PC 171 Belonging to One’s Nation

You may have read of the French President’s desire to bring back conscription in France? The service, compulsory for all 16 year olds, would include a month-long placement focusing on civic culture and a voluntary three-month placement where participants would be encouraged to serve “in an area linked to defence and security”. It was an idea first suggested by Emmanuel Macron during his election campaign. He said he wanted French citizens to have “direct experience of military life”. The cynic might have linked it to France’s high youth unemployment rate (20% compared with an EU average of 14% and the UK at 11%)

Here in the UK, for the past three years politicians have been arguing about how we should leave the EU; last week we left. But for those who in their hearts feel European first and foremost, there are some interesting ways to stay one. The other day I learned that a few people have been enquiring about Austrian citizenship. The sting in that tail is if you are under 35 you would be required to do ‘national service’ which means joining the army or air force (they don’t have a navy as such, being a landlocked country!!).

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In the UK we have played with the idea of some form of service to the nation since National Service was abolished in 1957 ….. and the country heaved a great sigh of relief. However, this from a neighbour who was old enough to have spent two years in the Royal Air Force:

“Knowing many friends who “endured” National Service, I can think of few who regret the experience. There may have been awkward moments but you were all in it together and could mostly laugh off the occasional stupidity. More importantly it taught the importance of discipline, how to act in a team and the added advantage of making good friends in a close environment. I am still in regular contact with two fellow National Service men from different parts of the country, who I served with over 60 years ago. You also learned how to understand Scouse and Geordie! (Ed The regional dialects from Liverpool and Newcastle) Today is different  …… and it would be a strong government who could introduce such a plan, however beneficial that would be.”

For those who wish to read more about the experiences of those who undertook National Service, read Leslie Thomas’ ‘The Virgin Soldiers’ (1960)

As part of his Big Society initiative, the then Prime Minister David Cameron launched the National Citizen Service in 2011 in the UK; it was formalised in law by an act in 2017. The scheme takes place in the school holidays for 16 and 17 year olds – the focus being on outdoor team building activities. Some participants go on to get involved in a local social project. The scheme has become more popular as it’s developed. In the first year, 2012, 26,000 teenagers took part; in 2017 there were 99,000 in the programme …… but this was still only some 16% of those eligible (600,000). The target for 2020-21 was 360,000 which like all targets was probably inflated to encourage political and financial acceptance. Cameron’s idea was not compulsory and it might be argued that the sectors of society who would benefit most were the ones least likely to sign up voluntarily.

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Our Armed Forces had and probably still have no wish to administer any such scheme and yet for those of us who did serve the nation in a military capacity, the appreciation of how such service can mold and develop young adults is very strong. And perhaps never as strong as it is today when we look around at our feckless, unfocused, ‘I want it all and I want it now’ youth.  Of course I am very biased, as I scribble how undertaking such service gave us a sense of duty and a sense of responsibility, about how an institution took 18 year olds and made us into men (well, most of us!), creating friendships that have lasted a lifetime. Michael Caine the actor has suggested that bringing back some form of service to the nation would give young people ‘a sense of belonging rather than a sense of violence’.

Melanie Philips, writing her column in The Times last month, was reviewing Sam Mendes’ film ‘1917’. She writes: “In our era of narcissistic self-absorption, with identity politics and victim-culture putting self-interest first at the expense of others, this (film) is a timely reminder.” She goes on to suggest that it is in the military that emotional restraint and the overriding obligations of duty and service to others remain most conspicuous. Hear! Hear!

In my PC about mores and milieu (No 166) I wrote about our current very individualistic society. So is it in any sense important for all individuals to establish some connection with the country, with the ‘nation’ we live in? Shouldn’t it be part of our development to become contributing, responsible members of our society? We do accept, after all, compulsory education! Conservatives with a small ‘c’ don’t like state intervention, preferring a hand up rather than a hand out …. but this seems to contradict their inherent sense of duty to the nation state. Voluntary? Compulsory?

Some form of mandatory service need not be military. For instance, early last year the Food Farming and Countryside Commission here in the UK suggested that youngsters on gap years could work on farms and in the countryside, to give them a taste of environmental and rural matters. Or as a football-focused nation, could we not involve some of the training activities of the 44 Premier and Championship clubs, or the 140 Football League organisations?

Americorps worker CJ Sanchez helps gut a house being renovated into affordable housing by PUSH, a non-profit organization working to rebuild the West Side of Buffalo

 Refurbishment of old buildings?

Around Europe we find many countries have some form of ‘national service’. For example Switzerland has a compulsory 21 weeks of military service for those aged between 18 and 34. Sweden reintroduced conscription in 2017 and 4000 men and women will be called up from the target 13,000 people born in 1999. Both Turkey and Greece require their male 19-20 year olds to serve about 9 months, and in Israel military service is compulsory; men serve for three years, women for about two years.

This PC is really just like lobbing a pebble into a pond, fascinated and mesmerised to see the ripples such an action creates. I don’t know how it would work, some form of compulsory commitment for a month or two, voluntary for longer; but I don’t doubt the benefits this would bring.


Richard 6th February 2020


4 thoughts on “PC 171 Belonging to One’s Nation

  1. I do agree with Sir Michael Caine!!! I think that the Service is at the very core of the concept being British since the Empire. Britain represents all we define nowdays as “Civilization”, and I would be very sad if the new generations lose this sense of belonging this great tradition and culture. After all, being myself a huge fan of Rudyard Kipling, I cound’t think otherwise.

    Great post Richard! Congrats!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Eugenio. Now that you have signed up (👍) you can look at the back catalogue …… including ones about Rio, Recife, Pantanal, Santa Catarina, Sao Paolo, Canania etc….. as well as that one about Beach Life in Brazil.
      Hope you’re feeling better this morning?


  2. 130 is elusive!  129 and 131 are there…tell me what months 107 and 112 are.  I’ve completely lost my head trying to find numbers! Eddie 


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