Lastly, a Manning Commission has (among other matters) reported vaguely in favour of a Volunteer Reserve. There is no means of knowing what this recommendation will lead to; let us hope not to the fiasco of the last badly conceived experiment. Is it not becoming patent that the time has come for training all Englishmen systematically either for the sea or for the rifle?
The Riddle of the Sands
Childers’ novel, published in 1903, was not only the template for the espionage thriller but also anticipated the changing nature of any future European conflict. No longer would a nation’s quarrels be settled by a group of trained professionals but by the conscription of all the able-bodied men in the population. Even after hostilities had ceased in 1945, the Government thought it prudent to follow the suggestion contained in Childers’ last sentence and insist that all males at the age of eighteen should join the armed services for a period of two years. Eventually, it was realised that neither the financial interests of shareholders in the Suez Canal Company nor the defeat of the confected bogey-men of right-wing Americans was worth dying for and National Service came to an end.
Despite some rumblings from the flog ‘em and hang ‘em brigade who seemed to believe the ritual humiliation was an essential part of youth’s education, the ending of compulsory service to the nation was generally greeted with relief. But does it mean that National Service is necessarily a bad thing? Might not spending a year out helping others, be both personally and socially beneficial? Some thought would be necessary if it were to be both effective and relatively cheap. The simplest way would be a locally based operation with the overall aim of improving the area in every respect. This could stretch from generally tidying the place up to helping reinstate those facilities for sport and the arts lost in the interests of austerity. Nor should such service to the community be limited to the young. It would be simple enough to make it a precondition of receipt of a full state pension that so many hours were spent helping others. If the two groups worked in partnership, there could be an interesting combination of muscle and experience. There could also be various other advantages that accrue from the main action. Vandalism by the young would decrease – you are unlikely to rip up a flowerbed if you have helped plant it yourself. For the older generation there could be benefits both physical and mental. After the set hours of regular employment sudden cessation of organised work can come as something of a shock and a gentle transition would be welcomed by most. Also mixing with youth might well be an energising experience which could stimulate wellbeing and relieve the pressure on the doctor’s surgery.
It would not, in the present climate, be possible to make such a scheme compulsory but it should be easy enough to offer incentives to make participation an attractive proposition. For the young it could be an opportunity to impress future employees. For the elderly a chance to socialise and acquire new skills. Such a scheme would particularly suit a relatively small nation trying to make its way in the world and a population willing to put its shoulder to the wheel of independence. Perhaps those living north of Hadrian’s Wall might like to consider it.