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Artillery Row

The case for national service

It will benefit the young and benefit the nation

In one of the most striking images of the 20th century, President Kennedy urged his fellow Americans to ask themselves not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country. The demand is more shocking than is usually appreciated, so ubiquitous and immortal have his words become. After all, isn’t the state really there to serve us, not the other way around?

Kennedy is lionised for his boldness, his rallying call to patriotism, and his championing of duty and sacrifice over self. Nevertheless, for conservatives of a certain stripe, his words may offend very deep-set beliefs. Can service to an abstract entity called “the nation” really be forced upon private individuals? Should we be made to make sacrifices for millions of people we have never met, and never will, at the expense of pursuing our own goals? Such ideas seem to run counter to every instinct of the Victorian liberal tradition, still so influential on the Anglo-Saxon centre-right. Is service to the state a conservative idea at all?

Younger Britons are experiencing a crisis of rootlessness

Some clearly think so. Last week the Leader of the Commons, Penny Mordaunt, backed a recommendation by Onward to introduce a “Great British National Service. In an interview with the New Statesman, Danny Kruger, the MP for Devizes, backed a compulsory one-year period of service on local councils. The post-liberal political philosopher Adrian Pabst came out in support of a national civic service earlier this year. Onward’s proposals do not go so far as to make a period of service compulsory, instead suggesting a two-week residential scheme plus six months of social service, but with an opt-out. An optional further year would be available to those who choose it — if culturally normalised, an opt-out model would have strong uptake, it’s predicted.

The idea of national service of some form is popular, with 57 per cent of the public supportive. Most voters do not think this should be mandatory, but most believe it should have mixed military and civilian elements, going further than either of the civic models proposed last week. There are several international examples to look to, from the Service National Universel (SNU) in France to the full-on military service expected in Switzerland and Israel — on many measures, in more cohesive societies than our own.

Why would any of this be a good idea? Understandably, some have pointed out that the main challenge facing young British citizens is a material one. With no increase to real incomes for nearly twenty years, poor social mobility and a burgeoning crisis of home ownership, the material prospects facing under-40s are bleak. The average age of first property purchase in Britain is now 34, with more than half of 35–44 year-olds still renting. Asset-poor wage earners (which most younger workers are) shoulder a disproportionate share of the tax burden compared to those with accrued wealth. With young people enduring nearly two years of lockdown restrictions, an inflation crisis and often mountains of student debt, introducing a civilian form of conscription may feel like punishing the victim.

It would be absurd to suggest that national service would magically solve these woes. Clearly a radical plan is needed to kick-start the British economy, make home ownership affordable and increase intergenerational fairness. Here there is an opportunity for older citizens to show solidarity by supporting rather than blocking local housing developments, so younger people can get on the property ladder and start families. It would be wrong to suggest that the challenges facing the UK are only economic, though, or that young people do not stand to gain from a service period.

Younger Britons are experiencing a crisis of rootlessness. Their mental health has been deteriorating for years, hammered by an incessant carousel of toxic social media, declining social trust, family breakdown and difficulty in finding positive relationships, plus the national trauma of Covid and the inflation epidemic.

They are increasingly siloed. Just half of white British people say they have a friend of another ethnicity. Half of British people with degrees have no friends without one. Millennials have just a quarter of the interactions with older generations that Generation X or Boomers did. Cross-class marriage is now less common, with working-class and middle-class families less likely to have a relative from a different social background. Graduates marrying each other has entrenched socio-economic divides. Uncontrolled immigration has created parallel societies, challenging the integrity of the very borders that make community possible.

Younger people are less likely to say they are patriotic than older generations, and a majority of 18–24 year-olds say they are embarrassed by their nationality. They tend to hold a transactional view of their relationship to politics and the state, focusing on policies that benefit them personally. To a degree, this is only understandable.

There are wider downturns in our social fabric, too. Rates of club membership, volunteering and community participation are down — though the pandemic saw a temporary resurgence. Our allegiance to churches, trade unions, sports clubs and local associations has hugely diminished since the high point of the mid-20th century. Just four per cent of under-25s say they feel part of their neighbourhood. Clearly, the bonds of community that tie society together are under strain as much as our economic performance. In fact, the two downturns feed one another.

Could national service recapture in Britain that elusive spirit of ‘we’?

The psychological evidence on the danger of aimlessness is abundant. Whilst our consumerist culture promotes the idolisation of “me”, with “my truth”, “my goals”, “my health”, “my career” and “my identity”, we lose our collective sense of “we”. The social scientist Robert Putnam, writing in the American context, drew together a swathe of economic and social evidence to show that America became both a more equal and a more culturally “we” society after the end of the Gilded Age, through the Progressive era and into the 1960s. This was a time of high growth, rising equality and increased American communitarianism, culminating in the “Ask not” speech. Following this, the combination of post-Sixties “I”-focused social liberalism and individualist economic philosophies pushed the country apart again. Could national service recapture in Britain that elusive spirit of “we”?

There are hazards. A civilian service implemented by the British state would run the risk of becoming a woke indoctrination exercise, with British youth taught to check their privilege and hate their history by low-grade community activists. This is not a problem with existing schemes, though, such as the Duke of Edinburgh award.

Depending on the model, the right material compensation for participants would help to ensure they enter university or the world of work with some savings. It might encourage people to make more informed choices about what education or employment to pursue next. The skills taught would need to be of practical use, though the main benefits would still be moral and social. As part of a wider national programme, there should be opportunities for older people to give back, too. Those who retired early during the pandemic could sign up to provide free community-based childcare, for example, or offer parenting classes, as already happens on a smaller scale through family hubs. A national service programme would need older adults to run it, of course.

A crucial distinction between conservative and libertarian stances on this question is the right of the state to ask a private person for a commitment of service. Conservatism, unlike Victorian liberalism, seeks a balance between the individual and the wellbeing of the community, especially the nation state that guarantees our freedoms. Whilst we all have rights, we have plenty of obligations that bind us even if they aren’t chosen — duties as citizens, as family members, as neighbours. We owe the safety and security from which we benefit to the wider national community and to those who have made sacrifices before us. Sometimes a push out the door is needed, too — I’d have hated to be made to do national service at 16 or 18, but in hindsight it would have done me a world of good. Liberty in a vacuum is often lost.

We need a fair, new deal for young British people that improves their economic prospects radically. The lynchpin of this is being able to buy a home. Nonetheless, Britain is our home, too, and we should seek to make it stronger and more cohesive by promoting mutual bonds and an ethic of muscular citizenship.

A form of national service could be transformative, instilling selflessness and self-respect whilst forming a rite-of-passage into responsible adulthood. It’s worth a shot.

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