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Karen Bartlett column.

Byline: By Karen Bartlett

If you still have a short back and sides and fondly remember when your local Starbucks was a Lyon's Tea Shop, you probably think reintroducing National Service would be a jolly good idea.

What better way to deal with impudent young people today.

No more hoodies.

Goodbye gangster rap.

Unfortunately, none of the main political parties are suggesting dealing with the problem by incarcerating disrespectful youth in that draconian, but effective, prison system that used to be known as the Army.

But they do all agree that a year or two of "National Service" in the community would turn a few disrespectful boys and girls into well functioning adults.

A modern National Service would almost certainly look nothing like the one that went out of fashion before The Beatles. Britain has moved on.

At its height more than 6,000 young men were called up every fortnight to serve over a period that began in 1945 and lasted until the last vestiges of the British Empire had been rubbed off the map in 1963.

More than two million served as far afield as Hong Kong and the Middle East. They occupied post-war Germany, policed what was then Palestine, and fought in Suez. Four hundred conscripts to National Service died.

Back then National Service was necessary for our survival.

Today we need a professional Army, and most other European countries have followed suit.

Rather than reintroducing conscription Italy and France have both turned to entirely professional forces, and Germany is reducing military conscription to a period of nine months.

Despite our recent entanglements overseas the idea of the military is no longer entrenched in our national life.

We no longer serve others abroad.

The question is, should we serve more at home?

The idea of National Service invokes some deep sentiments. Like duty, and comradeship. Some say their years in the Army, courtesy of National Service, made men out of them.

But for others the experience was a nightmare.

First came the medical, performed according to King's regulations. If you passed your "drop and cough" a brown envelope would be winging its way to you rather more speedily than you'd find today.

It would be a summons to 10 weeks of basic training in barracks.

There, according to various first hand reports, you'd either make friends for life or encounter a psychopathic drill sergeant and feel like running away or committing suicide. Army life wasn't for sensitive souls.

But what were the wider consequences of National Service?

Did it provide a valuable outlet for young male aggression and instill discipline and respect for authority ( or did it damage the economy by removing a large section of the workforce, and cause resentment?

What's for sure is that any attempt to reintroduce a compulsory programme of National Service would be equally as unpopular now as it was then.

Bearing that in mind, only voluntary options are on the table.

But how effective could a voluntary scheme really be?

The type of young people who are at the height of their political and social convictions by their late teens are probably engaged in voluntary activities already.

For them it might amount to no more than a State sponsored gap year.

As for the type of young people I suspect politicians would really like to target, at 18 they are already long past the stage where a few hours tormenting the elderly in a nursing home will be any use to them ( or us.

Three is now the age targeted by the Government and professionals to influence the outcome of their lives.

National Service for the young is mainly an idea that appeals to older people, not those who are worrying about exams, university loans and getting a job.

In America President Kennedy's 1960s dream of founding a Peace Corps is still promoting its ideals by sending thousands of volunteers oversees.

It was an idea for a young generation, but many who now sign up are retired.

And who's to say they aren't the ones with the most to offer.

So, if you're keen on the idea of National Service, there's a good idea.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 24, 2006
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