Image taken from "Dad's National Service Album, 1951", a collection uploaded to Flickr by an ex-conscript's son. Photo: Steve Bowbrick/Flickr
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The way we war: a history of British national service

Reading this detailed account of the national service experience – peppered with moments of humour among the long years of pointless routine – invites the question whether it made any sense.

National Service: Conscription in Britain (1945-1963) 
Richard Vinen
Allen Lane, 555pp, £25

I will not be the only man of a certain age eternally grateful for having missed conscription by a couple of years. Richard Vinen’s entertaining but sobering account of the postwar experience of millions of young Britons drafted into the armed forces will convince anyone who might still regret missing out just how fortunate they were. The story is not remorselessly grim but, overshadowed by the squalid and violent end of empire, it is grim enough.

The national service explored by Vinen was, properly speaking, an extension of the National Service Act introduced in 1939, which covered military conscription (as well as other forms of civilian mobilisation) for the wartime period. Conscription was sometimes used to describe the recruitment process, but British politicians seem to have preferred the term “national service” because it suggested a nobler obligation than mere conscription, with its echoes of enforced enrolment.

Nevertheless conscription is what it was, and for many young men pulled out of civilian life for two years at a time when they wanted to start a job, finish their education or raise a family, the sense of enforcement was evidently stronger than any sense of service to the nation.

What made national service so problematic was the lack of any evident purpose. There was no strong army tradition in Britain as there was in the rest of Europe, where conscription just carried on as it had done since the 19th century. Most British conscripts entered the army, which took over 70 per cent of them. The RAF took roughly a quarter, the navy hardly any. This in itself is significant, as the navy was Britain’s senior service, the one area where military traditions were most embedded and the status of the service more socially acceptable.

Thus, the many conscripts whose diaries, memoirs and letters Vinen has used to illuminate the experience of national service come overwhelmingly from the army. They were needed, so it was thought, to boost Britain’s pretensions as one of the victor powers in 1945, to protect the revival of British imperialism, as a symbol of British power, and to safeguard western Europe from the threat of Soviet communism. These ambitions seemed less bizarre in the late 1940s than they do today, and Vinen is right to remind his readers to
look forward from 1945, not back from the 21st century.

Reading this detailed account of the national service experience – peppered with moments of humour among the long years of pointless routine, purposeless spit and polish and petty tyrannies – invites the question whether it made any sense. Most conscripts stayed in Britain rather than serving abroad, where the regular army (much larger than it is today) played the main part. Some learned a trade, others simply passed the time. The one thing conscription did was to pluck a great many youngsters out of the restricted life of their town or village to a world that was in some respects more exotic than anything they had experienced before, away from the shelter of family, friends and a familiar landscape. Only public school boys seem to have found the transition less daunting. Their existence in the barracks was, one of them recalls here, “slightly more uncomfortable than life at a public school, but not that much”.

The peak of conscription came in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, and it did help to boost Britain’s military presence as efforts were made to rescue what was left of a crumbling imperial structure. This is in many ways the most awkward part of Vinen’s story. He insists that it is not his role to pass judgement on what the conscripts did when they were in combat, or faced with a widespread insurgency, but simply to explore the experience of killing, torturing or maiming “the enemy”. This sidesteps what would no doubt be a difficult discussion of British soldiers as perpetrators. Nevertheless, the descriptions of violence directed against insurgents in Malaya or Kenya or Palestine or Cyprus are deeply disturbing. So much time has been spent showing how particularly wicked the Germans were when it came to facing insurgency against occupation, that counter-insurgency operations in the post-1945 era of imperial withdrawal have been glossed over.

Vinen’s account makes it clear that any group of soldiers, faced with a hostile population, fearful for their own and their companions’ lives, unconstrained by strict instructions on how to respond to guerrilla warfare, and very far from home, will commit atrocities. The worst were, at least, investigated but most seem to have been passed over by the authorities as due simply to the friction of war. One conscript in Egypt thought it “rather caddish” to shoot unarmed Egyptians, but did it nonetheless. The description of violence in Cyprus from a letter sent back home includes the rape and killing of a 13-year-old girl held in a cage by one army brigade.

This part of the story is shocking, though not much more so than later atrocities in Vietnam, or the cruelties imposed on the population of Iraq. Conscription might have been generally a question of kicking heels in poorly resourced barracks somewhere in Britain, but at the sharp end it tarnished those who were forced to defend what was clearly indefensible. Malaya, Kenya, Palestine (Israel) and Cyprus all became independent while conscription was still in place. The disjuncture between fading visions of British greatness and the squalid end of empire cannot be smoothed over so easily simply by describing it.

Postwar national service was ended not long after it had begun. Evident disaffection among bored and frustrated recruits jostled with the realisation among politicians and military leaders that the cold war was not going to get hot and that the old empire was politically bankrupt. The Duncan Sandys-led defence review of 1957 in effect ended conscription, though the last small batch of conscripts was not demobilised until 1963, bringing to an end an experiment in recruitment that went back to 1939, not just to the postwar years.

The great merit of Vinen’s intelligent and measured account is to restore national service as an element of British social history worth observing. Its significance as a military factor, however, is surely questionable. It is hard to imagine how these raw recruits, most of them retained in a reserve force after serving their two years, would have stopped the Red Army if it had pushed aside the Iron Curtain, any more than the earlier cohort in 1940 could have stopped the German army. Professional armed forces were not and are not immune to the persistent problems of inadequate resources or political interference, but they are, at least, professionals. 

Richard Overy’s latest book is “The Bombing War: Europe – 1939-1945” (Penguin, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.



This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?