In a speech this week David Cameron dredged up that old cure-all panacea for society's ills, national service. Like ginseng, acupuncture and Cillit Bang, there doesn't seem to be a problem it can't tackle. Cameron enthused:
'I am always struck when asking anyone of my father's generation who did national service by the fact that they tend to reply in a similar way. It was something we all did together - irrespective of who we were, where we lived, where we came from, or what god we worshipped.'
Cameron should perhaps talk to a few more people. Being sent to fight in a barely-understood foreign war wasn't particularly popular among many national servicemen. Nor was the infinitely more likely scenario of having their lives put on hold as they spent two tedious years in an army that didn't need them. As the journalist Martin Bell recalls of his national service days:
'There was an awful lot of what you could call "rest and recreation" in my memory. I seem to have spent the best part of two years asleep, because there wasn't really that much to do...'
We won't dwell on the pros and cons of compulsory military service though, because Cameron isn't planning political suicide. Instead what he's suggesting is the politicians' favourite: school leavers would take part in a range of activities that could include military training but also community service or charity work. Last year Gordon Brown floated a not-dissimilar idea whereby students would get a low-interest student loan if they did voluntary service for a year. But even this 'national service lite' throws up so many problems it's impossible to imagine that either Cameron or Brown have given it more than the
most cursory consideration.
Few people planning to go to university or college would be keen on having their plans interrupted by compulsory national service - and if you want to take a year out doing voluntary work, there's not much to stop you anyway. It's also hard to see how national service would magically instil discipline. Your average don't-give-a-toss teenager is unlikely to voluntarily offer themselves up for a dose of military discipline (although the yob element might be tempted by the guns, knives, head-kicking-in skills, etc.) so instead they'd presumably opt for community service, and make a half-arsed job of it: turning up late or not at all, and so on. It's not like they'd be given jankers.
In short, national service ain't much of an idea, and it's hard to believe either Cameron or Brown are serious about it. Nonetheless, Cameron claims his plans would 'prepare teenagers for their responsibilities as adult citizens' and tackle 'the dangers of [racial and religious] ghettoisation in our country and a disintegrating sense of national cohesion.' Maybe national service will make people smarter and whiten their teeth, too.
The idea of 'responsible adult citizens' is obviously code for 'not being feckless, binge-drinking yobs' - a rather offensive stereotype of young people that seems to have taken on its own reality courtesy of the press. Can you imagine any other group in society being stereotyped in this way? Imagine the headlines:
CAMERON RESIGNS OVER 'ALL BLACKS GOT RHYTHM' CLAIM.
And it's not just Cameron who is alluding to the idea that young people inhabit a netherworld of crime, disrespect for their elders, teenage sex and drink'n'drug binges. Very similar ideas have been raised by New Labour, with its various citizenship initiatives and its cringeworthy Respect campaign. Sure, yob behaviour, binge drinking and the rest exist, but genuinely harmful anti-social behaviour is the exception rather than the norm, so what is the point of the average teenager doing national service?
The suggestion that national service will prevent 'ghettoisation' is even more dubious. Again, it taps into contemporary paranoia that Asian people are building a secretive Islamic society within 'British' society. It's pretty safe to say that, on the whole, they're not. And even if we did live in a genuinely segregated society, how on earth is community service going to help? Will they feel more integrated, or will they feel as though they've been identified as a problem that has to be dealt with? 'We think you might turn into a suicide bomber, Imran, so we're introducing you to lots of nice white people on the national service litter patrol!'
Exaggerating problems and then floating fantasy solutions like national service is all too common in politics, but it's wrong because it deflects attention from actual problems. For God's sake, if you want to tackle yob behaviour, then say so.
It's not as though there aren't enough issues to discuss. Why are some kids able to rack up dozens, if not hundreds, of criminal offences without being forced to change their behaviour? How are we going to stop people having children that they are incapable of looking after? How do we help children living in completely dysfunctional families? Do we support dysfunctional families or penalise them? Are ASBOs and tagging a waste of time? Should we build more young offenders' institutions? Which schemes for problem children work and which don't?
These are real questions. Unfortunately it's easier to pretend that a bit of square bashing or community work is the answer. Now get back to painting those rocks white.