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  1. Election 2024
5 June 2024

Teenagers don’t need mandatory national service: politicians do

With citizenship training for MPs, the Commons would see a marked improvement, as would our response to crises.

By Cleo Watson

Back in mid-April I messaged a friend about a possible general election date. “I’m betting 4 July,” I joked. “Independence Day for Tory MPs’ careers.” Fast-forward a few weeks and I am in complete disbelief that for once I was right about something, and it’s this.

Happily for me, it’s been some time since I received news notifications on my phone, so it was pretty late in the day that I witnessed every British journalist wet themselves on Twitter about soggy Sunak’s Downing Street announcement. Since leaving government I’ve been able to put down my phone and dodged all punditry – and strongly recommend it. Our understanding of what events mean and how we feel about them is more powerful if we follow our instincts and ignore the talking heads’ babble.

It’s been tough to watch the first few days of the campaign unfold. Rishi Sunak is clearly being lined up as the perfect scapegoat for what might be the Tories’ worst defeat in history. We seem to have forgotten that he came in to do a very specific job: steady the ship after Liz Truss’s month or so in Downing Street. He’ll be held responsible for Tory losses by the parliamentary party when, frankly, many Conservative MPs only have themselves to blame for what I’m sure will be some spectacular Prince Andrew-style job interview answers later this year (“My biggest strength? Probably anonymously but incessantly s***ting all over my organisation to the media…”). Sunak could make all kinds of arguments in the coming weeks, but his MPs have already made up most people’s minds through months of sleaze, incoherence and rank disloyalty.

Assuming Labour win by a landslide, the battle for the soul of the Conservative Party must happen quickly, so the Tories can get on with being in opposition and hold the new government to account – hopefully better than Keir Starmer and his team have done for the past few years. No doubt the contest will be as courteous and dignified as one might expect.

Speaking of wankers, I’ve been thinking about the amount of pornography I watched to research my new novel, Cleavage. It begins with the unlikely premise that the Conservatives are doomed to electoral oblivion. A maverick strategist devises a way for porn, unironically, to help them stay in power. Their clever campaign looks hopeless from the outside, but seems to be a huge success on internal polling – is this my second outlandish correct prediction of the year?

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Perhaps my pregnancy hormones were to blame, or it was simply my commitment to getting to grips with the material but, whatever the reason, I spent so much time on adult sites that my laptop exploded and I had to get a new one once the manuscript was finished. If you’re already sick of election coverage – and fancy learning a bit about campaigns while sniggering behind my most risqué book cover yet on your commute (anonymous e-book also available) – give it a read.

I am not renowned for my talent for policymaking, but I have been thinking a lot about the Conservatives’ idea to bring in national service for 18-year-olds. It strikes me that mandating a very different version, for those who wish to enter politics and public service, could work brilliantly. There are so few real gating items to becoming an MP; the only major one is bankruptcy. What if anyone keen to enter public life had to complete a year of citizenship service first (assuming they didn’t already have a public-sector job such as teaching)? I feel certain that the Commons would see a marked improvement in the calibre of MPs, and our response to various crises would be much improved.

Would Covid have been handled better if Matt Hancock had once worked in a care home? The many inquiries undertaken in recent years (Covid, the Post Office, contaminated blood, Grenfell) surely show it would be valuable for all ministers to have had some real-world experience. Spending time working in the less glamorous areas of citizenship might just sort the public servants from the power-hungry.

The Prime Minister is often labelled as out of touch with people’s lives. Perhaps we would feel differently about that if he’d spent a year working as a hospital porter before he joined Goldman Sachs. Crucially, perhaps he’d feel differently. Which goes for advisers, too. Not to get too “as a mother…”, but I wish I’d had the experience I have now (namely, having to put another human being before me, patience, planning, continued exposure to the NHS and social services, the reality of childcare coverage and affordability) when I worked in government. I don’t mean we should just have more working parents around the table; we need people with all kinds of life experience. Why not start by giving the people in situ some of that experience?

On top of all this, our friends in the media would have a lovely time working out who was a Clinton-style draft dodger. It could be our new “I didn’t inhale”. Maybe national service won’t energise today’s youth in the way Sunak thinks, but it might just burst the Westminster bubble.

“Cleavage” by Cleo Watson is published by Corsair

[See also: Cleo Watson reveals the dark arts of electioneering]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024