Friday 1 September 2023

Bringing back national service?


Desperate times call for desperate measures and there is more than a hint of desperation about the latest proposal from some Tories for the return of national service. It’s not surprising that the idea draws most support from the older voters to whom it would not apply and least from those to whom it would actually apply. Since national service was abolished in 1960, and only applied to those over 18, no-one born after 1942 would ever have been conscripted. So, only that pool of electors aged over 80 would have direct personal experience, and demographics dictates that that is a diminishing pool. In any event, the form of national service being proposed is not one which would be recognised by that cohort; using the same term to describe the new proposal looks like a deliberate attempt to mislead by appealing to nostalgia.

The new proposal would be for a ‘voluntary’ (code for ‘applies mostly to working class kids rather than those from better off homes’) period of service for which all young people are automatically signed up unless they specifically opt out, comprising a whole two weeks of residential training, accompanied by 6 months community service, and an optional further 12 month long ‘civic programme’. The objective, according to the authors of the report (available here), is to address what they see as three key challenges: young people are, they claim, unskilled, unhappy and unmoored (by 'unmoorerd' they mean: have lost a sense of belonging to their community or nation – which ‘nation’ do they have in mind, I wonder – and are less patriotic). The last of those looks an awful lot like an appeal to a sense of old-style British patriotism and a strange belief that a bit of discipline and inculcation will restore that pride of old, whilst the first two look more like an attempt to deal with the consequences of the failure of both the education system and the economic structures of the UK, both of which are letting people down badly. Addressing the causes of those failures would be the most rational approach, but that would involve the sort of critical thinking about the way the UK works (or rather doesn’t, and not just for young people) of which Tories are completely incapable.

One of the proposals being put forward to pay for this programme would be to end the pensions triple lock and divert the money saved as a result of paying lower pensions. But since the main beneficiaries of the triple lock, over the long term, are actually younger people (and especially those in lower paid jobs with inadequate occupational pensions), this amounts to using the future pensions of today’s young working class people to pay for them to attend a two week indoctrination session, provide six months of free labour, and look forward to retiring on a lower pension than would otherwise be the case. As an exercise in shoring up the votes of the dwindling 80+ generation, it might just work, although the law of diminishing returns applies. (And having successfully conned older generations into believing that the triple lock primarily benefits them, it could also backfire). Apparently, however, some Tories actually see it as an attempt to win the votes of disillusioned youth. They seem to be placing a great deal of dependence on the fact that the education system is failing to give young people a good grounding in basic mathematics.

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