as a solution to the hooliganism that began to become a feature of British society in the 1960s: Mods and Rockers, long-haired bohemian rock stars exemplified by Mick and Keith, and later football thugs. A spell in the army would knock some sense into them, so the argument went.
More recently, however, at least since the Blair era, National Service has become more a favourite of a particular strand of the centre-left, a remedy for a fractured country divided along lines of class, race and religion.
The idea featured in a recent article by former foreign secretary William Hague, a piece which exemplified the mindset of notional Conservatives who simply want to go back to their country house and sign the surrender papers.
In his call for us to just accept our country is going to be lost to us, because doing anything would be a bad look, Hague wrote: ‘If the future is one of continuing high levels of migration, the promotion of shared identity becomes even more important. Britain has done better on this than many of our neighbours – look at how many of our political leaders are children of immigrants. But we should not be complacent. The coming age of migration is another reason to ensure citizenship carries obligations as well as rights. Labour’s David Lammy put it well in advocating compulsory national service to “break down the divides that are becoming entrenched in modern society”. Such proposals for integration will be important. The age of migration is upon us. Political ideas need to be updated for it if deep polarisation and division are to be averted.’
His essential argument is that, while immigration will lead us to become more divided, and make our lives less pleasant, perhaps this can be remedied by forcing young people to sacrifice a year or two of their lives in the name of ‘cohesion’.