In Depth

Pros and cons of national service

New government-commissioned report backs return of conscription

The UK should consider reintroducing national service, a new report commissioned by the Ministry of Defence advises.

The study, written by military historian Professor Hew Strachan, says the return of national service would combat a lack of “mature public engagement” between the state and its citizens about defence.

Strachan blames this lack of understanding in part on the public oratory of government ministers, who he accuses of drawing on “more on a mythologised memory of the Second World War than an appreciation of armed conflict as it is experienced and conducted today”.

Among ministers, “the widespread perception exists that the British public doubts the utility of force, which threatens the armed forces with an existential crisis”, the report adds.

An MoD spokesperson said the department welcomed the “considered and insightful” assessment and would consider the recommendations.

So what are the arguments for and against national service?

Pros

Better public understanding

Strachan’s report highlights a lack of understanding among the general public about the role of the Armed Forces, and says reintroducing national service could help to close this “communcation gap”.

“For some immigrant communities in Britain, Armed Forces are agents of oppression, not defenders of democratic values,” he warns.

The report adds that “not to discuss national service [in the UK] is to limit the debate artificially”.

Boosts national unity

When France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced in 2018 that he was bringing back national service in his country, he argued that doing so would inspire patriotism and social cohesion, as The Independent reported at the time.

“The goal of this new-style national service, the government says, is to encourage young French citizens to take part in the life of the nation, and promote social cohesion,” the BBC added.

By the time the scheme came into effect in 2019, it had evolved from a national military service into a compulsory civic service, “with input from the military but without any dealings with weapons”, according to The Guardian.

Participants instead learn about first aid, self-defence and republican values as a way of bringing “social cohesion” to a fractured nation.

These type of tactics date back to ancient times. Greek philosopher Plutarch described how Rome’s consuls conscripted the city’s young men at a time of political tension, “that they might not have leisure for revolutionary plottings, but that when they were all gathered together, rich and poor, patrician and plebeian alike, to share in the common dangers of a camp, they might learn to regard one another with less hatred and ill-will”.

Similar arguments continue to resurface in modern Britain. In 2009, Michael Caine - who served in the Korean War as a conscript - said that bringing back national service would alleviate social problems by giving young people “a sense of belonging rather than a sense of violence”.

‘The making of young people’

National service can bring discipline, direction and purpose to young people, supporters argue. In 2015, Prince Harry claimed that his time in the Army had “saved” him.

“I dread to think where I’d be without the Army,” said Harry. “Bring back national service – I’ve said that before. But I put my hand up, as I said to the kids today, you can make bad choices, some severe, some not so severe.

“Without a doubt, it does keep you out of trouble. You can make bad choices in life, but it’s how you recover from those and which path you end up taking.

“The Army has done amazing things for me. And more importantly to me, what I've seen the Army do to other young guys.”

Teaches skills

In a 2019 article for Sky Views, foreign affairs editor Deborah Haynes argues that bringing back national service would give young people “new skills to help in whatever career path they ultimately pursue”.

She cites a report by Elisabeth Braw, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, calling for the UK to introduce a Scandinavian-style form of national service.

““Braw looks at how Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland benefit from national service and says the UK could adopt its own model, learning from the Scandinavian experience,” notes Haynes. 

Cons

Damage to existing schemes

Critics of national service point to the success of existing schemes such as the National Citizens’ Service in the UK, in which young people spend a month learning skills working on projects with their peers and volunteering in their communities.

“The problems arise when we move from the voluntary nature of the current programme to a mandatory one,” Yiannis Baboulias argues in a 2019 article in the New Statesman. “A voluntary scheme ensures that by and large only the most eager students will participate. 

“This eliminates from the existing sample of schemes the negative attitudes of teenagers who will not want to be there, therefore biassing the results.”

Promotes nationalism

When Macron’s compulsory national service kicked off in France in 2019, many commentators were disturbed by images showing French teenagers lined up in uniform - albeit baseball caps and polo shirts.

Celine Malaise, a Communist regional councillor, tweeted: “This old nationalist nightmare repulses me.” 

She likened it to “denying the free will of young people, their engagement, their critical spirit” and called the programme a hypocritical “masquerade” given the underfunding of schools. 

Meanwhile, the Union Nationale Lyceenne (National Union of Secondary Students) said: “Is it in keeping with the times to constrain young people to go and sing under a flag at 8am in the morning? This universal national service must not be made compulsory.”

Burden to the army

Between 1949 - when the UK National Service Act came into force - and 1963 - when the last national serviceman was demobbed - more than two million British men aged between 18 and 30 were called up to spend 18 months in the Armed Forces. 

However, the scheme was phased out from 1957 following complaints from the Army that the sheer number of conscripts had become a burden, says the National Army Museum.

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