It is often argued – usually by men of a certain age during a tap room rant – that Britain would be a better place if national service still existed.
Gone would be youth unemployment and the unsightly spectacle of juvenile neanderthals hanging outside the shop. The elderly and expectant mothers would get a seat on public transport and we would no longer be addressed as ‘mate’ by rat-faced, gum-chewing strangers.
I have often scoffed at this theory because it suggests the world we now live in is a much more morally bereft place than it was in 1960, when national service was scrapped.
Yes crime rates are still more than three times higher than they were 54 years ago, but that increase, which has reduced dramatically in recent years, can be explained away by much improved policing and increased public awareness.
After all, arguably the most abhorrent crimes in our history – the Moors Murders – were committed in that peace-loving decade, which those who were there tell you was much better than anything since.
One rose-tinted spectacle wearer, Jeremy Paxman, himself a child of the sixties, has added his two bob to the debate by claiming the youth of today would not have fought in the First World War. He’s probably right, but not because, as he puts it, modern society is more obsessed with iPhones than with Franz Ferdinand, the archduke whose assassination led to war 100 years ago rather than the Scottish pop band.
His assertion there are no noble causes anymore and we live in a materialistic age is as tired as it is untrue. Yes, there are plenty of oiks none of us would want our daughters to bring home, but that would have been the case throughout history.
Dismissing an entire generation as inferior to its predecessors is nothing new, but it doesn’t stop it being irritating. No, the First World War would not have happened today, not because of a disenfranchised youth but because society has changed for the better – a better informed public would prevent our young men from being duped into volunteering their lives for a cause they knew nothing about.
Yes, there have been far too many pointless conflicts, but the 1914-18 war claimed the lives of at least nine million soldiers, many of whom weren’t old enough to shave, and we have known nothing like it since.
We are too quick to laugh at youngsters today – including the Lancashire lass who can’t spell Barack Obama – but to suggest they are inferior because they would not sign away their right to life in the name of Queen and country is missing the point. Society is as well informed as at any time in history. For that we should rejoice.