Uniform Approach

The last national serviceman was demobbed 40 years ago on 13 May
1963. A Labour government in the late 1940s had introduced
peacetime conscription to maintain the strength of the armed
forces. From then until 1963, more than two million young men were
enlisted, including me. It is often claimed that the experience
built up moral fibre, prepared louts for civvy street and cured
delinquents of criminal tendencies.

But in my experience, far from promoting moral fibre, the
prevailing ethos in the armed services was that of skiving.
National servicemen copied regulars in the practice of feigning
sickness, getting lost, and making tasks last as long as possible.
I cannot march in time and on one parade the RAF warrant officer
bawled at me: “Holman, you are a zombie. You can’t help it but you
are a zombie. Don’t ever come on parade again.” Thereafter I was
expected to hide during parades, a skive that made me the envy of
the camp.

The television series Lad’s Army created the impression that
national service was extremely tough. Admittedly, square bashing
was hard. But, on completing it, national servicemen then had 22
months of trade training and a permanent posting. At the same time,
Trevor Royle’s excellent collection of accounts by national
servicemen reveals that most made new friendships, enjoyed sport
and, in some cases, travelled abroad.1

But mixing with new friends is not sufficient preparation for civvy
street. Most recruits had jobs before being called up and thus had
their careers disrupted by two years in the forces. Royle points to
a Nuffield study which demonstrates that, after national service,
many young men found it difficult to settle back into the routine
of their old lives. Some had interesting posts, but others endured
unskilled jobs with poor prospects once back in civilian

However, the armed forces encouraged study by providing time and
teaching to allow national servicemen to take the army and RAF
certificates of education. For those who had missed out on school
qualifications, these examinations proved to be stepping stones to
jobs and to further education once back in civvy street.

Did national service reform delinquents? Professor Thomas Ferguson
followed up a group of young men who had been in care and who
subsequently committed crimes.2 He found those who were
delinquent in civvy street tended to become offenders in uniform,
too. Indeed, as the forces trained them in self-defence and the use
of firearms, it might have equipped them to become even tougher
criminals. Interestingly, the rates of crimes of violence in
Britain trebled between 1955 and 1964, the years when national
service was at its peak.

In August 1958, I was still trying to decide whether to go to
university or, as my dad wished, to get “a proper job”. I was not
due for demob until well after university term started, but fate
intervened. I was a radar operator and, during an exercise, I
mistakenly identified a large ship in rural Kent. A few days later,
I was told to hand in my gear and sign on the dotted line –
demobbed three months early. I was able to get a place at
university after all, a decision that changed the course of my
life. Oddly enough, it trained me to work with the kind of
delinquents who were not helped by national service.

Should Britain bring back national service? The decision will be
based on military need, and at present the British armed services
require smaller numbers of highly trained personnel rather than
large numbers of semi-trained ones. Whatever the decision, a return
to national service is not the answer to delinquency. Those who are
set in criminal ways by the age of 18 will offend whether in or out
of uniform. There is no evidence that harsh, regimented regimes
will change their behaviour. Help for young offenders will have to
be found in different approaches. So, sorry to disappoint
“disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” but national service is not the
answer to young thugs.

Bob Holman is the author of Champions for Children,
Policy Press, 2001.


1 T Royle, National
Service: The Best Year Of Their Lives
, Michael Joseph,

2 T Ferguson, Children
In Care – And After

OUP, 1966

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