Terence Blacker: The merits of bringing back national service

It would offer a parachute into adulthood, a taste of work without pressure
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The Independent Online

It is a strange fact of modern life that sometimes even the silliest survey of public opinion can offer food for thought, perhaps even wisdom. One might assume, for example, the views of 1,266 adults asked about the problem of yobbish behaviour for an ITV reality show called Bad Lad's Army would be so predictable as to be virtually pointless; 87 per cent thought that, yes, yobbishness was a problem while 65 per cent were worried about over-crowded prisons and thought bringing back national service would ease the pressure. Fewer than one in five took the wimpish view that pulling a yob off the street and giving him a spell in the military would have no beneficial effect whatsoever.

There is little surprise here but then, mid-yawn, a startling thought occurs. The 65 per cent of those 1,266 adults may have stumbled upon something. If one ignores the parts of the survey which deal with bad lads (which, admittedly, is the whole point of it), the idea of some form of national service, at the end of school but before university or employment, is a sound and timely idea.

We are so influenced by an idea of national service which has been handed down to us in films, novels and memoirs by post-war draftees - mindlessly military and old-fashioned - that the idea of a broader, more socially useful alternative is rarely discussed with any degree of seriousness. Gordon Brown has encouraged industry to back gap-year voluntary service while David Cameron has gone further, suggesting that four months of such work might be made compulsory for school leavers. Both, one suspects, are swimming against the tide of their own parties.

Yet never has the case for a new kind of national service been as strong as it is today. As an institution, the family is failing to contain the precocious sense of freedom and empowerment children acquire at an early age. The liminal period between childhood and adult life, with its sudden power-surge of teenage rebelliousness, sexuality and inarticulate aggression, has never been a picnic for those battle-weary mums and dads on the front line, and now it is tougher than ever.

Teenagers absorb the hedonistic selfishness of the culture that surrounds them and, apart from the occasional scolding editorial or a citizenship lesson at school, there is nothing and no one to put the case for society. The idea that with personal rights come social responsibilities is lost in the tumult of teenage life. Yet, cruelly, it is now that growing children are liable, for reasons of finance, insecurity or idleness, to stay at home longer than ever into their adulthood.

Contrary to what the Bad Lad's Army survey suggests, the result is not simply the problem of yobs on the streets and the prisons filling up. Sometimes it is behind closed doors - an experience of intense unhappiness as a young person grows away from the parents with whom it lives.

The weekend's Sunday Times contained a rather moving and thought-provoking double interview with Sir Jonathan Miller, the great director and intellectual, and his 42 year-old son, William, who is in business. Looking back to his teen years, William recalled that he would dread asking for help with homework for fear of getting a lecture, and that his father was "also a bully about reading. If you tried to impress him by telling him you'd read a new book, he'd point out all the books you hadn't read. He was never very good at praise."

For his part, Sir Jonathan sadly recalled that "with William, I never detected any desire to become a doctor, a doer or maker in the arts. In fact, I always felt some disappointment that there wasn't a family community of ideas at home."

I would lay money that there are Independent readers, on each side of the generational divide, who will recognise something of their own situation in the bewildered words, heavy with disappointment and hurt, of the famous father and son. William failed his A-levels and then fled to America to make his way in business, but others may lack his impressive confidence and purpose.

A well-organised, compassionate form of national service, one that was neither grindingly military nor squeakily goody-goody, but which offered people of 17 and 18 a choice of practical, active options, would broaden the horizons for some and offer an escape route for others. It might come as a shock for the bloody-minded or over-indulged but it would also offer a parachute into adulthood, a chance to meet people from different backgrounds, a taste of work but without pressure to succeed.

This new national service would need a politician of steel to see it through, for it is hardly a vote-winner and trails a distinct whiff of the nanny state. But sometimes nanny's medicine is just what is needed.