Bring back National Service

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Bring back National Service

In an increasingly uncertain world where the risk of global military conflict seems to rise incrementally every day, it is time for us to consider bringing back compulsory National Service, argues Sebastien Kurzel. 

We live in a volatile, uncertain world. Tensions with Russia, the rise of populism, immigration and economic issues are forcing governments across Europe to turn back to an old idea: compulsory military service for teenagers and young people.

For decades after its demise in the UK, with the last intake of servicemen demobbing in 1963, any reintroduction of National Service was met with horror by a large proportion of the general public. Until a YouGov poll in January 2016, when it was revealed that almost half of the British public now support its reinstatement. Though rather unsurprisingly, a further poll in 2018 found that 62% of 18-24 opposed the idea of National Service for themselves.

There are already a large number of organisations and charities that seek to provide young people with exposure to the benefits of military service – from survivalism to team-building to expeditions. Take The Ulysses Trust, supported by investor Ian Hannam, and whose Patron is The Prince of Wales. Since 1992, the Ulysses Trust has provided more than £2.8 million to help 34,000 Cadets to participate in more than 2,650 expeditions around the world.

But despite the UK’s general apathy, European governments are now rushing to embracing compulsory armed service. Just last month for example, the Germany government mooted the idea of a mandatory service year for both German citizens and its refugees. “My listening tour around the grass roots of the party showed that many CDU members mentioned reintroducing the draft or general compulsory service,” said party secretary-general Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

In France, compulsory national service was scrapped in 1996. But Macron, who just missed the draft, has already laid plans to reintroduce military service for all young people. Lithuania is another EU country that has recently reintroduced the draft, and will call up men between the ages of 19 and 26. Sweden has also rebooted compulsory service. Countries including Norway, Austria and Greece have never dropped the draft, though it is optional in some states. And then of course there are the whispered conversations about including national service within the remit of a new EU Army.

There can be no doubt that National Service is an idea that’s growing in popularity, at least with governments across Europe. And it makes sense. Youth unemployment in France currently stands at around 25 per cent, and the same type of figures can be seen across Europe. To put this figure in context, in Britain the youth unemployment rate has fallen dramatically, down by around 40 per cent since 2010 to around ten per cent today.

But would our young people be able to stomach the idea of National Service? I think they would, and there is an argument to be made that post-Brexit, they might just have to.

Former First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord West said recently: “We are in probably the most chaotic world I have known in my 51 years. You just look around the world and can see threats everywhere, and having strong defence forces stop wars. In a global context they give global stability.” But UK troop numbers are declining, down from 102,000 in 2010 to 77,470 in January 2018. And army recruitment is well below targets despite aggressive ad campaigns.

This apparent lack of appetite amongst young people to see the armed forces as a meaningful and worthwhile career worries many. And Post-Brexit, regardless of military agreements, the public focus will undoubtedly turn to how we can defend Britain in our new independent circumstances, ramping up the pressure to give young people a small taste of military life.

It’s undeniable that in economic, social and defensive terms, National Service does make sense. It gives young people from all backgrounds a new feeling of belonging, teaches them life and job skills including organisation, discipline and teamwork, and gives them access to new networks that many will go on to use in their career and business life.

Although there is little hard evidence available, it’s also reasonable to suggest that a percentage of young people who undertake national service will choose to stay on in the military. But even if they don’t, they represent an ever-growing pool of people with military experience that could be called upon in a national crisis, be that at home or abroad.

I believe young people today are more than capable of embracing the demands of compulsory military service. After all, over 400 schools across the UK have a lively Combined Cadet Force, and at the last count there were more than 50,540 young Cadets in the separate Community Cadet Forces in the UK – so there’s no lack of appetite at this junior level.

On a regional and local level there are a number of other charities and Trusts that support Cadets, including The Viscount Ridley North of England Cadet Forces Charitable Trust, helping young people take part in projects including the International Air Cadet Exchange, in which Air Cadets travel to destinations such as Canada, Singapore and Australia.

It’s easy to believe that young people couldn’t stomach National Service in the UK. But I don’t think so because, over the last 30 years, millions of Britons have continued to choose to get a taste of military life through Cadet Forces. And have loved it. In fact, many thousands have gone on to join the Territorial Army and are still playing their part today. Compulsory National Service is nothing to fear, for parents or for young people – it would be a new opportunity, not a threat.

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  • Sebastien Kurzel
    Sebastien Kurzel
    Sebastien Kurzel is a Masters student at LSE, and previously studied geology. He is interested in the interface between energy sources, geopolitics, and UK national security.
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