The National Service Bill (2013-2014) was presented to Parliament on 24th June 2013, but since this was the first reading, there was no debate regarding the Bill. However, on the 28th February 2014, the Bill is expected to have its second reading, in which it will be debated.
This bill aims to make national service compulsory for 18- to 26-year-olds. It is conscription and nothing less. You can read the bill and all the details of its proposals here. As it says, “Exempt individuals are those with severe mental or physical disability.” Whereas “Non-exempt individuals who do not serve one year of national service before the age of 26 shall be guilty of an offence.” So the majority of the younger generation would be forced into it under threat of criminal penalty. This would include myself, which I’m not too happy about.
Some proponents of the bill point to how beneficial a year of national service can be to young people. For example, many useful skills can be attained. The year’s national service will include the following elements: “educational assistance”, “basic levels of physical fitness, personal discipline, smart appearance, self respect and respect for others”, “financial budgeting…nutrition…time keeping tolerance towards others, treating elderly and disabled people with dignity and respect” and “instruction in basic aspects of the law in relation to the most common offences involving young people.”
So the bill aims to mould young people into healthy, responsible, moral and intelligent citizens – what’s so wrong with that? Well, the first criticism of these proposals lies in their efficacy. If an 18-year-old comes out of school and is forced to spend a year doing something they don’t want to do, I can’t imagine they would put much effort into the whole thing. Developing virtuous traits such as “self respect” and “respect for others” depend on making conscious and voluntary choices – you cannot force someone, under the threat of a criminal conviction, to become an upstanding citizen. The Bill violates freedom of choice, plain and simple.
Proponents of the bill are likely to argue that the bill is not a traditional form of conscription since service in the Armed Forces is but one option. The individual can also ‘choose’ to undertake “charitable work”, “social action”, “care for the elderly or disabled”, “overseas development activity”, “work connected with the National Health Service” or “the emergency services”.
However, I can imagine that most individuals would not go for the Armed Forces option, perhaps based on their moral convictions or for the physical and mental challenges involved. There will be no room for conscientious objection. Some individuals might have no choice but to join the Armed Forces if the other more charitable options get filled up. Forcing these individuals to go against their moral convictions and forcing them to undergo daily physical and mental stress just seems plain cruel.
There is another regulation in the bill which requires “that participants live away from home”. This is a blatant violation of freedom of movement. Freedom of movement should be a basic freedom for any law-abiding citizen. No-one’s movement should be limited or specified by someone else under threat of penalty, especially when it comes to where one lives and works, which the National Service Bill would mandate.
Tory MP, Philip Hollobone, who sponsored the bill, remarked:
I believe that the introduction of a modern form of national service would prove popular with the public and be of immense benefit to the young people who take part.
I really don’t think this bill would prove popular (maybe among Tories like himself, nationalists and the pro-military) and I don’t think it would benefit young people. It will negatively affect young people if anything. If non-exempt 18- to 26-year-olds are forced into this for a year, this could disrupt and disorganise their career path or educational goals. Philip Hollobone, who has also argued in favour of banning the burka in public, is clearly anti-freedom in many ways.
Still, proponents of the bill may point out that those serving the year’s national service will be paid the minimum wage, whilst being provided accommodation and travel. That’s great, but many individuals may have better paid and more suited careers lined up, or they may wish to follow the academic path, making the promise of pay irrelevant. Paying grumpy and unwilling 18-year-olds the minimum wage to hand over their freedoms does not make the bill any less unjust. Whether the service they opt for is charitable or not, no-one can, nor should they, be forced to be a ‘good citizen’. That said, I wouldn’t be totally against the option to serve a year’s national service – getting paid minimum wage for charitable or social work is a pretty good deal, especially for those who are struggling to find work.
I also can’t imagine the PM and other politicians with 18- to 26-year-olds forcing them to do work they don’t want to for minimum wage. There is an obvious double standard. Hollobone seems to think that we need a mandatory national service because he assumes that all 18- to 26-year-olds are undisciplined and immoral, which is ridiculous. If this bill did get passed, which is unlikely given that it is a private member’s bill, is that many people would just simply leave the country. Hollobone acknowledges that his bill is unlikely to become law, so at least he is not completely delusional.
In any case, there is a petition to stop the Bill progressing through Parliament and be rejected in its entirety. The petition has been up by activist Debbie Sayers. The petition is based on the belief that young people should be able to dictate their own futures. Part of Sayer’s statement reads: “It is unacceptable to force any person to engage in training that has mandatory residential elements, military training or actual service in the military without the ability to refuse. We do not want our children and grandchildren to fight and die in wars, or in training that they or we have no control over.”