Times change. Back then we had an Empire to govern and protect and there was a need for more soldiers (I will use this as a generic term for all the armed services) than could be provided by a volunteer army. That isn’t the case today. At the height of the Iraq War we had no more than 15,000 service personnel engaged in actual operations. In Afghanistan it was even less. Our volunteer army, navy and air force were able to cope. So why do we need to conscript soldiers today? It can only be to try to solve other problems in society. I’ll get to those in due course.
It could be argued that if we'd had larger armed forces we could have committed more of them to Iraq and Afghanistan and therefore done a better job in both, but that is difficult to prove. However, can we afford to keep lots of soldiers sitting around in barracks waiting for the next Iraq or Afghanistan? I think I can demonstrate that we can't.
I was too young for National Service, but I served in the RAF for 23 years, starting off as an apprentice and rising to officer rank. I thoroughly enjoyed my time and wouldn’t change it for the world, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is a natural serviceman or servicewoman. During those 23 years I learnt many things, but one of them was that the people who didn’t want to be there were the most disruptive.
Remember, this was an RAF made up 100% by volunteers. If anyone didn’t want to be there then there were legal routes out, but the ones that didn’t like it were the biggest pains in the backside disciplinary wise, so imagine whole units made up of men and women that really didn’t want to be there. Of course, many would see it as something to be endured and would behave accordingly, but they aren’t the ones who are going to create the problems. It's like children going to school. Most of them suffer their way through to age 16, but it is the disruptive ones that make everyone else's life a misery. But, as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s start with the finances. Conscripts couldn’t be paid any less than the current volunteers, which means a starting salary of £278 per week or £14,456 per year. So for £1 million in wages you get just 69 soldiers. For a full battalion of around 600 soldiers it would cost you £8.7 million. That doesn’t take into account the wage differentials for commissioned and non-commissioned officers, so add another £1 million for that to bring the cost up to £9.7 million. Let’s call it £10 million for cash.
How many conscripts would we take in each year? Well let’s say we limited it to those who were 18 and unemployed. After all, we don’t want to take people out of jobs where they are earning money and paying taxes just to put them on the state payroll, do we?. In this modern age we can’t discriminate, so that would mean conscripting both men and women. So according to the Office for National Statistics, between January and March this year there were approximately 522,000 unemployed men and women between the age of 18 and 24.
Assuming we are only interested in the 18 year olds then 1/6 of that is 87,000 people. If they were all to be conscripted then that would give a wages bill of £1.26 billion per year, and that is only for the new recruits. That doubles to £2.52 billion when you add in the conscripts who are in their second year. With Job Seekers Allowance of £67.50 per week that is an increase in cost of £1.9 billion. And I haven't even started to look at the rest of the costs.
Because the cost isn’t just in wages. All those soldiers have to be accommodated. Over the past few years the MoD has massively reduced its estates, getting rid of any property that could be sold for redevelopment. So that would mean a massive investment in a huge building programme. I have no idea what the costs might be, but if I were to say that a barrack block big enough to accommodate 100 soldiers costs £1 million then I’m probably erring on the cheap side. So enough new barracks to accommodate 87,000 new soldiers would cost at least £870 million and that’s without land costs. To this must be added the annual running costs: heat, light, maintenance etc.
Then there is equipment: uniforms, kit bags, beds, bedding, lockers, a rifle for each soldier etc. Then add in field equipment such as tents. Let’s be generous and say that the annual cost is a measly £500 per soldier then we add another £43.5 million per year to the budget.
And so the costs continue to escalate and guess who is going to pay. Yup, you’ve got it, you and me. Armies are paid for by the tax payer.
But it will give each conscript training and self-discipline. Surely that is a good thing.
Of course training and self-discipline are good things, but you don’t have to put someone in uniform to give them that. Training should be provided through apprenticeships, colleges and universities. Most people could live at home while they do it, so you don’t have to build barracks for them. The training would also be relevant to the local jobs market. Train a soldier and you end up with a soldier. There isn’t much call for soldiers in civilian life.
Self discipline comes from having to get up in the morning to go to work: through taking responsibility for one's own life. Again, this can be taught just as well in civilian life as part of the wider training and education syllabus. It used to be so, but for some reason it isn't any more.
Of course some would learn other trades than soldiering, but not high levels of skills. To train someone to drive a tank takes a few weeks. To train someone to maintain a tank takes the best part of a year. Add in annual leave and basic training and the total training time is in the region of 15 months so the Army can’t afford to do all that training just to lose those skills less than nine months later (assuming a two year stint of National Service). That training would go to the "regulars", not the conscripts, just as it always did.
For the RAF and the Royal Navy, where they use far more complex technology, the picture would be even worse. Most conscripts would be trained as basic soldiers or in low skilled trades (clerks, catering, store keeping, etc) and National Service is an expensive way of delivering low skilled training.
Of course many people would object to joining the Armed Forces on the grounds of conscience. I could imagine there being considerable public sympathy for that view so an alternative to military service would need to be available. The Germans (post war, of course), when they had National Service, offered two years of community service in place of military service, at the same rates of pay that the soldiers received.
I can already hear the howls of anger from the Trades Unions. If the sorts of jobs offered by community service really need doing then they should be done by permanent full time employees receiving proper rates of pay they would say or, more likely, shout. It would be tough to argue against that. We have already seen considerable opposition to “work for welfare” proposals and this would be nothing more than a dressed up version of that, paying moderately better wages.
And then there is the discipline issue. Today there is just one Military Detention and Training Centre in the British armed forces which serves all three services. It is at located at Colchester Garrison. Prior to that there were four military prisons including Aldershot, Shepton Mallet and Barlinnie in Glasgow. Then there were the prisons operated by the RAF and the Royal Navy for thier personnel and there were prisoners held in short term detention in Guard Rooms up and down the country. In 1946 Aldershot alone held 400 prisoners.
Some of those prisoners were incarcerated for normal criminal activity: theft, acts of violence, drunkenness etc and so those people would probably have been in prison anyway. However, many of them were there for crimes that weren’t even crimes in civilian life: disobeying orders, absent without leave, etc. They are sacking offences, not criminal. Those offences were committed by people who just didn’t want to be in the military and who made themselves a nuisance because of it. I refer you to my earlier point on the subject. Do we really want to start locking people up again just because the government has decided that everyone should spend some time wearing a uniform – whether they like it or not? I certainly don’t.
Having put all those people into uniform what are we then to do with them? The Royal Navy would need more ships. A Type 45 Destroyer costs £1 billion and only has a crew of 191. We would need a lot of those. A Typhoon fighter aircraft costs £90 million, and we’ll need a fair few more of those to justify all the new airmen the RAF would have. A Challenger II tank is £4.2 million and you need about 60 to make up an armoured regiment of 600 soldiers. Of course the bulk of the conscripts will be infantry, so they will only need mortars, machine guns, armoured personnel carriers (cheap at about half a million pounds each, but one is needed for every ten soldiers), Land Rovers, lorries, fuel, ammunition for training and so on and so on.
The costs just go up and up – and we haven’t even got any proper wars for these soldiers to fight. Maybe we would have to start some. Maybe we need to re-elect Tony Blair and George W Bush.
If you wanted to write a business case for the re-introduction of National Service it would be hard, maybe impossible, to make it convincing. Even in terms of taking people off the dole it would only be a short term fix, because after two years they would be back on the dole again, unless they chose to sign on as ‘regulars’.
There are many ills in society, but putting people into uniform against their will is not the way to sort them out. Better education for both parents and children is one of the ways, creating more jobs is another. National Service isn’t a cheap way of achieving either, it’s a very expensive way of doing one inefficiently and the other not at all.
Sorry Harry (if I may take the liberty of addressing you such), but just because you had a good experience in the army doesn’t mean to say everyone would benefit. (A) you are an officer with all privileges that go with officer rank. (B) you are Royal which means you are treated differently. (C) You got to do what you wanted to do, fly a helicopter. No wonder you enjoyed it so much. A conscript gets to clean his boots and his barrack block. He gets to march up and down a parade square and run about in muddy fields. He gets shouted at if he lets it show that he doesn’t really want to be there. It’s a whole different experience. Yes, some of those who did it before it ended in 1963 enjoyed it and benefited from the experience. Many did not.
So Andy Burnham is receiving £17,000 in Parliamentary allowances for renting a house in London, while receiving £19,200 a year in rent from a two bedroom flat he and his wife own not far from the Houses of Parliament. Is this a fit person to lead the Labour Party? Is he fit to be a Prime Minister in waiting? Of course he isn’t breaking any rules, but the stench of rotting fish is overpowering. In the future, when Tories are accused of feathering their own nests, how will he be able to claim the moral high ground? Answers on a postcard to Labour Party HQ.
Oh yes, nearly forgot. The answers to the nicknames for golf shots:
A condom – safe but didn’t feel good.
A Glenn Miller – kept low but didn’t make it over the water.
A Gerry Adams – hitting a provisional
An OJ Simpson – You got away with it.
A Princess Grace – should have taken a driver
An Anna Kournikova – looks great but unlikely to get a result.
A Vinnie Jones – a nasty kick when you least expect it.
A Douglas Bader – looked good in the air, but no legs.
A Ken Livingstone – too far left
A Tony Blair – fading right
A John Marie le Pen – too far right.
An Alistair Campbell – too much spin
A Jamie Oliver – you really want to smack it, but you can’t get at it.
A Kate Moss – far too thin
An Arthur Scargill – great strike but a poor result.
A son-in-law – not what you were hoping for.
An Adolf Hitler – two shots but still in the bunker.
An Eva Braun – picked up in a bunker
A Saddam Hussein – going from bunker to bunker.
A Chuck Berry – in the trees (no particular place to go)
A Rock Hudson – thought it was straight but it wasn’t
A Diego Maradonna – a very nasty five footer (putt).
How many did you get right?
Next week a review of a nice little book called The Things You Missed While You Were Away.