My best friend’s dad has a theory that everything started to go downhill for Britain when we did away with National Service.
It’s an argument which I’ve heard older people put forward many times when seeking a scapegoat for society’s ills.
I wasn’t around in 1960 but I do think it is fair to say that a general lack of discipline and focus for young people is to blame for much of the crime and anti-social behaviour which we suffer nowadays.
As one of the tamest teenagers who ever lived I was never likely to rebel for fear of upsetting my mum or getting a clip round the ear-hole from my dad.
My idea of living on the edge was playing ‘kerby’ with a Striker football on a busy road.
Alcohol? I soon discovered I couldn’t ‘take my ale’ as real men in the Potteries like to say.
Drugs? No way. I was terrified. I never touched them. Although I do recall driving down the D-road one evening on the way to a friend’s 18th birthday party with my yellow Metro literally reeking of cannabis and praying the police didn’t pull me over.
Smoking? Do me a favour. Asthmatics like me have trouble breathing at the best of times. Why would I want to be coughing my guts up every morning and end up with breath that smells like an ashtray?
However, all teenagers are not like me which is why, for years now, we have listened to young people and ‘yoof’ workers trotting out platitudes by way of an explanation for anti-social behaviour.
Bus shelter windows smashed again? Flowers dead-headed? Branches torn from trees? A lit firework stuck through your letterbox? Empty cans of special brew littering your street?
Well that’ll be because “there’s nothing for the young people to do around here”.
Poor lambs. I honestly don’t remember ever being so bored that I resorted to acting like a yob.
Have they never heard of books? Or football? Or thought of joining the Scouts?
I say scouting because yesterday I read the heart-warming story of Karen Cooper who has just collected Guiding’s highest honour – the Queen’s Award.
Karen, aged 26, became a Brownie at seven and has since risen to become the leader of her own unit of 27 youngsters in Hanley.
Having been a member of the 14th North Staffs branch of the Boys’ Brigade for about eight years, Karen’s story touched a chord with me.
It made me realise that, in addition to being a dull kid, perhaps there was more to my boring behaviour than simple respect for my parents and the neighbourhood in which I was growing up.
A methodist church may not sound like the height of excitement for your average adolescent male.
But for several years my pursuit of badges for the likes of camping, learning to sew and learning to cook was enough to keep me focused on Monday nights.
I was taught how to march, salute, play the side drum – and I got to wear a uniform.
Under the kind stewardship of captain Roy Harrison many a lad who would otherwise perhaps have strayed into trouble learned a little discipline and a little about himself.
Such organisations – the Scouts, Guides, Boys’ and Girls’ Brigades provide a wonderful outlet for all that youthful exuberance while teaching valuable life skills.
They promote teamwork, encourage outdoor pursuits so frowned upon in this mollycoddled age and, most important of all, instil a sense of respect and order into the minds of young people.
That’s why I was so keen for my five-year-old daughter to join Rainbows (basically the junior section of the Brownies or Girl Guides).
I thought she might enjoy it – the learning and the sense of achievement. In the first few weeks she’s held a large spider and a snake, made an Italian flag, tasted foods from different countries and tried her hand at various crafts.
She loves the sense of belonging, the incentives to learn – and getting to wear a uniform.
Just like her dad did 25 years ago.
I’m not convinced National Service would rescue the UK but I’m damn sure a little discipline and structure would do the youth of today no harm whatsoever.
Role models like Karen Cooper are living proof of that.