Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why National Service is a good idea which will never happen

The other day Mark Ellen and I were mulling over the benefits of bringing back National Service with the carefree air of codgers who will never be called upon to do it. As the registered owners of offspring who are in or have recently passed through the age group in question we know there's something to be said for it, and since since no government is ever going to have the nerve to bring National Service back it seems safe to rehearse some of the arguments.
  • There are 770,000 British people between 19 and 24 who are not in work, education or training. Barring the sudden revival of the country's manufacturing base or the return to sense of the professional bodies who've made a degree a basic requirement to entry to their ranks, that's not going to change. It's going to get worse.
  • The habit of work is the most important life skill you can acquire. Young people who've spent years watching daytime TV are going to find it impossible to pick up the reins of a productive life.
  • Take John Peel. He was a classic case of a young man who hadn't a clue what he was going to do with his life and National Service threw him in with a whole load of types he would not otherwise have met, sent him overseas, no doubt put him to work doing some mind-numbing tasks, taught him to rub along with other people and probably did him more good than daytime TV would have done.
  • If you talk to anyone of any distinction in their seventies and ask them how they ended up doing what they did, they will frequently say "it was National Service".
  • If we had a conscript army there is no chance of a government of any stripe getting involved in overseas adventures like Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. It would simply not be worth the political risk.
  • It's bound to result in less pallid indie bands.


  1. I'm wondering if your last point is a subtle grammatical joke. Surely we'd rather hope for fewer pallid indie bands, but turning down the pallid on the existing ones would be a good deal too.

  2. I hear the sound of an open door being pushed David. Mr. Medd Snr. still talks with misty eyes about his two years in Germany. It's all about getting the mattress off your back in the morning. He instilled that into me and I hope that I've passed the baton to Medd Jnr. - I'd like to think that James and kids like him are bucking the trend. I look at how he's working like buggery to get a First at University while a lot of his contemporaries 'haven't got a shift in them,' as an old gaffer of mine used to say.

  3. I thought that they just changed the name from National Service to Media Sudies.

  4. No chance of overseas adventures? Didn't the Korean War, the Malaysian Emergency and the Mau Mau uprising all occur during Britain's National Service era?

    I was brought up in a service family, and I was glad I never had to join up. But if I can generalise from the opinions of my father and others, the reason that professional servicemen usually don't want the restoration of National Service is that they see the forces existing for military reasons, and they take great pride in this. They are not interested in being social workers.

  5. *Fewer* pallid indie bands. I've taken to letting this slip, but you're a professional writer with an education dammit, so if you can curmudgeon about national service, I can about grammar.

  6. I don't think I have ever met anyone who did national service who thought it was anything other than a waste of time that reinforced prejudices and taught people how to skive. The whole idea of letting people be bossed around by slightly older people with chips on their shoulders seems deeply flawed. Drill and marching really does not develop character. Some kind of non-military scheme might be workable but I doubt it.

    BTW recent work on exam results shows that media studies is extremely difficult to do well in, and yes the analysis deals with all the arguments why this is a flawed result and shows them to be wrong.

  7. There was an excellent series on Radio 4 about 10 years ago presented by Charles Wheeler about national service. While some conscriptees felt it was the making of them, they were plenty who had pretty unpleasant experiences and were still bitter many years later. What stuck in my mind was a number of interviewees who were conscripted and sent to Malaysia to fight a war, as they saw it, to protect the interests of private British rubber companies. Although I admire your optimism, governments have a tendency to let us down, no matter how low our expectations. I think governments are more likely to think harder about military engagement when they have to pay their soldiers than when they have an endless supply of free manpower. In general, they just don’t think hard enough at all.
    As a society, we certainly let our young people down, but we’d do better to put that right – such as teaching a few more people basic literacy skills after at least 10 years of compulsory education – rather than expecting the army to put it right for us.

  8. Grammar... if "less" refers to the quality of being "pallid" then surely the sentence reads correctly.

  9. National Service is a despicable idea - call it really is : WAR SLAVERY.

    Neither, nor anyone else, are property the military can own.

  10. I spend far too many seconds of far too many days correcting "less" to "fewer", and tutting - not because I disapprove of the solecism, but because I really don't know why convention means I should have to keep doing it. "Less/fewer" is a pointless, redundant distinction whose only possible reason for existing is to catch people out. (It's pointless and redundant because we manage perfectly well without a separate word for count-noun referents of "more", so why should we need one for those of "less"?)

    After the not-before-time demise of non-gender-specific "he" and the headlong rush to embrace singular "they" (albeit still with the occasional squirm of discomfort), my next prediction for assimilation into the corpus of "correct" grammar is acceptance of "less" as an antonym of more, not only semantically but also grammatically.

    But it's not quite there yet, is it, Dave? [/nurseratchedface]

  11. There's an erroneous belief that national military service would be good for the youth of today because it would be an "all mucking in together" experience like it was back in the 40s and 50s.
    However, many of the menial tasks that squaddies did back then are now contracted out to private corporations. Base guard duties? Securicor. Peeling spuds? Serco catering. Troop transport? Arriva tender. If national service was reintroduced by Cameron he'd probably make it a private finance initiative run by Blackwater.

  12. My dad qualified for national service by birth - born in February 1940, he was in the youngest year sent to do it - but didn't get called up because he had an apprenticeship. Perhaps that's a good argument for bringing back national service alongside apprenticeships, as 16-18 year olds might just try harder to find a trade to learn in order to avoid, actively, being conscripted into a military for which they are plainly not suited.

  13. I always thought it might be a good idea to draft people into the Police rather than the armed services. Might just help with some of the ASBO generation.

  14. Of all the arguments, the one about pallid indie groups is surely the most compelling. Hell, it's almost enough on its own to have me clamouring to sign the petition...

  15. @Archie I'm coming back to this because Paxman himself corrected someone on less/fewer last night.

    As Patrick points out, there is a distinction, and David has used a sentence where (had we been more alert), the meaning changes depending on which word is chosen.

    Less pallid indie bands: The same number of indie bands, but they are not as pallid.

    Fewer pallid indie bands: The bands are just as pallid, but there are fewer of them.

    I see your point about "more", and wonder whether it would be better if we had an extra word, since if I called for "more pallid indie bands", you wouldn't know whether I wanted more bands, or more pallidity.

    People who never use the word "fewer" would still look at you funny if you told your daughter to put "more sands" in a seaside bucket.

  16. @John H @Alistair Fitchett

    A simple hyphen - which a keen sub would use for all compound premodifiers anyway - suffices to solve the ambiguity problem with "less" in the case of indie bands who are not as pallid as others: "less-pallid indie bands". And, as you point out, the same ambiguity affects "more" equally, yet we somehow seem to get by.

    User-driven change in English usage always tends to conflate and simplify rather than split and diversify (e.g. the "thou/you" merger, the widespread use of "criteria" and "phenomena" as both singular and plural, the common confusion over "imply/infer" and "due/owing to" and many others), so the emergence of a plural form of "more" isn't really on the cards. The death of "fewer" in everyday registers certainly is, though, I reckon, particularly because communication - which is all that language is - won't be any the poorer for it.

  17. While I was in Singapore on National Service I skived off every other day and went swimming or off on the batter downtown. I spoke with a a posh English accent and got on very well with the locals. Chinese girls are well sexy compared to the podgy English, (I can now say). I got flown back as I had a cushy job. I even passed my Chemistry A level while I was there. My Mum said I wasn't brown but you only got that on the troop ship back.