A New Kind of National Service | Christopher Winter
Peacetime conscription in the UK was introduced in 1947 for all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 30. From 1947 and 1963, over two million men were put into the services. Given that the Second World War had ended by that time, you might ask why it was necessary to maintain conscription. The answer to that question is simple – peace in the post war world was not at all peaceful. The Pax Britannica had been put well and truly in its grave by the new powers of a wealthy lending and spending USA and a ruthless and secretive USSR. But Britain, in its weakened state, still had many obligations: an oversees empire to maintain; wars in Korea and Malaysia; and occupation of the conquered Axis nations of Europe and Asia. All this needed manpower, which required conscripts. However, when Britain had given most of her oversees colonies independence, relinquished her guard duties of Germany, Italy, and Japan to their own local governments, and developed powerful Nuclear Weapons for herself, the need for a large mobilised army became vanished.
Today, there are still many countries which operate a national service scheme – South Korea, Switzerland, Israel, Brazil, Sweden, Turkey, Greece, and Russia, to name but a few. Some of these countries have obvious reasons for implementing national service, be that high levels of domestic or foreign terrorism, being at war etc. However, some do not. Switzerland and Sweden are historically neutral and not actively threatened internally or externally; however, they still maintain a form of national service.
In 2013, the Swiss Minister of Defence, Ueli Maurer, argued that the abolition of national service could ‘break the link between the Swiss people and their army.’ This was around the time that Switzerland voted to keep national service, by a large margin, in their third referendum on the matter. Swiss national service is a very different beast to other nations’ programmes, however. South Korea, for example, maintains its national service for security reasons due to the conflict with the DPRK. Swiss style national service, by contrast, requires recruits to spend a few months in training when they are 18 and then spend a few weeks on refresher courses every year until they are old enough to be discharged.
This style of national service is interesting because it demonstrates how even a neutral nation can constantly maintain over 200,000 men in a state of readiness for war without stealing away the livelihoods and freedoms of their young people. It keeps public respect for the armed services high whilst not becoming overbearing and bloated.
So, how does this apply to the United Kingdom? I would argue that the UK needs a new, dynamic, and flexible approach to the concept of national service. The UK could easily operate a Swiss style scheme in which young people are given training at the age of 18 and are then kept on the books with intermittent training and refresher sessions whilst being given the freedom to work or pursue higher education. 18-year olds who wanted to join the armed forces anyway could be given the chance to ‘opt in’ and stay in service full time.
Alternatively, the government could operate a national service style scheme to help get young people into a whole range of different kinds of work or training, either temporarily or long-term. The government could set up a system that would require all young people aged 18 to pick an area of public service to go into. This would of course include the armed forces, but could also provide them with the opportunity to be care workers for the elderly or infirm, hospital porters, school assistants, police trainees, administration clerks, waste management workers, etc. A British national service scheme could see thousands of unemployed and untrained young people put into useful employment or training within British institutions which often struggle to fill their own employment gaps. It would also present government and council work – or work within the armed forces – as a more viable career path for our disenfranchised youth. It could significantly increase their trust in these institutions as they spend time working within them. It would also mean that young people would be given more real-world experience, and would prompt them to take up training in these fields without feeling pushed into taking a degree – with the added benefit of being paid.
I would also argue that, as the economic impact of the coronavirus becomes more apparent, more and more young people will to struggle to find work, as jobs will most likely become increasingly scarce. Therefore, it feels only right that the government find and offer them employment in fields which will give them one of the most valuable and highly sought-after skills of all – experience. Such a scheme would be an excellent opportunity to give young people fresh out of sixth form or university a chance to gain precious experience in a variety of fields.
During the lockdown, I took up a job as a community responder for my council in order to help the local area during the crisis, and earn some extra money at the same time. It has certainly been, for me, a good experience. I have improved my confidence, and communication skills. I have also been able to see the inner workings of the council and have been left with a greater amount of respect for it then when I first joined. It taught me valuable lessons in work and self-administration which I will be able to carry with me into my career after university. I think it would be good for young people to do something similar. It would certainly help to prepare them for real life outside of university or college and it would also teach them how and why their local institutions function.
Departure from the European Union has made us question and scrutinise our own public institutions considerably more. At the same time, that age old question of ‘what is Britishness’ has been bandied around once again. I would argue that giving jobs to our youth in these roles would help to instil within them pride and confidence in British institutions which, so regularly, go understaffed or suffer from ridicule and misrepresentation by the press.