Debate over plan to revive National Service

Your country needs you: National Service was introduced amid global instability in the years after World War Two.

Do teenagers need a compulsory National Citizen Service? Conservative hopeful Rory Stewart thinks that a universal scheme could unite the country and give young people a sense of purpose.

Between 1949 and 1963, two million young men aged 17 to 21 were called up for 18 months of National Service.

Many of them were posted around the world, suppressing unrest in post-war Germany, or defending dwindling outposts of the British Empire. Some even saw front-line fighting in Malaya’s guerrilla war.

National Service died out as the UK’s global influence faded. But Rory Stewart, the surprise star of the race to be the next prime minister, thinks its return (in a 21st-century, non-military form) could unite the country and instil young people with a sense of purpose.

While it is unclear whether he will make it through tonight’s ballot, momentum is building behind Stewart’s signature policy: a compulsory National Citizen Service (NCS) for 16-year-olds.

Stewart says that he wants teenagers to “spend two weeks with people from different backgrounds, often in an outdoor, education setting, to learn skills, develop confidence”. They would then spend two more weeks “giving back to a community project”.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron is spearheading a trial of a national civic service, which would become compulsory. On Sunday, 2,000 teenagers started the month-long programme, surrendering their mobile phones for all but one hour per day.

Activities include training in how to respond to a terror attack; modules on sustainable development and French values, and evening debates on issues like gender and racism.

While Stewart stresses that his programme would not be military service, Macron has said he wants all French young people to have direct experience of military life.

Stewart is not the first politician to champion a NCS in the UK.

In 2010, former Prime Minister David Cameron championed a scheme to unite young people in his “Big Society”, although it remains optional.

In Cameron’s NCS, 15 to 17-year-olds take part in residential trips with physical activities and team-building exercises. But in 2016, only 12% of those eligible to take part did so.

Do your duty?

Do teenagers in Britain need a compulsory NCS? The youngest people who did national service are now in their mid-70s. Why should politicians who never served their country themselves force it upon young people? It will only increase resentment between generations, and contradict British values of liberty and free choice.

Or could NCS be just what we need to unite a fractured country? In a world of immediate gratification and individualism, have we lost sight of duty and responsibility? NCS could forge bonds between teenagers from every background, and help young people feel they have a place in wider society.

You Decide

  1. Do you think National Citizen Service would improve your life?
  2. Would a National Citizen Service make the country more or less unified?

Activities

  1. Design a poster for a National Citizenship Service for 2019. Use the old one at the top of this article for inspiration.
  2. What kind of activities or lessons do you think should be included in compulsory National Service? Write an itinerary for your own week-long programme.

Some People Say...

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
On Friday, Conservative MP and International Development Secretary Rory Stewart announced that if he becomes prime minister, he would introduce a compulsory National Citizen Service for 16-year-olds. They would spend a month “learning skills” and “giving back to the community”.
What do we not know?
Whether teenagers approve of Stewart’s plan. In 2016, a YouGov survey found that 47% of the British public were in favour of re-introducing National Service, while 43% opposed it. However, the survey was envisioning a more military-based National Service rather than the good citizen model that Stewart is proposing.

Word Watch

Guerrilla
When a smaller military group uses unexpected attacks to fight against larger, more conventional forces. Between 1948 and 1960, Commonwealth forces fought against the guerrilla Malayan National Liberation Army.
Rory Stewart
He had a brief army career when he was younger, and later served as a regional governor in Iraq during the war there.
Ballot
Six candidates remain in the race, with Boris Johnson enjoying the most support from Conservative MPs. Johnson is widely expected to win, despite an unexpected momentum behind Stewart.
Military life
Countries including Switzerland, Israel, Brazil and South Korea still have compulsory military service.
Big Society
A political plan devised by Cameron that focused on boosting volunteering and local community participation. It was implemented by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government after the 2010 General Election.
NCS
An organisation called The Challenge delivers most of the programmes.

Subjects