National service? Penny Mordaunt's support for its return doesn't impress my kids – Aidan Smith

The prospect of national service prompts one reluctant potential recruit to say ‘I’ll tell you what it sounds like: community service, a punishment.’

I don’t mean anything else by this but it’s pretty obvious that Penny Mordaunt loves a man in uniform. A woman too. Lots of men and women on parade, boots shining and brass twinkling, ready to do their bit for king and country – a splendid sight, we can all agree. So when a Conservative think tank came up with the wizard wheeze of bringing back national service, it was pretty obvious who was going to be the first politician to put their name to it.

Maybe Mordaunt had to trample over Tom Tugendhat – you might remember how these two almost turned last year’s Tory leadership contest into an army assault course of competing military experience – but it’s the bold Penny who’s striking the Lord Kitchener pose on all the posters. Okay, there are no posters. Not yet, anyway. And okay, there is no mention of square-bashing, impromptu uniform inspection, spud-peeling and ’orrible-lot barking. Not yet, anyway.

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But don’t you think that forces-favourite Mordaunt would love a revived national service to be exactly like this? If she can’t be Prime Minister and if she can’t be the Secretary of State for Defence – for longer than 85 days, anyway – then maybe she could lead this army by any other name from the front, her sword as proud and erect as it was during the King’s coronation.

That said, I’m not sure a revived national service is going to get off the ground. This will disappoint those who’ve been calling for it non-stop since the original version ended in 1963. I conducted a snap poll at the breakfast table yesterday morning and asked my two teenagers if they fancied getting involved in a bit of “civic exploration”. Only one of them looked up from their phones, and that was merely to snigger.

Civic exploration. If I was 16 again, I’d groan at a phrase like that. Still, I persevered. You’d go away for two weeks, I said, get involved in various tasks and come back imbued with the volunteering spirit. “What, away-away?” said my son. “From home?” added my daughter, meaning from easy, round-the-clock access to the air fryer. “And what do you mean by tasks?”

What did I mean by tasks? Blimey, was I expected to man up and volunteer suggestions? Honestly, wasn’t that the job of Mordaunt, who after all has reached the rank of Royal Naval Reservist (List 6)? I wondered if cutting the grass at an old folks’ home might be the kind of thing she was after. “It sounds like the kind of thing Boy Scouts would do,” said my son. “In fact, I’m sure I did exactly that before I decided I didn’t like the Scouts.” Then my daughter, a former Girl Guide, added: “No, I’ll tell you what it sounds like: community service, a punishment. Would we be given ankle tags?”

So there you have it. Not completely sold on the idea. And can you blame my kids – who didn’t quit their youth movements because of the community work, done cheerfully – and others like them? They would contend that the return of national service is exactly the kind of knee-jerk, quick-march proposal which is always advanced by their elders when it’s decreed they’re spending far too long on TikTok/E-scooters/Subway mega-meatball 12-inchers/their backsides.

If they’re 16-year-olds interested in politics they might also contend that it’s the kind which, with militaristic decisiveness, is timed to appeal to Tory voters who might be becoming exasperated with a tired government – not so much a crowd-pleasing move, then, but a shires-pleasing one. And they might contend, too, that it’s funny how there’s so much wistful nostalgia for the past and how things used to be, back when they were supposedly better – and how this especially applies to warm feelings about national service.

Fact: very few of its backers ever completed the two-year stint themselves. They weren’t around. And nor were they around when real bullets were whizzing through the air, though you’d think from the certainty of the arguments being expressed about what young people need that they were.

What the young people in our house need as of this moment are schools which won’t fall down and teachers who’ll turn up. Then very soon they’ll need good jobs, the chance to buy their own house and opportunities to travel – you know, with all the blissful freedom that the country enjoyed pre-Brexit, about which there’s so much wistful nostalgia.

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Critics of the proposal to revive national service have claimed it’s a ruse to reduce the public sector workforce by stealth. Volunteers would be unpaid and have no employment rights. Cynics have wondered what kind of tasks, currently problematic, could be taken over by Moudant’s enlistees. Picking fruit, perhaps? Driving trains? Extracting teeth?

Or standing perfectly still with a bloody great sword weighing 8lbs for a full 51 minutes? You can laugh at Penny for her reality TV, high-dive belly-flop. At the teasing she endures over her “career” on the ocean wave and whether it brought her any more honours than a Blue Peter badge. At the teasing over her coronation attire and the possibility the fern headpiece was a cost-of-living-crisis tribute to Poundland. Or whether it was proof the Leader of the House of Commons had been forced, like so many, to take a second job, in her case as a flight attendant for Scandinavian Airlines.

You can laugh at all of this but, really, I don’t. The woman displayed serious core control in Westminster Abbey. And I have no doubt that deep in those shires, there are plenty who fantasise about being ordered around by Penny Mordaunt.



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