‘The British are good at paying taxes but detest drill,’ Winston Churchill once observed. ‘The French do not mind drill but avoid taxes.’
France’s president Emmanuel Macron has reminded us of the wisdom of Winnie by announcing the return of compulsory national service, 17 years after it was abolished. Les jeunes français will be obliged to complete a month-long programme of army duties and civic engagement. Public opinion is with Macron but there is resistance to the price tag.
Across the Channel, the notion of a liberal politician bringing back marching boots has progressives dizzy with confusion. They couldn’t care less about the cost; militarising adolescence is simply beastly. The UK did away with conscription in 1963. Since then, the enlightened people have decided concepts such as authority, obligation and patriotism are outdated.
Governing class, meet the people you govern. YouGov asked almost 3,000 Britons if they would like to see President Macron’s proposals introduced here. Nearly half said Yes, rising to 74 per cent among over-65s. Cue much disdainful snorting about nostalgia for unlocked doors and clipped ears. Yet those aged 25-to-49 are evenly divided, with 41 per cent in favour and 42 per cent against.
National service proposes a ready made solution to crime and disrespect. To those who detect a pampered aimlessness among modern youth, life experience and a sense of pride are not punishments but opportunities teenagers will come to appreciate. Adulthood has to mean more than zero-hours contracts and all the Smirnoff Ice you can drink.
Furnishing the next generation with skills and values to make the most of themselves is no bad thing. It’s as far from reactionary as you can get. But is it really a job for the military? Should the Army be expected to pick up the slack where parents, schools and the courts have failed?
If we were to follow France’s lead, it would be the Armed Forces who would have to equip, train, house, supervise, and discipline this influx of fresh-faced recruits. What do they make of the idea?
Peter Quentin served with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in Afghanistan. Now a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute defence think tank, he tells me: ‘The services have become increasingly professional, specialised, technologically-dependent and limited in size, so the MoD resists these occasional calls for reinstatement of national service, despite being very conscious of the need for reconstitution in the event of a large-scale conflict.
‘The forces do have an issue with both recruitment and retention, but they are primarily questions over quality rather than quantity – and not answered by burdening them even further by committing scarce resources for the constant force generation required to provide a form of community service without benefit to national defence.’
At ease, squadron. The Armed Forces sound sceptical about being inundated with truculent whippersnappers they would be expected to mould into super-citizens.
No wonder. Imagine Dad’s Army revived as Millennials’ Military. ‘Don’t tell him your preferred gender pronoun, Pike,’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it; and if Captain Mainwaring uttered a single ‘You stupid boy,’ Sergeant Snowflake would have him court-martialled. Instead of fighting the enemy, we’d have to settle for unfollowing them on Twitter.
National service would be better delivered as part of the school curriculum in a mandatory subject that draws together ethics and citizenship lessons with community projects and charity work. Let the Armed Forces get on with being the best.
The conscription debate crops up every few years; but before we dispense with it again, there is an important point worth noting. We rightly regard our Armed Forces as the finest in the world. It is because we hold our soldiers, pilots and sailors in such esteem that half of us reckon they could knock Britain’s wayward youth into shape.
Despite this, our reverence for the military seems to stop short of paying for it. We are perilously underfunding the professional forces we have without swelling their numbers with costly conscripts. Britons may be, as Churchill said, good at paying taxes but the proportion of that revenue going to the military has shrunk.
Defence expenditure has fallen from 3.5 per cent of GDP at the end of the Cold War to 2 per cent last year. Russia spends 5.4 per cent, the US 3.3 per cent. This year we will invest £49billion defending the realm. That sounds like a lot but we will spend twice as much on education, three times as much on health, and five times as much on welfare and pensions.
Regular service personnel are now under 150,000 – 41,000 pairs of boots fewer than ten years ago. The Francois Review found the RAF and Royal Navy were missing recruitment targets by 10 per cent, the Army by more than 30 per cent. The Navy is still without a fully active aircraft carrier: HMS Queen Elizabeth continues to undergo sea trials and HMS Prince of Wales has yet to reach that stage.
Last month, General Sir Nick Carter, head of the British Army, warned ‘our ability to pre-empt or respond to threats will be eroded if we don’t keep up with our adversaries’.
As we struggle to parry Russian passive-aggression, cyberwarfare and Islamist terrorism, such neglect is not only complacent but dangerous. The forthcoming Defence Modernisation Programme will signal whether the Government is serious about tackling these threats while strengthening our Armed Forces as a professional, highly skilled, technologically advanced fighting force.
Labour and the Tories trade barbs on defence but the truth is that neither of them have terribly impressive records. Military spending can’t compete with selfless teachers and hard-pressed nurses; yet, if we cannot defend ourselves all the good intentions and warm feelings about the NHS will amount to nothing. Rather than prodding politicians for conscription, we should press them for more fighter jets and infantrymen.
Bring back military service? I’d rather bring back our military.
The Jeremy Corbyn Personality Cult – formerly known as the Labour Party – can’t decide whether it wants to be a comedy or a tragedy.
On Saturday, members tried to elect a new policy chairman. Barely had proceedings begun than the head of Labour’s National Executive Committee stepped in to call off the vote.
Corbynistas say he was merely enforcing the rules. Yet part of their campaign to elect Corbyn as leader was to revive internal party democracy after years of top-down New Labour control freakery. Why the sudden change of heart?
Could it be the wrong candidate was about to win the election? Ann Black, a Left-winger but not part of the Corbyn clique, was tipped to come out on top. She was in charge of investigating anti-Semitism until being unceremoniously ousted last month.
Factional infighting, backroom coups, cancelled votes. If this is how the Absolute Boys run the Labour Party, just think how they’d run the country.
Dreadful news from the SNP. Activist Julie Hepburn has entered the deputy leadership contest, threatening the coronation of James Dornan and an endless supply of separatist LOLs. The SNP must put the nation’s entertainment needs ahead of its narrow interest in not being a laughing stock. Cancel the election, install James Dornan, and get the popcorn in.