Can National Service really make a comeback?

George Robertson wants jobless people to join the Army. But he may have a fight on his hands. Mark Childs reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT'S being called the Fifth Option - the attempt to get jobless youngsters to join the armed forces as part of the Government's New Deal to steer people back to work. Not content with offering the young unemployed training, work in the voluntary sector, a place on an environmental task force, or a job, ministers have succumbed to an impulse to corral the nation's youth into military duty.

Sound familiar? It certainly does to those old enough to have taken part in National Service. In the years between 1947 and 1963, more than 2 million men took part in a somewhat pointless round of square-bashing, potato peeling and kit cleaning, with the promise of little else but a demob suit for serving Crown and country.

Not all conscripts escaped active service, however. Many were sent to the front-line, in one or other of the 57 "actions" in which Britain was involved between 1947 and 1963, from the Korean War to anti-insurgent campaigns in Cyprus, Malaya and Kenya.

"Action wasn't something particularly on our minds," says Bruce Kent, the former chairman of CND, who served in the Army from 1947 to 1949. "We were taught to bayonet-charge sandbags whilst yelling at the tops of our voices, but the thought that we might be doing it to people just never occurred. The closest I came was a tour in Belfast, but that was keeping the civil peace, it wasn't warfare.

"You must remember, though, that I came from a public school background. I saw service as my duty as a loyal citizen, it was really the carrying over of an ethos from one institution to another. I was an unthinking part of the machine and a committed and conscientious soldier."

The reason for the Fifth Option - put forward by George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence - echoes that of the Labour Secretary of State for War, Lord Manny Shinwell, when he introduced National Service in 1947 - a shortage of recruits. Then, the country needed an extra 250,000; today, it is 9,000.

One man who revelled in the experience was the controversial Mancunian comic Bernard Manning, who was conscripted in 1948. "Oh, it was a wonderful time," he says, "some of the happiest days of my life. I was in the Manchester Regiment and I sang with the Regiment band out in Berlin.

The greatest thing was the comradeship, I still see pals I made during service. We did everything apart from fight - they trained us with sten guns, grenade throwers, all that kind of thing - but it was the discipline which was more important. Coming from home where your mam would be cooking your dinner to standing in a square having a sergeant-major screaming bloody murder in your face did you a world of good."

If his life wasn't made miserable by the sergeant-major, or even worse, by the boredom, then a young man's Army days could be made wretched by a dose of venereal disease. Young servicemen often had their first sexual experiences with prostitutes in far-flung corners of what remained of the British Empire - as portrayed in The Virgin Soldiers, by former National Serviceman Leslie Thomas, who based his novel on his time in Singapore in the Royal Army Pay Corps from 1949 to 1951.

Both Bruce Kent and J G Ballard, the novelist believe that times have changed so much that it will be impossible to make such a scheme successful. "It made perfect sense at the time, after five years of war and when a great feeling of national purpose remained," says Kent. "But you couldn't bring that back today, train people from 18 to 21 within the military and then throw them back out to join the rat-race. It wouldn't work".

"For the majority," says Ballard, "National Service was a vast great headache which they were only to happy to get out of."

Any politician seduced by the idea will have to balance the disastrous PR of a conscript being killed with the benefits of the military life - a framework of discipline and values missing from the lives of many youngsters, apparently.

"The argument that the military offers some system of moral probity does not hold water," says Ballard. "You just need to look at the example of our delightful squaddies out in Cyprus. The army is ultimately structured to elicit an aggressive response from young men. I believe that square- bashing has been tried in these sharp, short, shock prisons anyway without any great effect."