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National service is mainly considered a great idea by those who will never have to do it

The policy is most popular with a generation who are too young to have been called up after the Second World War, but are now too old to particpate. 

By Jonn Elledge

Professor Sir Hew Strachan is a military historian and the author of a recent study suggesting the UK consider the reintroduction of national service. He was born in September 1949. I mention this upfront, because the very latest a British chap could have been born in order to be included in the last round of national service was September 1939.

Strachan is thus suggesting the nation provide for its young a character-forming experience which, alas, he is himself unlucky enough to have missed by an entire decade. That’s the thing about the baby boomer generation, isn’t it? They’re so endlessly giving. 

In this, of course, Strachan is not unusual: he is very, very usual indeed. No Briton aged below 80 has ever been required to spend two years of their life in the military, whether they wanted to or not. But a lot of people who were too young to have had that experience seem quite enthusiastic about the idea of inflicting upon others. They are not letting the fact they are too old to partake get in their way.

Indeed, in one of those poll findings that is shocking only in just how clearly it says exactly what you think it’s going to, it’s older people who would definitely not be risking a call-up who are most in favour of the policy. A 2018 YouGov poll found that just 10 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds favoured the reintroduction of national service, compared to 74 per cent of those aged 65 or above. Greater love hath no man than to send his grandkids to the army to teach them proper respect.

It’s worth noting at this point that Strachan is not arguing that the youth of today need a short, sharp shock: merely that society as a whole would benefit from a better understanding of the armed forces, and that this is a way of doing it. (While I’m being uncharacteristically reasonable, he’s also not passionately banging the drum for conscription, merely arguing that not to discuss it is “to limit the debate artificially”.)

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But it’s worth remembering, too, that national service has historically been the exception, not the rule. The UK introduced conscription in 1916, when it became clear that there weren’t enough volunteers to fight the First World War. It abolished it four years later, but reintroduced it in 1939; even after the war, able-bodied 17-to-21-year-old men were required to serve for two years, and to remain as reservists for some years after that.

Some of those who were forced to give up two years of their youth to the military looked back fondly on the experience, for teaching them valuable skills or discipline, offering them travel opportunities or providing them with lifelong friendships. Others, unsurprisingly, hated it. One-time Doctor Who actor Tom Baker has described his two years in the Royal Army Medical Corp as “an opportunity to be bullied by professional murderers”. 

In the end, though, what did for national service was not that it wasn’t appreciated by conscripts of an artistic temperament; it was that it was a pain in the backside for the military. The military who had to spend time and energy on recruits who didn’t want to be there and would leave the service the moment they could. So from 1957 onwards, national service was wound down; the last call-ups came in 1960.

Those who support national service now are not merely demanding that younger generations face a restriction on their freedom that they themselves did not: they’re demanding the young do so in a way that most previous generations didn’t, either. Even if there are benefits to be had from reintroducing conscription, this feels like deeply weird behaviour – all the more so since the generation that would be called up are already facing a series of hardships (years of austerity, ludicrous £9,000 tuition fees, the second large recession in just over a decade, the small matter of a growing environmental crisis) that those who support the policy managed to dodge.

Let’s imagine, though, that there are benefits to be had from some form of national service. After all, why should the comfortable and feckless not be expected to give something back?

My only slight issue with national service as it is proposed now is that it doesn’t go far enough. It isn’t only the military that could do with both greater public understanding and warm bodies. And it isn’t only – or, indeed, particularly – the young who we should perhaps expect to give something back. Those middle-aged men who are so in favour of national service – shouldn’t they be serving their country, too?

So here’s my suggestion. Instead of compulsory military service for those aged around 20, how about a lottery, which could call up any of us, to join the military, or to do care work, or to pick the fruit that, thanks to post-Brexit immigration restrictions, will otherwise be rotting in the fields? If serving their country would benefit the young, surely it could do the same for those feckless older citizens, who were tragically too young to have missed out the last time round?

Let’s try polling on that form of national service next time, YouGov. I’d be fascinated to see the age breakdown of the results.