To modern eyes National Service, phased out in 1960, seems like a solution in search of a problem. What is it for? What good would it do? The response from golden-agers that it would knock some discipline into the nation’s increasingly feckless youth only cements its place in the policy graveyard.
Nevertheless it is a shotgun-raddled zombie that refuses to die. Another iteration came this week in the form of an MoD-commissioned study by the military historian Professor Sir Hew Strachan. And, interestingly, progressives in the SNP are looking at a non-military version called “Resilience Scotland” that might sit more easily with modern mores.
In his report, Strachan worried about the lack of “mature public engagement” with the military, and argued there was more a “mythologised memory of the Second World War than an appreciation of armed conflict as it is experienced and conducted today”. This had undermined public support for defence funding.
He pointed to the Scandinavian countries, which continue to observe a form of National Service. For example, Denmark has an annual “defence day”, where young people are voluntarily conscripted for a minimum period of four months. Sweden and Norway have their own programmes, as does Estonia.
In the UK today, the military is often seen as something discrete and at a remove from polite society: a highly professional, closed circle, its members living together and hidden away from the rest of us, observing arcane traditions, enduring extreme physical demands, and being primed for war. They are there to protect us, and we are glad to have them – but, for most of us, we are not them and they are not us.
It would be immensely difficult – and, short of all-consuming war, perhaps impossible – to rewire this situation. National Service falls into the great chasm that exists between the military and the public. And its association with a certain conservative type of worldview only alienates the young that would be its subject.
But there has always been something attractive, regardless of one’s political views, about the idea of public service of one kind or another. There is nothing fusty about making a positive contribution to society. And perhaps, as we wrestle with the impact of coronavirus, we finally have an answer to that question: “What is it for?”
The trick, in part, is to avoid the phrase National Service. Instead, let’s use a modern buzzword: resilience. To that end, “Resilience Scotland” is being considered by the SNP’s bright young defence spokesman Stewart McDonald. It should be possible, he believes, to introduce a modern, practical purpose to the discussion.
Elisabeth Braw, director of RUSI’s Modern Deterrence project, has said that “the coronavirus pandemic… is a vivid reminder that societal resilience must play a vital role in the formulation of the UK’s national security strategy”. In calling for a national effort after the crisis was already underway, Boris Johnson was too late. “Even though many Britons may wish to follow the prime minister’s advice, they have not been trained in what a national crisis effort may entail.”
Braw, who is influencing McDonald’s thinking, suggests all government agencies linked to national security, including the NHS, would select 18-year-olds for training. “The trainees would subsequently join a reserve and would be available for service during crises. With such a system in place, the NHS would now have thousands of trained nursing staff on which to fall back.”
The current coronavirus outbreak, she points out, “demonstrates the desirability of such a corps of citizens trained in the fundamentals of preparedness and emergency response”.
McDonald agrees, and is working on a proposal that would engage Scots in such a scheme. It’s at an early stage, but his thoughts are that it could last six months, be voluntary and involve people across the age spectrum: school leavers, new graduates, those taking a career sabbatical and the recently retired. There could be tax incentives to take part, or perhaps UCAS points helping the participant towards a subsequent place in further or higher education. These people would form a standing reserve, ready to step in at times of crisis like now.
Additional benefits could include catching young people who are struggling for purpose in life, building a more connected and empathetic society, and connecting people across the generations and classes.
McDonald tells me the pandemic has opened the nation’s eyes to the amount of good going on in our communities. We must now design a resilient society from the bottom up, “Whether we were dealing with a shock weather event, a shock economic event, a pandemic or the extremely unlikely scenario of a kinetic invasion”.
He adds: “During the early part of the pandemic, there was a brief flurry of excitement around the army being mobilised to combat the crisis, which made me realise how little we had talked about the role of the armed forces in delivering security. How can a centralised and hierarchical organisation be the most appropriate response to a crisis that requires a holistic, decentralised, all-of-society approach?
“While of course the Army has played a vital role in setting up testing centres and providing air lift from remote areas, the crisis has been ground out by front line health workers, by those in supermarkets, and other hitherto unsung heroes who demonstrate the need for a resilient population.
“This isn’t about training people in arms, but looking at how we can emulate Latvia in training up citizens to recognise and combat disinformation – now a very real threat to public health and order. We can learn from Sweden, whose national resilience planning has meant they’ve not had people stockpiling food and toilet rolls. We can design a system that trains and refreshes people’s skills so we can provide a surge capacity for health and social care systems, food distribution or coastguard services – demonstrating how we can all play a part in protecting the health and wellbeing of those we love, and contributing to all of our security without necessarily learning to shoot a rifle.”
At a time when we’re looking for ways to reshape society, to strengthen community bonds and to learn lessons from the current difficult experience, Resilience Scotland is an idea worth taking seriously.