Barney Campbell: The case for a new national service scheme – driven by incentives, not compulsion

8 Mar

Barney Campbell is on the approved candidates list having previously stood in Easington in the 2017 election. He is the author of ‘Rain’, a novel about the war in Afghanistan.

Moving on from the Budget, the next big document to have ink spilt over its fallout is the forthcoming Integrated Defence Review.

As ever with Defence Reviews, this one will see the following: cuts in personnel levels; investment in new technologies; usage of the words ‘agile’ and ‘lean’ as euphemisms for ‘depleted’; the MoD get a kicking from the old and bold; and almost zero attention from a public who, while they hold servicemen and women in high regard, neither know nor care very much about defence policy at the best of times, let alone while navigating the reverse slope of a pandemic.

The Government will take criticism of it on the chin; few voters pick defence as their hill to die on.

Where the Review should make a bold move is in trying to bridge the increasing gulf between the military and the rest of society, and by doing so strengthen both. The means of doing this is a new kind of national service, one focused not on a push from government but by the pull of the private sector post-service.

The concept of national service as we know it from the twentieth century is long dead. Firstly, and most obviously, we inhabit an entirely different world to the Forties and Fifties, when there was such extraordinary turmoil that the nascent Cold War and the retreat from Empire demanded that we maintained forces around the globe in a variety of commitments that simply don’t exist now.

Secondly, the greatest argument against enforced conscription has always been that the military doesn’t want unwilling recruits, far preferring the volunteer spirit: ‘better one volunteer than ten pressed men’, as the saying has it. But what about encouraging people to be volunteers?

Service in the Armed Forces produces an undisputed good for society, not only from the period of that service but also after it has taken place, putting back into civil society people steeped in socially invaluable principles. These include selfless commitment; discipline; teamwork; respect for others; and knowledge that a person’s background matters not a bit in comparison to their drive and desire to get on.

One of the subsidiary problems created by a smaller military, aside from the actual weakening of the country’s means to defend itself, is that the rest of society understands it less, being less exposed to those people who are in it.

For those leaving service, civilian employers’ understanding of how their hard-won and valuable skills might be transferable is reduced. This in turn threatens to create the prospect of the post-military jobs landscape being so unpromising it actively deters people from joining in the first place, not only depriving the country of their service but also, as above, the extremely valuable post-service benefits they can bring to society.

There are good initiatives in existence, such as the Defence Employer Recognition Scheme that employers sign up to that encourages them to engage ex-servicemen and women and builds awareness of the benefits that the veteran community can provide them. Currently the scheme has 355 ‘Gold’ employers (mostly large organisations), 986 ‘Silver’ and 3,170 ‘Bronze’ (mostly smaller employers). The recent introduction of the Veterans Railcard is also a generous addition that expresses the gratitude of government to those who have served.

But what is needed is more radical than that. To help to integrate Defence into society at large, military service should be made attractive not just to those who wish to serve but to their future civilian employers too. It should be done in a way that does not compromise the volunteer spirit but rather encourages it when it might otherwise falter.

I propose that any employer who engages a veteran should be excused paying National Insurance Contributions (NICs) on that employee for the length of time that that individual spent in the military. By doing so you bridge the gap between the military and civil society, keep the military an attractive place to spend part of your career, and help to keep the steady flow of military values and standards into society.

My personal wish, for what it is worth, is far greater than the aspirations of this already ambitious policy. Once such a scheme has been rolled out and had its concept proved it should be expanded so that anyone at all who is on the public sector payroll finds themselves the beneficiary of the same scheme. Spend two years working for the NHS, five as a teacher, one working for your local council? Your immediate future private sector employer is excused that same period of paying NICs on you when you start work for them. Will it happen? Probably not. But worth thinking about.