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There is no denying, this country needs a renewed sense of modern patriotism, a closer link with our armed forces and a foundation of solid skillsets instilled in our younger generations. But is National Service the most effective means to reach these ends?

When considering the potential merits of forcibly requiring young people to forfeit years of their lives to serve others, it is important to look at the notion in a historical context. Conscription has only operated for two periods in the 20th century, between 1916 and 1919 and 1939 and 1960, respectively. The world, and this country, was a very different place.

Historically, men were needed to fight asymmetric wars on which the fate of the nation depended and then clean up after it, or a workforce was required to administer a crumbling Empire gearing towards a multiplicity of independent states. While we currently face a plethora of crises, thankfully we do not have any major asymmetric wars to fight or oppressive Imperial responsibilities. Our needs are very different. So too must our methods be.

One idea put forward is that conscription can bolster the link between our armed forces and civilians, creating a shared interest and respect for our service personnel. As RUSI’s Elizabeth Braw suggests in her paper Competitive National Service, it can be an efficient way to build up reserve forces to support the professional troops and contribute to national identity and unity by serving the same national cause. While Braw makes an effective argument, there are other means to achieve these ends. Investing money in promoting the opportunities presented by joining the armed forces reserves; making joining structures for reservists less arduous for non-combat roles; increasing education around the role of the UK’s peacekeeping forces; and ensuring the historical relevance of our armed forces reaches every echelon of the school system. These are just some of the avenues that must be explored before we turn to National Service.

When looking at building skills in younger generations, so too do we find viable alternatives to state-sanctioned conscription. We have all heard stories from friends and family suggesting that their time carrying out national service instilled in them a skill set that allowed them to go on and achieve. But doesn’t this say more about our school system that the effectiveness of national service?

The OECD has said that the poorest pupils in this country were more unhappy and discouraged than in any other developed country bar Turkey. Disadvantaged children in the UK who are educated together are two years behind those in schools with middle-class pupils. And, at the current rate of “progress”, it will take 50 years to reach an equitable education system. If we can learn from the structures of our armed forces that allow people to flourish and apply that to our schools, we may not need to take such drastic steps as conscription. The answer here is investment in an education system and investment in future generations. This must be our first port of call.

The other argument put forward is that conscription could help reinvigorate the right sort of patriotism. That is, awareness of our country’s historical involvement in atrocities but pride in the principles we now strive to live by and chain of events that brought us here. And there certainly is a great deal we have to be proud of. While we in the Labour Party rightly push for a more balanced society, we do have an almost unrivaled universally accessible health service, world-beating employment rights and a recent history of successful military peacekeeping operations. So, why then do only 18% of 18–25 years olds describe themselves as patriotic? Arguably, this has led to a crisis in identity and a surge in far-right extremism while simultaneously eroding a sense of belonging. Not to mention damaging to our own party at the last election as well as contributing to the fact we face a real and genuine threat of the union falling apart. There is little evidence to suggest National Service is likely to invoke the sort of patriotism capable of dealing with these complex issues. Instead, we should be looking to formulate a new form of patriotism built on unity and pride in our common interests and the shared experiences of all those who live in the UK.

So, history teaches us conscription was an essential means to protect the nation, but the shifting strategic threats faced now remove the utility of national service. A host of avenues remain unexplored when It comes to improving the link between civilian life and our military, which must be assessed before we take drastic rights-removing steps. And, arguments that forced service could solve the patriotism and skill set crisis remain unconvincing. All this without conducting analysis into the economic turmoil that conscription could bring, which happened to be the reasoning behind Macmillan’s decision to end it in the 1957 Defence White Paper.

While I agree with leading mind Huw Strachan, who I was fortunate enough to share a recent Fabian discussion panel with, that we must change the fact that “Britain has established a near-universal and almost impermeable consensus against even discussing national service”, it remains true that National Service is a blunt tool that has the potential to bring more harm than good.

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