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  • Ethan Harvey

Sunak’s National Service Policy Is Not Patriotic

By Ethan Harvey

Over a week has passed since Sunak made the peculiar decision to call a General Election, and many are already bored to tears by what has been a dull and tiresome campaign full of corporate platitudes. This feeling was best put by Farage on Question Time when he pointed out that the front page of the Daily Mail was about Lord Lucan, a man who disappeared fifty years ago. But this hasn’t stopped Sunak from announcing a relatively obscure range of policies, the unpredictability of which has led journalists to question whether there really was an underlying strategy behind his decision to call an election on 22nd May

From the abandonment of ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees to the reverberation of a policy he declared last October (the replacement of A Levels with an Advanced British Standard (ABS) qualification), it is fair to say his policies lack an overarching unifying intellectual framework to bring clarity to his programme. However, the mood changed when the party caused a media firestorm after it announced it would reintroduce national service if elected. The traction garnered by this policy alone – albeit not all positive – arguably fascinated journalists more than the calling of the election itself.

"It denotes an attempt to re-instil patriotic values in a generation deficient in such."

The new national service programme, seemingly mandatory for those 18 years of age, is estimated to cost around £2.5 billion a year by the end of the decade. According to Sunak, its purpose is to reignite the ‘national spirit’ amongst the young. Supporters of the new pledge perceive it to be a remedy to the post-lockdown effect on mental health caused by excessive self-isolation and the closing of schools. Even if you don’t feel suited to military service, young people can take up community service in unpaid positions within the public sector, such as the NHS and police. It denotes an attempt to re-instil patriotic values in a generation deficient in such.

During his time in office, it is hard to argue with the fact that Sunak moved his Party to the left. You only need to look at the reappointment of (ex-Prime Minister and self-declared heir to Blair) David Cameron to high offices of power and the nanny-state attempt to outlaw smoking to understand that conservatism is not his strong point. That policy – unpopular among conservative libertarians- has been understandably ditched, failing to pass the legislative process before Parliament dissolved on 30th May. Is this an indication that the Conservatives are trying to reconcile themselves with the patriotic right of the party, a dominant faction that sneers at intrusions into people’s private lives but concomitantly praises strong defence? Not as such.

The national service policy does not derive from a patriotic sentiment but is part and parcel of a broader security theme. After all, it was only earlier this month that Sunak was outside Downing Street delivering a speech, in which he warned a frightened nation about the ‘dangerous times’ we are in, something he said would exacerbate under a Starmer government. Britain would, he argued, become more vulnerable to its enemies, such as Putin, under Labour. Domestically, the threat of antisemitism and extremism were included in his narrative of insecurity during a speech on 1st March. Looking back, the speech was to set the foundations of a pre-orchestrated security mantra that could be used to fight a preordained election. 

If security is Sunak’s secret weapon, it could explain why he unexpectedly called the election undeterred by the party’s pathetic position in the polls. One thesis is that Sunak has identified what he perceives to be a gap in the market, a master plan to win the election. It would involve harnessing a security narrative designed to incite fear in the public. It would capitalise on the notion, real or imagined, that Britain is under threat from hostile powers, such as Putin – a man who recently said he would attack Gibraltar and the Falklands if British weapons were used by Ukraine in Russian territory. The national service policy, caricatured by Starmer as a ‘teenage Dad’s army’, could provide Sunak the political leverage to attack Labour for not taking external threats seriously.  

If this is not convincing enough, another theory is that Sunak has received unknown intelligence about a looming war. In this context, the national security policy metamorphoses into a sincere, non-political move to psychologically and physically equip the young for combat. This would explain his announcement in April when he pledged to spend 2.5% of GDP on defence by 2030 and an additional £500m on military support. Furthermore, it reinforces the head of the Army’s comment earlier this year, that we would need to ‘mobilise’ the nation’ in the event of conflict with Russia because it is too small.

Whether either theory is plausible, the wartime narrative has pervaded polite society, and national service coincides with this discourse. Sunak knows he stands little chance of becoming re-elected, with one poll suggesting that 43% of people would trust Starmer over Sunak. His only option then is to frighten the public into voting for him by deceptively manufacturing a narrative that Britain would be less secure under a Labour government when faced with hostile powers. How can a man who can’t even decide whether Diane Abbot should be able to stand in an election just under six weeks away be trusted with the nuclear button? This is one question that Sunak could use to deflect attention away from his government’s abysmal track record on immigration and healthcare, towards a seemingly indecisive Labour leader incapable of making tough calls under pressure.

Sunak’s national service policy does not signal a return to patriotism, or that he really wants to address our weak defence and debilitated army. It makes more sense that it is part of a wider agenda that intends to capitalise on the rhetoric of war, in which Sunak is exploiting the state of insecurity we are in, internationally and domestically, to bolster a narrative; that only a Conservative Government can guarantee security. If Sunak really cared about revitalising patriotism in his party, he would have ditched the unworkable and unlawful Rwanda Scheme, which has led to over 6,265 illegal immigrants crossing the English Channel since the start of the year. 

Ultimately, the context in which Sunak uses the national service policy is anti-patriotic. He mistakenly thinks that people will vote for him out of fear of insecurity under Labour and that it will make the party appear to be the defender of national values. The public will not be taken for fools. They know that a real patriot concerned about national security would focus on securing Britain's broken borders.

Image: Picyrl



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