Eliot Wilson

The logic of national service

(Photo: Getty)

It would be hard to argue that the Conservatives have had a flawless start to the 2024 general election campaign. Rishi Sunak’s rain-drenched Downing Street announcement, the removal of a Sky News journalist from a media event, the symbolism of an inexplicable prime ministerial visit to Belfast’s Titanic Quarter – almost every move so far has required immediate damage control. The unveiling of a plan to introduce some kind of compulsory national service seems at first glance like another hasty gambit which has created its own ecosystem of problems.

The idea that it is an unacceptable curtailment of personal liberty is hard to sustain

‘Bring back national service!’ is a well-worn conservative trope. The feeling that we have lost a sense of community and mutual responsibility, and that younger people need to have discipline and self-sacrifice instilled in them, comes together with anxiety about recruitment to the armed forces and parlously inadequate personnel levels. Taking school leavers and making them ‘give something back’ before they embark on their proper adult lives seems a neat solution.

The social media reaction to Sunak’s announcement has been, naturally enough, eye-blink rapid, vehement and simplistic. The opposition to the idea focuses on three principal arguments: that this is a nostalgic, reactionary instinct with no underlying logic; that it represents, or at least betrays, a deep disdain for young voters; and that it is an outrageous imposition on individual liberty.

We need to be clear, first of all, exactly what is being proposed. In the past, ‘national service’ meant mandatory conscription of 17- to 21-year-olds into the armed forces for a period of up to two years. This was abolished in the 1960s, with call-up formally ended on 31 December 1960. The last conscripted servicemen were discharged in May 1963. Those who experienced national service are now therefore well into their 80s.

The prime minister’s proposal is more sophisticated than that. He has pledged to appoint a royal commission to advise on a scheme encompassing 30,000 full-time placements in the armed forces, complemented by an option to volunteer one weekend a month to undertake community service, working with organisations like the NHS, the police and the fire service. Sunak hopes this will help young people develop ‘real world skills, do new things and contribute to their community and our country’.

It is not a bolt from the blue in policy terms. In January, the chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders, warned that the UK would have to approach defence as ‘a whole-of-nation undertaking’, and hinted at more universal involvement in the armed forces. ‘Ukraine brutally illustrates that regular armies start wars; citizen armies win them.’ Sanders stopped short of advocating a return to conscription, and the government was until recently consistent in saying that the armed forces would remain volunteer-based.

We are not talking about a simple return to national service. There is a defensible logic in trying to harness the willingness of people to undertake duties for the common good which was demonstrated during the Covid-19 pandemic and is reflected in the fact that 13 million Britons volunteer regularly. Making a spontaneous instinct into a systematic programme is one of the abiding challenges of government, and there is no doubt that a shift from a voluntary to an enforced action can change its moral character.

The Conservatives are open to the charge that this policy appeals to older voters while placing a burden on younger ones. A cynic could argue that it is an appeal to the party’s electoral base, reassuring an older demographic which might be tempted by Reform UK in the knowledge that very few young people currently vote Conservative anyway.

The idea that it is an unacceptable curtailment of personal liberty is hard to sustain. While the United Kingdom has traditionally relied on a volunteer military, only enforcing conscription from 1916 to 1920 and 1939 to 1960, mandatory military service is very common. In Europe alone it exists in Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, hardly a roll call of brutal autocracies. The United States ended the draft in 1973 but men aged between 18 and 25 are still required to register with the Selective Service System.

If Sunak’s idea were to be implemented, the important questions would be of effectiveness and fairness. The Home Secretary, James Cleverly, told Sky News ‘There’s going to be no criminal sanction – here’s no one going to jail over this,’ so any means of enforcement remains uncertain. Nor is it clear that the injection of 30,000 conscripts would solve the armed forces’ personnel challenges.

There is merit in a scheme which would, as Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, framed it, ‘give every young person the chance to serve, and reap the rewards to doing so’. David Cameron launched the National Citizen Service in 2011 as part of his ambition to create a ‘Big Society’. Many of our strategic allies have some kind of systematic contribution to national welfare and resilience.

On the other hand, sound policy rarely emerges in the heat of a general election campaign. The government claims it would fund the new scheme from reducing tax avoidance and using the UK Shared Prosperity Fund; the opposition counters that it is a £2.5 billion ‘gimmick, where the sums don’t add up’. Ultimately, this is a complex issue of resilience and cohesion, raised by a government most expect to be defeated, aired at a time of sharp partisan clash and oversimplified debate. It is unlikely to see the light of day in this form – but we may not have heard the last of the idea.