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National Service: A Good Idea...if only it wasn't Sunak's

By William Hall



In 1954, a keen grammar-school boy from Huddersfield, unable to go to university, had vague images of a quiet life in his future – perhaps as an English teacher, he certainly loved to read. Before this, however, he had to complete his national service. Due to his intellect, he was chosen to spend two years at Bodmin Moor being taught Russian – of great import in the burgeoning years of the Cold War. These two years changed his life, and ultimately mine, for this keen boy was my grandfather.


After his national service, during which he met his future best man, my grandfather was hired by GCHQ in Cheltenham to listen in to Soviet transmissions and decipher their meaning. He stayed in Cheltenham, meeting my grandmother, becoming the leader of the GCHQ union, and even running for office as a Liberal candidate. He was even active during Gulf War One, where he stayed in the bunkers under Westminster during the course of the operation. Turning 90 next week, my grandfather attributes all the best things in his life to the 18 months he spent in national service.  


My grandfather is just one sole example of the life-changing impact national service had on millions of young men in post-war Britain – changing their futures and providing relationships they had never foreseen. More broadly, and as security policy, national service helped to grow and maintain the British military in a time when international conflict loomed large. Whilst we stopped in 1960, other front-line nations like Finland and Israel have maintained their national service, forming a core part of their civil society.  


Now, with war again darkening Europe’s soil, Rishi Sunak has made the reintroduction of National Service – albeit in a very different form – a key part of the Conservative's 2024 general election plan. Whilst pure in its intentions, this move will not only fail, but it is likely to damage the chances of the incoming Labour government adopting the policy – something that this author believes would benefit our generation. 


For one, the reintroduction of national service into the political sphere by an unpopular Conservative government further alienates the policies demographic, 18–24-year-olds, from the idea of serving one’s country. Western developed nations like Britain are already suffering from a recruitment crisis in their militaries, with a 32% drop in recruits and now more servicemen leaving than joining – particularly in the Army. This has previously been attributed to the “post-heroic” nature of our society. The military ideals of heroism and sacrifice have been subsumed into individualist beliefs in maximising well-being and personal achievement. A recent poll found that only 14% of 18–24-year-olds would willingly fight, and 43% would do whatever they could to avoid it. Now add on the youth’s overwhelming hatred of the current Conservative Party and you end up with possibly the single most unpopular policy ever created for the age group, short of increasing the drinking age.  


Rishi Sunak himself seems to be aware of this, because in fact this new National Service policy would be better termed a Community Service policy. Whilst the media may not cover this, and instead run with the attention-grabbing headlines along the lines of “CONSERVATIVES WANT TO CONSCRIPT ALL 18-YEAR-OLDS”, in reality, the policy would only see a very small number – 30,000 – of 18–24-year-olds actually join the military. Even then, this small number would be comprised of highly motivated individuals who will have volunteered in the first place.


The vast majority of 18-year-olds would instead spend one weekend a month for a year volunteering in their communities – an admirable and relatively non-taxing job. So, what’s the problem? Traditional national service can uplift those from poorer backgrounds and provide a national sense of community, and the Tories' proposal would provide communities with over 600,000 fit volunteers. Apparently, all that stands in the way of this is some gloomy selfish teenagers who want to virtue signal by not joining the military part-time or would rather save their weekends for clubbing.


The problem, as with most government policies, is timing and cost. This scheme would cost £2.5 billion, an eye-watering sum when all mainstream sources talk about is the lack of money for the NHS, public transport, education, or the military more generally. In particular, the military is not in the right shape to take on additional responsibility for 30,000 fresh recruits – even if they were confined to logistics roles.


Facing a procurement crisis, a recruitment crisis, and a morale crisis, the UK military is not in the state it was in the 1950s when we were able to operate multiple overseas operations simultaneously. All these new recruits would require equipment, beds, food, pay, and trainers - all of which the military lacks. If war is to break out in Europe, perhaps it would be best to have a functioning regular military before we consider adding further burdens to it. 


Ultimately, the reintroduction of national service is a policy that should be adopted by both mainstream parties – especially Labour, for all its preaching about upward mobility.

However, the fact that the Conservatives are the party to introduce it – and at this time of all times – is risking politics getting in the way of policy. Hopefully, when in government, Starmer can U-turn again and return to the policy – using the political capital Labour has with the youth to make it more appealing.


Image: PICRYL

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