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  • Toby Sawyer

Why Sunak needs to go further: In defence of National Service

By Toby Sawyer

National Service was originally introduced in the United Kingdom by Attlee’s Labour Government in 1949 as the global situation became increasingly tense. The starting pistol on the Cold War had well and truly been fired. It became utterly essential to containing the burgeoning threats of the day, with British national servicemen being sent to Korea. It was phased out in 1963 as it became evident Britain was no longer the power it once was combined with the realisation that a massive standing army was unnecessary with the maintenance of nuclear deterrence and strong military pacts such as NATO. Are we seeing the international security dynamic returning to such a situation?  

Regardless of this history and parallels with the world situation today, huge domestic questions are being raised with the policy itself attracting huge controversy due to its left-field nature. Coming just days after Rishi Sunak announced the General Election for 4th July, this was not a policy anyone predicted, despite similarly controversial calls from the outgoing Chief of the Military in January for a ‘citizens army’.

My first defence of the policy is centred on how most people seem to be under a fundamental misconception of what the proposed policy actually entails, no doubt because of the poor communication by CCHQ. Coupled with rife and exaggerated rumours online that once eighteen, the youth of this nation shall be snatched off by Sunak and sent packing to some foreign war. Once one actually looks at the policy proposal, as opposed to the cheap headlines being peddled by the media, it is revealed that the focus is actually upon “Community volunteering: Spending one weekend every month - which equates to 25 days over a 12-month period - volunteering with organisations such as the NHS, fire service, ambulance, search and rescue, and critical local infrastructure”. Quite what the communitarian Blairite Labour leadership finds objectionable here is a mystery. Such a policy as this represents a huge and frankly uncomplicated way to effectively instil a sense of community back into the young of this country, a sense that has been dually eroded by the uniparty of Labour and Tory since 1997. The young will help to support the elderly in roles such as delivering prescriptions, supporting our emergency services by partially relieving pressure for these essential personnel. Whilst it is currently unclear if there will be any financial recompense for this undertaking, it is so far suggested that this portion of the proposal will be purely voluntary. The possible benefits are seemingly abundant, with my biggest hope being that it creates a sense of national pride and involvement sorely lacking in this country today. 

The second defence by contrast looks at the alternative aspect of the proposal, Military Training shall be limited to a mere 30,000 competitive places for a year-long duration. Over the last 14 years the strength of our armed forces has been systematically reduced, now amounting to a pathetic 183,130 personnel as of January 2024. This policy hopefully takes us away from what I hope is the low point for the state of our military, with an army smaller than it’s ever been since the Napoleonic Wars. Attacks from the opposition parties target the seemingly unfunded nature of this policy, they say ‘the Tories say Labour cannot be trusted on the economy yet here is an unfunded proposal predicted to cost £2.5bn’. I say to this, international security has become too grave for this policy to be subordinated to small-scale partisan economic debates. Frankly, it would be highly encouraging if Keir Starmer himself truly proved he could be trusted on defence by adopting a comparable policy. 

"The world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place with hot wars in Europe and the Middle East and a growing risk from China in the Indo-Pacific, security should be made a nonpartisan issue as it was in the 1940s."

Similar national service schemes are already in place in many countries, including the Scandinavian countries much vaunted by the centre left. For too long have Western European countries, such as the UK, enjoyed the post-Cold War peace dividend and protection from the United States. If the UK wants to be seen as a serious player on the global security stage, as our politicians keep insisting, we must be realistic about the need to increase our military to deter revisionist states like Russia, China and Iran as we see the emergence of a second Cold War between East and West. Personally, I believe the 30,000 cap for military positions to be rather poultry and does not nearly go far enough to reflect the graveness of the world in which we find ourselves. Head of the Army, General Sir Patrick Sanders himself called for a minimum increase of around 60,000, this must be heeded by our political class. 

I am no Tory; this article has not sought to defend the party’s record in power over fourteen years, which has overseen endlessly brutal reductions to our armed forces in the name of austerity, a policy I believe to have harmed UK national security. My argument here is for the necessity of this policy, as a student heavily interested in International Security. The world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place with hot wars in Europe and the Middle East and a growing risk from China in the Indo-Pacific, security should be made a nonpartisan issue as it was in the 1940s as the Cold War risked becoming hot. The fact our pathetic careerist politicians have transformed what should be a common-sense policy into an opportunity to score cheap political points instils little hope in myself and, I believe, the wider population. Naturally, I concede that the British people care more about domestic issues, like keeping the heating on and being able to see their GP, however I really do think it’s time the British people started understanding the direct risks posed to their livelihoods by International Security. Without being too hyperbole, practically every day Russian state media discusses how they can “sink Britain... once and for all”, it’s time we bolstered our security with this national service proposal representing an encouraging, albeit small, step in the right direction that deserves cross-party support.

Image: Picyrl



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