A number of things have conspired to raise once again the old chestnut of the reintroduction of National Service to the UK, nearly 60 years after its demise in the 1960s.
This article was submitted by Stuart Crawford, a regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty years, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. Crawford now works as a political, media, and defence and security consultant in Edinburgh and is a regular commentator and contributor on military and defence topics in online and other media, including the UK Defence Journal.
Not least of these has been the recent RUSI report Competitive National Service by Elisabeth Braw. In her paper the author brings together a number of strands, including recent political initiatives, the shift in British Army recruiting targeting to focus on under 18 year olds, and the perception that young people might want to make a contribution to civic life by “doing something useful”, amongst other things.
Ms Braw’s RUSI paper received a lot of media coverage when it was published and more when the SNP Defence Spokesman, Stewart McDonald MP, mentioned aspects of it as a possible input to an independent Scotland’s national security posture. Almost inevitably this was quickly portrayed in the populist press as a return of National Service in an independent Scotland, and McDonald took to the pages of the Nationalist- leaning paper The National in an attempt to clear up the misunderstandings. The New Statesman has also weighed in to support McDonald’s thoughts on the idea.
Covid-19 has added another dimension, with reports that up to 20% of 18 year old potential undergraduates are reputedly set to defer entry to university this year. But the classic gap year out is by no means certain in the light of continuing travel restrictions, which begs the question; what are all these young people going to do if finding themselves in Katmandu is no longer an option? Finally, we should recognise that the British armed services are still struggling to attract a sufficient number of recruits via the outsourced recruitment process, and that improved numbers through the recruiter’s door are yet to translate into sufficient numbers at the initial training establishments. The wastage rate is high.
And so some observers think that there just might be a place for some sort of scheme whereby young folk could contribute to national life. As the RUSI paper records in some detail, the Scandinavian countries have a tradition of having these in various different guises. There’s no point in going into a detailed analysis because Ms Braw has done it already, and better than I can, so let’s just take a couple of examples.
Denmark has a long history of conscription to its armed services which continues today. However, because numbers in the age cohort tend to be far in excess of the requirement, only approximately of eligible males are actually called up to serve. Only men are conscripted, but women can, and do, sign up voluntarily, constituting roughly 20% of all “conscripts”. Most serve their 4 months training in the armed services (12 months for those selected for particular regiments) but there is also an option to spend their time with the Danish Emergency Management Agency (DEMA). Conscripts here serve for nine months in the Agency’s regional centres and learn disaster-response techniques, and leave equipped to assist in future civil emergencies.
In Norway also a reduced system of conscription remains, with the needs of that armed services dictating that only about a third of the age cohort are called up. Interestingly, being “selected for conscription” carries big Kudos in that country and there is competition amongst young people there to be included, such are the perceived benefits in terms of future career prospects.
To quote Braw:
“The highly selective nature of Norway’s military service makes it very attractive among young Norwegians – indeed, somewhat paradoxically, the exclusivity rather than the actual duties appear to appeal to young Norwegians. Today military service is seen as exclusive and prestigious… it looks good on one’s CV. The only people the armed forces have to draft against their will are a small number with specialist skills, such as electricians.”
In other words, young Norwegians aspire to do military service because it is recognised by potential employers as a good thing to have done. Because it is selective, and the people taken are in the top of their age cohort, they are eminently employable post-service.
Might this Scandinavian model of quasi-conscription, mixing compulsory and voluntary service in either the armed forces or other civilian service, be applicable in the UK or, from McDonald’s point of view, Scotland when it becomes independent? Well, I think we do have to knock the idea of compulsory military service in the UK on the head for once and for all. Aside from the deranged mutterings of a handful of retired Bufton Tuftons in the Home Counties there appears to be little appetite in the military community for a return to National Service as was before.
The thought of being charged to take a bunch of scruffy, unwilling conscripts and turn them into something approaching competent soldiers, sailors and airmen/women is enough to make even the most hardened of Sergeant Majors blanch. The images of It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum and Dad’s Army cannot be unseen or unrecalled, and they still resonate with the post conscription generations.
On the other hand, we have armed forces that cannot meet their target numbers, lots of smart young folk who may not be able to, or wish to, follow any more the gap year paradigm of meaningless travel for travel’s sake and, for commendable reasons, might seek to contribute to their communities and/or – old fashioned ideal but not necessarily an antiquated one – their country, however they might identify that? Personally I was never one of the “Queen and Country” brigade whilst in uniform, but many of my closest friends were and none the worse in my estimation for being so. I like to think we were all equally committed to what we had signed up to do.
Is there scope for some sort of resilience organisation based on quasi conscription as floated by McDonald? If nothing else, the coronavirus pandemic has been a reality check, reminding us perhaps that societal resilience must play a vital role in both the UK’s national security strategy and in preparation for future such events. We were caught napping this time; it would be criminal if we were caught napping the next time.
A final point. Whilst I am firmly against the idea of compulsory military service in peacetime, I do think that basic military training might be a voluntary option available under the resilience service scheme. Part of the problem with recruitment to the armed services is that young people don’t know what they might be getting into these days, such is the disconnect between civilian population and the forces. It’s a leap in the dark that must put many off. With a taster some might find it to their liking and make a career of it, and the trainers would have the comfort of dealing with willing volunteers. It might also, thinking of Mr McDonald’s political position, go some way to answering the perennially boring question of how the armed forces of an independent Scotland might seek to fill their ranks.
I think it’s worth further consideration at the very least.
We have armed forces well below establishment, a cohort of youngsters stymied by Covid-19 and lack of employment opportunities, and a feeling, stimulated no doubt by the modern plague, that we might all be able to do better for one another. It might well be an idea whose time has come. And if you’re going to pile in and say it’s a ridiculous idea, please do read the references I have provided first. Thereafter I’m quite happy to be told I’m wrong.
 Competitive National Service: How the Scandinavian Model Can Be Adapted by the UK. By Elisabeth Braw. RUSI Occasional Paper, October 2019.