Why prevaricate over National Service?
Isn’t it about time we re-introduced National Service? At the moment it seems to be the panacea for the city riots and looting. But surely there are strong enough arguments for it anyway? Of course it shouldn’t be a military service, it should be a social service. It shouldn’t be a punishment, but mandatory for all. And whilst there are some solid economic arguments in its favour, National Service should be introduced primarily as a measure for social inclusion.
It does seem that, these days, we are a nation of individuals. The great communal activities, wrapped around the national industries of the past – which employed thousands in a single location – have atrophied and died. Today we are a society of self interests, where charity work or community involvement is seen as unusual and remarkable. We are free to pursue almost any activity without interference from government, no matter how suspect or unethical.
Provided it isn’t illegal, we have the blessing of the state. Yet how did we get here? How did we come by such economic and social freedoms? Many of the social advances which have delivered us to this free society have been achieved through concerted and collective action. Whether is was the unions establishing worker’s rights, protestors fighting for women’s suffrage, the setting up of the NHS or winning the war against the Nazis, they all involved people coming together and making individual sacrifice for the greater good. We have all benefitted from these actions, but our culture now discourages this kind of altruism.
So what would be the benefits of conscripting the young to National Service?
As well as chronic youth unemployment we also have a large, and ever growing problem of elderly care. We could save money by having the young look after the old. I am not suggesting that they take over any medical responsibilities, but many old people are forced into care homes through lack of basic support. The young could work within communities to help the elderly stay in their own homes for longer by carrying out domestic chores and spending time with them. If conscripts could supply this support, the old could stay in their communities for longer. And think of the potential for breaking down the mistrust between the young and the old. Of course there would have to be safeguards, but both young and old could learn a great deal from this experience.
Once established, the brief of conscription could be widened. National Service should be a melting pot – an opportunity to expand the horizons of those taking part.
Initially that might involve moving the inner city kids to work in the countryside and vice versa, or mixing social classes and cultures. It could also be expanded to include other services, from infrastructure projects to conservation initiatives. Youths from families who have never worked could learn some discipline and gain some self esteem from those who have achieved academically or come from supportive families: conversely, the rich kids could experience life on the minimum wage.
Has there been a better time to instigate this?
We need to save money. We need to engender social cohesion. We fear our young and are terrified of getting old. In its recent Economic and fiscal outlook ( March 2011 ), the Office for Budget Responsibility highlighted the unsustainability of maintaining current spending on welfare, pensions and elderly care. It implies that expenditure in these areas need to be drastically reduced over the next couple of decades to keep the country fiscally viable. Of course, the only options ever mooted are higher taxes and lower government expenditure. But National Service offers a third way. Whilst doing important work within the community, and expanding their personal horizons, conscripts would be saving the government money by working for the minimum wage in social care, infrastructure projects, community activities – in fact any area where people need help.
In doing so, they will be building their self esteem, learning how to cooperate in the workplace, experiencing life from different points of view. This will not be, as Jim Hacker said in Yes Minister,
” a chance for them to get a comprehensive education…. er, to make up for their comprehensive education.”
This will be a chance for them to experience life to a much fuller degree and give back to those whose taxes paid for their education and child benefit.
Perhaps most importantly, it will remind each generation of what is possible when the individual accepts that they are part of society and is prepared to make sacrifices for the greater good.