Exeposé Comment’s Debate Correspondent Fiona Potigny reviews Debating Society‘s debate on the topic of national service.
Robert Newby, Former Lord Mayor of Exeter, was first to show his solidarity with the motion: “This House would reintroduce National Service”. In order to dispel any association with the method of conscription associated with WWI and II, he firstly emphasised the disparity between his idea and the former: this would be a formative year in which “brain and brawn” mix, in the hope of attaining valuable life skills, whilst equally contributing to greater social cohesion between those of differing class and race.
The self-professed “East-end do-er” equally drew on his own seminal experiences in the army, contrasting his resulting attitude with that of today’s youth, whose lack of community sense he criticised, which he claimed could be remedied through national service. Though his honesty of opinion was appreciated, his cynical attack on young people perhaps was not the greatest line of argument owing to the audience demographic before him. This was, unsurprisingly, later called into question.
Whilst it was expected that the opposition would take a pacifist line of argument featuring grave and emotive examples of warfare life, Dr Steve Davies of the Institute of Economic Affairs served up an altogether refreshing argument, injecting philosophy and principle into his discourse, rather than raw emotion and pathos.
Alluding to JS Mill’s eminent writings on the importance of liberty, Davies insisted upon an individual’s intrinsic right to full and unadulterated autonomy so long as this self-sovereignty does not cause harm to another. What could therefore be a worse assault, he argued, than to have one year taken from one’s life to pursue National Service? This effectively leaves life as both the property and product of the State, which Dr Davies deemed to be “corrosive” for the essence of society. This time employing more stoic reasoning, he developed his argument rationalising that true virtue – in this case, the “social cohesion” and life skills supposedly attained through National Service – cannot possibly be achieved through coercive means (i.e. one year of compulsory training), but only through natural realisation, as it is otherwise no more than a “sham”.
Dr Davies’ was a most eloquent prose stylist, which naturally complemented his sophisticated case. Though it was plain to see that this alone had won many over from the offset, he was only to become yet more convincing during questioning, in which he flaunted his extensive knowledge of the application of National Service and its flaws throughout the ages. It is therefore that he merits the “Speaker of the Week” title.
Jake Donovan, Deputy Leader of the Opposition at Exeter City Council, certainly had a tough act to follow. Though he did throw a glance at his notes more often than preferable, he generally came across as a confident speaker, though this may have had something to do with the multiple “pints [he had] necked” before the debate – at least he was honest. Whilst he did assure us that he did not wish to “sing [his] own praises”, this confidence did tend to err on the side of cockiness at points, as he listed his life’s successes, which he claimed were due to his time as a Cadet from the ages of 12-19.
Not that these weren’t impressive: with zero GCSEs or A Levels to his name, he became Senior Manager of one of the UK’s biggest companies, managing a budget of £3,000,000 per year. This, he stated, was unequivocal proof of the faults inherent in the education system, and the reason why, if he were PM, he would undoubtedly reintroduce National Service, with the tagline, “an extension of education”, as he was convinced that this would resolve the youth’s apparent lack of good communication skills, respect for authority and organisation. Much like his colleague, this reasoning was acutely deficient in acknowledgement of his listeners…
Though there was some substance to his argument relating to flaws in the education system, it was a shame that in questioning both Donovan and Newby seemed to flat-out reject the idea that solutions could be obtained through non-militaristic means without a good degree of justification aside from their own experiences.
The picture of authority and knowledge, retired Major General Colin Shortis emerged, clad in tweed jacket, the natural accessory of choice for the learned. Whilst one of course should not “judge a book by its cover” so to speak, this pre-judgement was not ill-warranted, as his contact with and deep understanding of the area in question was particularly illuminating.
The Major General opposed the motion on various grounds; the lack of necessity first and foremost. Here, he referenced the redundancy of National Service in the late 1980’s by which point the system had become an inefficient drain on resources owing to the non-existent defence threat: the only possible justification for such a service. Yet more persuasive were his mentions of crushing bureaucratic practice and systematic loopholes, which allow privileged minorities to escape such duties, further aggravating social disparity rather than consolidating it.
Opening up the panel invited a number of interesting questions and suggestions. The debate took a thought-provoking and rather comical turn when the issue of liberty vs. compulsory obligation was brought up with the example of jury service. Here, it was good to see that Dr Davies did not make exceptions in his argument, remaining adamant that all state-imposed “duties” still constitute an assault on autonomy, and that, in the case of jury service, a professionally-trained group should take charge. This was met with severe disagreement from Newby who amusingly maintained, “you could be a sh*t for all I know”, pointing his finger at the questioner in a Lord Sugar-esque fashion, “but at least I won’t judge you until I’ve heard the argument. A professional jury would.”
Another such suggestion was that a compulsory choice between A Levels or National Service should be introduced, an idea welcomed by the proposition, and swiftly dismissed by the opposition for infantilising young people, and removing their right to determine their own post-16 path. When asked how such a programme could possibly be funded by claiming, Donovan was unfortunately not greatly convincing in stating that money should be borrowed, showing an apparent naivety towards the current economic crisis and his political party’s (Conservative) austerity measures.
Though proposition did construct a good, though somewhat idealistic, argument, it was ultimately the practical-minded reasoning of the Major General paired with Dr Davies’ philosophy-tinged dialogue, which led to a win.
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