Ed West Ed West

National service is a bad idea that won’t go away

(Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

My father did National Service and was lucky enough to end up in Trieste, which was probably the best posting around. He was assigned to the intelligence corps, his job to track down former members of the Croatian Ustaše, a pro-Nazi collaboration regime known for bloodthirstiness so extreme that even visiting Gestapo were shocked by their inhumanity.

I’m not sure if dad managed to get any Nazis brought to justice, but it inspired a love of Yugoslavia which led him to move to Sarajevo and become fluent in Serbo-Croat, and for the rest of his life he was obsessed with the Balkans – always a healthy pastime.

Not everyone was so lucky; his best friend got sent to Aden, which was hell on earth, enduring a terrifying insurgency in the desert, while another pal was posted to Cyprus, where he was killed by EOKA.

National Service was abolished in 1960, the last forced recruit bowing out in 1963, by which time Britain had wiggled out of most of its empire. But most countries retained it for long afterwards: Belgium didn’t abolish mandatory military service until 1992, the Netherlands until 1993 and Germany only abandoned the system in 2011 – and since the war in Ukraine some countries have pondered reintroducing it.

In Britain, reintroducing National Service used to be an obsession of the law-and-order right, seen as a solution to the hooliganism that began to become a feature of British society in the 1960s: Mods and Rockers, long-haired bohemian rock stars exemplified by Mick and Keith, and later football thugs. A spell in the army would knock some sense into them, so the argument went.

More recently, however, at least since the Blair era, National Service has become more a favourite of a particular strand of the centre-left, a remedy for a fractured country divided along lines of class, race and religion.

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