Last week, the cafe where I usually take my morning coffee bade farewell to one of its waiters, an industrious young guy who was returning to his native Greece. I hope you are not fleeing Brexit Britain, I ventured. “Not at all”, he said. “I am going back to do my military service, as I must.”
I was vaguely aware that they still have conscription in Greece — one of six European countries that maintain compulsory military service — but it was nevertheless still something of an eye opener. It seemed strangely out of kilter with the licence of the times that this man had no choice in the matter but to return home and do his time.
Or is it? Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new interior minister and deputy prime minister, says he might reintroduce national service to deal with a wayward youth. “Above and beyond ‘rights’ I would like to see a return to there being ‘duties’,” he said last week. Lots of Italians agree with him.
Nor is the sentiment confined to political firebrands such as Salvini. Sweden recently reintroduced the draft, while nearly two decades after it was scrapped, President Macron has vowed to plough ahead with a campaign promise to bring back some form of compulsory national service in France, albeit in watered down form. Less than eight years after it was abolished, Germany, too, is discussing the possibility after a poll showed a clear majority of the public in favour. As a political idea, national service is plainly making something of a comeback.
But not, beyond some high profile supporters such as Prince Harry and Michael Caine, here in Britain. A quick trawl of Google reveals that few, if any, mainstream British politicians advocate such an approach. This should not come as a surprise; there is no good military or economic argument for it.
Indeed, the British armed forces are on the whole strongly opposed to bringing it back. Plainly they would like more resources but, in principle, a professional standing army is much preferred to the idea of acting as a kind of general boot camp for younger cohorts.
The intellectual and economic case against compulsion is in any case long established. The 18th-century British economist Adam Smith wrote of an “irresistible superiority which a well-regulated standing [all-volunteer] army has over a [conscripted] militia,” based on the idea that not everyone makes a good soldier. It therefore makes sense to pay those who are inclined to soldiery to defend the realm in our stead, leaving the rest of us to pursue more gainful employment.
Yet the case for reintroducing some form of national service is not really about military and economic objectives; rather, it is an almost entirely social one and, crucially, it is for the purpose of addressing one of the great scourges of our time — identity politics.
It is one of the ironies of the age that at a time of unprecedented mass migration and communication, citizens have become increasingly ghettoised along class, ethnic and religious lines. We all live in our own little worlds, and in many cases will have more in common with someone living in an entirely different country than the family just down the street.
The idea of national service is to mix things up, to force people to break bread with one another, to share experiences, to teach responsibility and self discipline, and, perhaps most crucially of all, to instill a greater sense of social cohesion and nationality. Not that this was the intended purpose of peacetime national service when it existed in Britain from 1948 to the early 1960s. The rationale back then was much more straightforward — boots on the ground to serve the needs of empire and the emerging Cold War. It was cheap, almost slave labour.
Yet, on the whole, people have fond memories of it. The Carry On series took its name from the first of the genre — Carry On Sergeant, which chronicles the adventures of a group of reluctant conscripts at the fictional Heathercrest National Service Depot.
According to Richard Vinen’s masterful history of the British draft — National Service: Conscription in Britain, 1945-1963 — 97 per cent of those who became temporary officers later claimed to have enjoyed it, and perhaps more surprisingly, so did 87 per cent of the other ranks. Desertion was rare.
It may not have done much to break down class barriers and improve social mobility; the evidence for this is thin to non-existent. But for many young men it was a defining and liberating experience that turned around lives. Above all, it was an equal duty that applied to all, regardless of class or background. In this respect, Salvini is on the money; sense of duty has become lost in our obsession with individual and minority rights.
I’m not saying that reintroduction of military service is necessarily the solution to these problems; it would be expensive, it would be inappropriate for some, and would be most unlikely to command a political consensus. Yet other countries are at least having that debate; in Britain, it is still largely taboo.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Jeremy Warner, assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph, is one of Britain’s leading business and economics commentators.