Edition number 2; dateline 21 September 2007

Let's hear it for national service

There are always plenty of events being promoted at this time of year. As I know to my cost, having been poring over the details of various programmes while we compiled the news pages, the leisure industry is right up there with the most prolific of event sectors, offering everyone in every specialist area an event they can call their own. As I write, Leisure Industry Week looms before us, an event that has become perhaps the most significant gathering of the leisure year now that the old-school retreats of RecMan and the ILAM seaside jamboree are but distant memories.

Yet for all the talk of industry gatherings and specialist seminars, for me the autumn still means political conferences from stolid venues with stolid speakers and reassuringly familiar ideas. Having been at primary school before the advent of daytime TV, never mind the delights of twenty-four-hour, multi-channel entertainment, I still remember long afternoons spent watching extremely dull programmes because that was all that was on. This is how I came across cricket, beginning the long journey, via comprehension and appreciation, towards a love of the test match. This is how I discovered politics, grasping that a different set of grey men (rarely a woman in those days and we had a black and white television until I was almost old enough to vote) would be replaced next week by some others who would offer a different set of answers to the same set of problems. The Labour Party always seemed to be having the most fun because they were passionate enough to shout about something (whatever it was; I had no idea of the political nuance at the time) and they had a good old sing of the Red Flag at the end.

While I may lament the end of a televisual era when whole afternoons could be given over to hour after hour of political speech (how else was the sickly or sly junior school pupil to get an education?), a few certainties of the political conference season remain: there will be much talk of social malaise and somewhere there will be talk of the good that a return to national service could do us as a nation. Most likely this will be muttered at the back of the room, sometimes near the front and very occasionally declaimed from the platform; it all depends on your conference of choice.

Let us consider such certainties from a leisure perspective and, from the platform of whatever passes for our own industry’s conference these days, let us make a clear unequivocal statement for the good of our society, our communities and our future: we, the collected leisure professional of the United Kingdom, are all in favour of a return to national service.

To quote a noted social visionary of our times, you know it makes sense. All the things that will be identified as elements of the national decline – disaffection, alienation, a lack of education, respect, social skills, self-esteem, achievement, communication, aspiration, imagination or economic potential, to name just a few – can  be, and have been, addressed through leisure, culture and sport.

However, instead of looking backwards to the 1950s for our image of national service, let’s look forward. The use of young military personnel to offer role models to our disaffected urban youth has already been mooted and their suitability for the task, as individuals trained and equipped to be self-disciplined, self-sufficient and to kill people, has been considered. Instead of soldiers, let’s look to artists, musicians, coaches, curators, writers, sportsmen and women to offer an example of what a life could be. Instead of a military model, let’s look to the Olympic ideal; not the Olympics of triumphalism, jingoism and self-aggrandisement (will you all please stop waving those flags around at the end of a race) but the Olympism that is about striving, achieving and failing, of getting up and finishing fourth, the Olympism of culture and ethics, the celebration of fraternity through competition.

In the usual course of things, it is going to take professionals working in leisure, culture and sport to offer a sensible solution and then wait until someone who needs to save or make some money (qv the NHS, urban regeneration, anti-social behaviour, etc) to pick up the ideas as viable. Let’s take the idea of national service as a development project and do it properly. Education is already an established partner and the popularity of PT fitness sessions taking place in parks around the country led by gentlemen who look like they’ve done a bit suggests that the military might be persuaded to develop a new attitude of co-operation, particularly when they are lamenting the financial privation of a £35 billion annual defence budget.

Take young people out of their usual environments and their usual expectations for a few months and instead of leaving them at the mercy of an RSM put them in an environment where they can come out with a qualification and some new skills that they can take back home and use on behalf of their communities. Let them go back with some new confidence, a new attitude and better posture. Let it show on their school record or their CV that each of them went through national cultural service and came out the other side a better person. Just don’t make them have to learn to kill people to do it.

Jonathan Ives


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