In 1963, the last National Serviceman was discharged from the army. This ended almost over a quarter of a century of National Service, or conscription as it is sometimes known. Now, a YouGov poll has shown that the opinion in favour of the reintroduction of National Service is on the rise, sparked by President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to reintroduce a form of National Service in France. The majority of those in favour were men of the older generation, with 62% of over 60s in favour of a reintroduction of National Service.
Why this rise in support for something that was phased out over 60 years ago? I think that the main reason is the amount of unemployed young people, although youth unemployment has been on the decline since 2012, according to House of Commons figures, it still sits at about 470,000 (I will refer to this figure regularly as the possible amount of recruits that would be brought in by national service). This is a staggering figure considering the push towards apprenticeships. This throws into question what these young people between 16-24 are actually doing, or more importantly what they should be doing.
The military, in my opinion, provides one of the best careers for young people. Stable pay, discipline and adventure are all things that one could expect from joining the military. A sense of patriotism could also be instilled, something that is missing amongst many of the younger generations. Yes, the military does have more sinister aspects in the respect that it is a fighting force, there to defend the interests of the United Kingdom. However, this should not be regarded as a factor that detracts from the overall importance of it as a major employer in Britain.
Britain’s youth crime, another major issue in the largest cities would be affected by the reintroduction of National Service. Ministry of Justice figures show us that the number of young people who were proven to have committed offences in possession of a knife or another weapon has increased by 11% since 2012. This is coupled with a 4% increase in the reoffending rate to over 42% in 2017. Although National Service would not completely alleviate issues with youth crime, taking many disadvantaged young people off the streets and enrolling them in a short career in the military could significantly decrease these figures.
What about the issue of teaching youth offenders how to fight and use weapons? I think that the way discipline is used throughout the extensive training of the armed forces would prevent them from ever being ‘youth offenders’ or reoffending if they already are. The days of the shouty Sergeant Major are over. The military now uses a heavily supportive system of training to build character and skill to produce what I would term a ‘thinking soldier’. This way of training could possibly help to create a more productive and creative group of young people upon the end of there term in the forces.
The undermanning of the armed forces is a further issue that would be addressed by National Service. Many regiments and ships are struggling to recruit enough men to fill their ranks and their berths, the Guards regiments, in particular, are struggling to gain recruits and Royal Parades are now slightly underwhelming when the Guards can only produce a few small companies of soldiers. The new Aircraft Carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth was also difficult to man due to shortages in personnel for the Navy. This detracts from the British military’s ability to project power across the world as we have done throughout the 21st Century, and 470,000 new recruits would remove this issue.
There are downfalls to the reintroduction of National Service of course. The main one being the significant cost of expanding the military by 470,000 personnel. With cuts in all areas of the armed forces taking there toll, the need for a new influx of spending is indicated, where this money would come from? I do not want to speculate or guess, however, some services that provide for disadvantaged or unemployed youths could be a small source.
Another downfall is also the idea that the armed forces would prove to be a ‘dumping ground’ for the government and other institutions to send all the people they no longer want to deal with too. By this I mean the government may start to change the impetus from apprenticeships to just joining up as part of the National Service scheme, this would further increase youth unemployment and make the problem worse. I think even with National Service in place, the use and push towards apprenticeships and higher education should not be stopped, I think it should be expanded in fact, eventually getting to a point where, like in 1957, there is no longer a need for National Service.
What would the use for all these extra personnel be? There is no significant war going on at this point in time and there are no widespread deployments going on either, all these new individuals would have nothing to do and nowhere to go. Which defeats the object of National Service as a way to decrease the ‘boredom’ of young people. This is what shows the antiquity of National Service, when it was introduced in the first half of the 20th century, it was a turbulent time with deployments to France, Africa and Korea, now only limited amounts of British personnel are deployed in places like the Middle East and some on peacekeeping operations elsewhere in the world.
Something that I have neglected to mention throughout this article is also the lack of enthusiasm of young people, who would be filling the ranks. The YouGov poll mentioned earlier is only in favour of National Service because the overwhelming majority of older people, particularly men, were in favour of it. The younger generation was very much against the reintroduction of the scheme. Without a willing set of young people, resistance against National Service would be difficult and would make imposing the scheme almost impossible. This is the crux of the argument against National Service, in theory, it sounds like an excellent idea, in practice not so much.
In conclusion of this article, I think there is a strong case for the reintroduction of National Service in the respect that it could help to provide stable employment for the significant number of 16-24-year-olds who are unemployed. This would also eliminate the issue of undermanning across the British Military. The alleviation of youth crime could also be a possible advantage of National Service, however, in my opinion, it is still not viable as a new government policy. My reasoning for this is that the public expense of this mass expansion of the military would be extremely significant. Although the need for youth unemployment services would be decreased, this would free up nowhere near enough money to fund the training of 470,000 new soldiers while also equipping and deploying them. The job of these new troops can also be questioned, with no major conflicts taking place and no major operations ongoing, this new personnel would only really be needed as a show of force, rather than for another legitimate reason. Finally, the support of young people for the scheme is limited, and since they would bare the brunt of it, it is difficult to see how it could be imposed with an unwilling demographic.