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Rishi Sunak’s national service idea misses the point

Rishi Sunak visits a barracks in North Yorkshire this month. Credit: Getty

May 26, 2024 - 5:40pm

There’s a lot which might be said about Rishi Sunak’s decision to kick off his day-three campaign “reset” with a pledge to reintroduce national service. But the most important thing to note is that he isn’t really proposing to do it at all.

When the Attlee government first introduced it via the National Service Act 1948, it was explicitly and unrepentantly a defence measure. Healthy men between 17 and 21 were required to serve for 18 months in the Armed Forces, and then remain on the reserve list for four years.

There may or may not be a case for reintroducing something similar today; certainly, the generals seem increasingly of the opinion that only a so-called “citizen army” can equip the UK (and America) for a century in which high-intensity warfare between powers, rather than counterinsurgency, seems set to be the dominant mode of conflict.

But there are two problems with reviving this particular aspect of the sainted Citizen Clem’s postwar settlement: that it would require a huge increase in defence spending, and that there is no public appetite for it.

Thus, David Cameron’s attempt to “reintroduce national service” ended in National Citizen Service, a voluntary scheme for 16- and 17-year-olds. It might be a good policy, but it isn’t national service in any meaningful sense. Nor is Sunak’s new alternative.

It does look more muscular, at first glance: 18-year-olds would be required to either do a year in the military or 12 weekends of mandatory volunteering (you know what I mean). This sounds like the way it works in countries, such as Finland, which have proper conscription but provide a non-martial alternative.

Dig a little deeper, however, and the loss of nerve is clear. The number of places in the military will be capped each year at 30,000 — about 5% of each intake. What’s more, they would all be confined to non-combat roles such as “logistics, cyber security, procurement, or civil response”. Administrative conscription, in other words.

Meanwhile the alternative, “volunteering one weekend per month […] with organisations such as fire, police, and NHS”, completely misses the point of national service (just like in Finland, according to people there I’ve spoken to).

The case for national service, beyond providing a mass of infantry, is the social dimension: the levelling, nation-building effects of a year spent away from home (even if only in barracks), with lots of other young people from diverse backgrounds, in uniformed service.

Having a non-martial option is all well and good, in principle. But it is completely pointless if it doesn’t replicate those elements, devolving merely into a way to steal weekends from teenagers to create a limited pool of unskilled and unmotivated corvée labour that the professionals can only really hope to give the lowest admin jobs and keep out of the way.

It’s especially odd because one can easily imagine voters being more enthusiastic about doing that sort of national service properly than the combat kind. There are plenty of Britons who might warm to, for example, a Royal Medical Reserve which allowed people to do a full year in uniform with the Health Service, with time to get proper training in some basic but useful roles.

Or perhaps young people might be more enthusiastic about a chance to serve in an Overseas Development Corps, modelled on the American Peace Corps, spending their year of national service in uniform supporting British aid operations around the world. Instead, the current policy is a cop out, wasting the time of 95% of young people in the hope of creating a limited but potentially useful administrative resource for the Armed Forces.


Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

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David Lindsay
David Lindsay
28 days ago

The Tories are demob happy. This was on Thursday. Thursday. Still, it is useful for this debate to be revisited from time to time. Ignore anyone who advocated a military intervention unless you could imagine that person as an 18-year-old in battle. The call for war always comes primarily from the liberal bourgeoisie. That is the class least likely to join the Armed Forces voluntarily, or to see combat even in periods of conscription. Operationally, that is of course just as well. But if there is not a strong enough case for conscription, then there is not a strong enough case for war. Unless a country needed to mobilise its entire healthy and able-bodied male population of fighting age, then it is not under sufficient threat to justify going to war at all.

In a supreme act of what would now be an unthinkable level of Tory realism, it was a Conservative Government that abolished National Service, thereby both admitting explicitly that the Empire had gone, and admitting implicitly that the Soviet Union was not a military threat to Britain. It was all very Enoch Powell, who was a Minister, albeit for Health, when the last conscripted servicemen left the Armed Forces in May 1963, 61 years ago this month. Due to the manner of its phasing out from 1957 onwards, no one under the age of 85 has ever done a day of National Service in his life. Those who did, will tell you about serving as Privates under public schoolboys of their own age who were on short commissions, and who had either come straight from organised drunken vandalism and violence, sometimes complete with uniforms and membership lists, or who were going straight on to them, or both.

This is class politics in the raw, as it would be whatever form National Service took, not least because the Government took it as self-evident that care work, or things like building flood defences, could be done by anyone and did not even need to be paid beyond bed and board. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak cut by two thirds the funding of the National Citizen Service, which he had wanted to abolish altogether. He now wants this instead. Well, of course he does.

Meanwhile, Nigel Farage must be thinking of the mercifully tiny rabble of the tanked up and the tooled up who screech racial abuse and extreme profanity while making an American obscene hand gesture at the vast, and entirely peaceful, marchers for Gaza. That rabble has a propensity for assaulting the Police, and would indeed be difficult to integrate into, well, anything at all, really. Sadly, its political party is treated as a serious player because that party’s leading figures are considered funny uncles of the media. That will not change when, yet again, it had won no seats. Farage himself is no longer even trying to be elected. Yet he is all over the airwaves.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
28 days ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

It’s a ridiculous policy and an attempt to simply fill vacancies cheaply, if it isn’t simply a superficial attempt to get votes, which will likely be counterproductive.

However, “if there is not a strong enough case for conscription, then there is not a strong enough case for war. Unless a country needed to mobilise its entire healthy and able-bodied male population of fighting age, then it is not under sufficient threat to justify going to war at all.” is not correct. Conscripts are substantially less useful than professional soldiers, they’re basically just cannon fodder and are only valuable if you’re prepared to chuck them into a meat grinder like Russia does, or as happened in WW1.

As for “admitting implicitly that the Soviet Union was not a military threat to Britain” that is an absolutely absurd suggestion.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
28 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

Except that it turned out to have been true. And the Tories saw it as long ago as 1957. Most of them could not quite say it. But they obviously saw it.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
28 days ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

It certainly turned out to be true although I’m not sure the Tories saw it. Nye Bevan certainly did some years previously.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
28 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Indeed. It was Labour Rightists who were obsessed with the Soviet “threat”, because they were up against the Communist Party in the unions, and its sympathisers in the Labour Party. But while the Tories liked military spending for social and cultural reasons, and pecuniary ones quite often, it was not until the emergence of Thatcherism, with its roots outside the party, that they approached the level of Cold War hawkishness of the other side.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
28 days ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Bevin was particularly anti Communist, and strangely pro Empire.
The Thatcher era hawkishness was probably a reaction to the view that the West was “losing” during the 1970s. However it held great dangers, Able Archer being such a danger, not realised at the time.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
27 days ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

What do you mean by military “threat”? The fact that something didn’t occur didn’t mean to say that it wasn’t a threat.

The Soviet Union had a vast standing army in Europe and more nuclear weapons than the Americans – many pointed at us! Of course they were a threat.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
27 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

And the threat was to do…what? Invade and hold Western Europe? The Soviet Union could never have held Western Europe…ever.
Subversion was more likely…and more feared by the West…but that didn’t happen either because there was little appeal for the West’s people.
Regrettably the Cold War was more likely a colossal scaremongering exercise by the MIC which Eisenhower warned about…no fool he, after having been taken for one once too often.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
28 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

I agree. While Russia was not a threat to Britain until recently it most certainly is a threat now.. when the first British long range missile hits Belgorod, my advice is for all you guys to hit the bomb shelters / tube stations!

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
28 days ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

The proposal for National Service is a mark of utter desperation on Sunak’s part. He clearly believes it will appeal to the supposed jingo element of Tory support…which doesn’t actually exist. The idea is so bad it’s laughable.

However I doubt that Farage supports the people you mention and have seen no evidence he does.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
28 days ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Surely the whole point of National Service was to “knock the corners off” the unruly youths and transform their thuggery into proper, disciplined would be killers of all those nasty foreigners? They could then safely be let back into polite society or be recruited into the more vicious black ops units? It would transfer the thuggery from the streets to the battlefield..

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
27 days ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

God, you do indulge in such tedious anti British and worse, completely anti historical nonsense. Irish Republicanism (I suppose) at its most parochial and worst. The Irish could have perhaps tried their luck with the Russians; they would have been so much more understanding of your national aspirations. I don’t think this proposal is well thought through, obviously smacks of desperation as it has come out of nowhere – and we live in different times.

The National Service we had was introduced well after WW2, at a time when Ireland had been independent for over 20 years and the Empire being dismantled, with much less bloodshed than in almost any other similar case. On the whole, it was a good thing that in the fights the British did have, they successfully fought against Communist totalitarian attempts to take over the ex-colony. And no, I’m not an Empire nostalgist, which is the potty obsession of your countryman Fintan O’Toole.

Plucky Ireland of course sat on its smug arse during WW2, and conflicts such as the Korean War, caused by an invasion of the South by the Communists, so in effect were allied to the North Korean communo-monarchist totalitarian state. Doing nothing is also a choice.

Of course all states employ people (maybe Costa Rica is an exception), whether their own citizens or mercenaries, who are willing and able to kill their opponents. Perhaps, grow up?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
27 days ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

The idea that any serious country can simply say “we won’t have a war” is counter historical and ludicrous. I presume you would have simply allowed Nazi Germany to have dominated Europe? That must be the implication of what you are saying. And secondly, modern wars almost certainly won’t require the entire able-bodied male population to be signed up. Even Putin’s Russia isn’t doing that.

I might agree that we need a far more sensible and strategic geopolitical policy, in line with our interests and indeed our abilities. However, you go beyond this to a cynical denial that anybody ought think about anything other than the entirely pecuniary terms. You must be living on a different planet from the one I’m on (I live in London) if you think that the pro Hamas marches have been “peaceful”. It is outrageous how ordinary citizens have their lives disrupted in roads blocked etc and of course Jewish many Jewish people feel intimidated. And of course the cause is so repulsive, an Islamo fascist group who showed their true colours on October 7 which we’ve now completed forgotten or told ourselves lies about. Morality – leaving international law – is about intention – Hamas fighters intended to torture, rape, murder and abduct civilians, as a matter of policy. The Israelis do not.

“There is no such thing as British society, an Afghan could as easily be a British citizen as someone whose family of lived here for several generations”. Etc. It is just nonsense

Ash Sangamneheri
Ash Sangamneheri
28 days ago

Why penalize the young for the vanity of the old? God save us from these politicians, they seem to be getting dumber and dumber.

Paul T
Paul T
28 days ago

So…

Sam Brown
Sam Brown
27 days ago

It isn’t penalising them; it would be saving them from themselves and the grip of the tech overlords in Silicon Valley and Beijing that currently have them in their thrall via Tik-Tok, IG, and all the other narcissistic time wasting applications they are addicted to. Maybe they will come to realise just how lucky they are to be living in this great country which is under threat by foreign actors that they are welcoming into their bosoms, undermining the values that have made this little island and this people the Great Britain that it is.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
28 days ago

As a British citizen, you get the wonderful privilege of being volunteered to do community service, to help Britain be a more wonderful place for immigrants , who will be exempt from National Service , as they are not British citizens.
I think this is called ‘white privilege’

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
28 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

a touch of thinly disguised racism there perhaps or is it merely xenophobia?

Ian_S
Ian_S
28 days ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Allo allo allo, wot do we av ere then?

Oh look, the PC police have arrived.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
27 days ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Are you suggesting that foreign citizens should be conscripted into the British Army?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
27 days ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

There is nothing racist in wanting people to go back to where they live. Nothing at all.

Robbie K
Robbie K
27 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

So much cynicism. All very curious, one would have thought the right would be in favour of this policy.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
28 days ago

White Britons have privilege for everything, apparently … especially the privilege of dying for a nation that considers them inferior to the foreign imports that it imports by the millions ….

Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith
28 days ago

Compulsory voluntary work. Oxymoronic – with the emphasis on moronic.

Peter B
Peter B
28 days ago

This all seems so reminiscent of Theresa May’s election campaign and her massive unforced error in suddenly announcing social care funding reforms without any preparation at the start of an election campaign. And I fear that Sunak will ne just as pitiful an election campaigner as May.
It doesn’t matter whether the policies have merits or not when it’s quite obvious they can’t have been thought through nearly enough to be implemented properly.
Beyond that, the “national service” announcement turns out to be nothing of the sort. It won’t satisfy those who want real national service. And it will alienate all those who don’t.
Sunak doesn’t understand how politics works. Or the media. A better man in most ways than Johnson, but an absolutely terrible politician.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
28 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Better man than Johnson.. high praise indeed!

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
27 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Increasingly, they’re all just playing at being politicians. They pretend to lead and we pretend to follow. Like a dog chasing his tail.

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
28 days ago

Probably a sign they’ve completely given up on the youth vote, and are instead going to lean in to appealing to the type of old people who think the young have absolutely nothing real to complain about, regarding declining standards of living.

Perhaps also a worrying sign of how aging societies may handle a lack of workforce to serve those people to the standards to which they have become accustomed, if/when they find there aren’t enough young people taking on such roles willingly, in response to said declining inheritance.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
28 days ago

But you’ve got all those nice immigrants who will fit the bill.. young, fit, resilient, resourceful, courageous, adventurous.. Nothing to worry about ar all. I’m actually serious though you will think I’m not.. and you may not greet my good tidings with the same enthusiasm I feel??

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
27 days ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

National Service might actually be one way of integrating immigrants into the culture.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
27 days ago
Reply to  Seb Dakin

This is a very good point. Exactly that happened in the US with masses a young men serving in WWII. (The Irish and Italians, for instance, couldn’t stomach each other back in the 30s. That was mostly forgotten by the 50s.)
And then once the Armed Forces were racially desegregated it was only a matter of time before the Jim Crowe laws started to fall.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
28 days ago

The photograph provided is intriguing is it not? Where on Earth did they find that many vertically challenged soldiers?

j watson
j watson
27 days ago

Pattern continues but now with a comedic element – unconsidered Policy announcements that haven’t been at all thought through never better illuminated. We’ve had 14 years of this. Shoring itself up against Reform amongst the Golf club bores and grumpy old folks, but what a way to highlight the Right’s contempt for the young yet again.
However whilst the practicality of this nonsense is obvious I have to declare my RN 22 yrs means I’m biased in thinking some sort of experience like this would be the making of many if we did it properly – which may be beyond us. In Israel as we know everyone (accept some specific religious groups) has to do military service and we all know why. However one of the secondary benefits is it seems to equip Israel with young who are more resilient, self reliant and self motivated than many equivalent Nations. This is recognised by many international businesses, esp tech, who noticeably have not been divesting on account of the war in Gaza. One key reason is they value the workforce they have there. We of course are a million miles from this with Sunak’s latest clown act, but you know there is an argument here for something if we could summon the resolve to do it well and articulate what the youngsters would get from it in subsequent jobs, skills, housing, pensions and self respect.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
27 days ago

Coming wars over Britain will not be fought by privates on parade. They will be fought with weapons of mass murder. Prior to open hostilities there will be cyber wars. Our pampered youth will run up the white flag the first time we suffer a black out. Sunak of course doesn’t care, because he’ll be living in the US by then.

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
27 days ago

I’m increasingly convinced Sunak is deliberately trying to lose this election. It’s one unforced error and blunder after the other.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
27 days ago

Just half an hour or so ago I was reading an inspirational article about how the Nordic countries do national service right by turning it into a competition for their best and brightest young people, and naively thought how marvelous it would be if, just for once, we could do something right too.
And then I read this, and have it confirmed just how naive that thought was.
How depressing.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
27 days ago

Overall a muddled mess, which won’t happen anyway, but does show how totally devoid Sunak is of ideas to fix the real problems in the country.

Iain Anderson
Iain Anderson
27 days ago

I agree with Henry Hill, a complete waste of space, which I suspect would provide a quick descent into community payback service type activities (painting the community centre or cleaning the beaches) and there would be rapid disengagement, particularly if not compulsory!