Opinion, Politics

Opinion: “National Service is a desperate throw of the dice”

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Featured image: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire


The speed of change in politics is enough to bring on whiplash. On Thursday, just before Rishi Sunak fired the starting pistol on the upcoming general election, defence minister Andrew Murrison pooh-poohed any suggestion of reintroducing national service. He claimed it would damage morale among the forces, and even if conscripts had their separate units, “it would be difficult to find a proper and meaningful role for them”.

A little over 48 hours later, the Prime Minister casually shoved Dr. Murrison under a passing double-decker, rolling out half-baked plans for the worst reboot since ‘The Wicker Man’.

Perhaps it really would “teach these young ‘uns a bit of bloody discipline,” as my Grandad Dennis would say – despite hating every minute of his national service – but a year in the military is only one potential route for the Prime Minister’s master plan. 18-year-olds could instead choose to volunteer one weekend per month with one of the emergency services or a charity.

Don’t worry, though, none of this is going to happen. It’s a pledge dreamt up on the fly by a government desperate to appeal to a generation of boomers whose eyeballs are swivelling towards Nigel Farage’s Reform UK. Farage loves a bit of patriotic rhetoric, but national service is such a regressive idea that even he thinks it’s absurd. Could it be a gateway policy for those longing for rationing and the return of pounds, shillings, and pence? What other laws abolished in the 1960s could the Tories leave out on the kitchen top to thaw from cryogenesis? Corporal and capital punishment? The criminalisation of homosexuality? Racial discrimination? 

Other countries have national service because of historic or present existential threats. Most of the Nordic and Baltic states compel their (male, in most cases) young people to join the forces in some capacity, but they have Russia pounding Ukraine and posturing on their collective doorsteps. As BTS fans are all too aware, South Koreans can defer their time in the military, but in almost all cases, fit and healthy men will eventually need to serve it. They have an unpredictable North Korea and an increasingly belligerent China just over the horizon, though.

Besides, is volunteering a choice if you have to do it? No, it’s a case of picking the least-worst scenario. Those who plump for the military pathway will join a force starved of funding for decades. Reports of outdated equipment and substandard housing are legion. Those keen on joining the emergency services for their 25 days per year will spend their time sweeping floors and searching for tartan paint. They certainly won’t be helping in emergency rooms, arresting crooks, or dashing into burning buildings.

There’s another option of working in the charity sector, not that they thought of running it past any charities ahead of the announcement, of course.

Government ministers haven’t exactly been clamouring to defend the idea, but there is scant detail for them to work with. No firm news of what would happen to refuseniks – whether it be jail, community service, or being forced to walk around wafting a white feather – or even how long it’ll last. Home secretary, James Cleverley, said on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg that the 25 hours of weekend volunteering would be “in the first year”. That suggests there’ll be at least a second year.

Neither is there any information about exemptions or deferrals, as these teeny, tiny particulars are for a Royal Commission to explore. It will look at how other countries implement national service, and presumably come back with the answer: “You’ll need much better infrastructure instead of retrofitting everything”. Early indications in The Telegraph, though, suggest that university students will still need to muck in. You can also forget about that gap year until you’ve served your time.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, a minister in the Foreign Office, couldn’t rule out whether parents would be fined should their kids refuse to participate. That’s their 18-year-old, legally adult children, who may well have already moved out of the family home. It’s an absolute shambles.

There’s also the question of Northern Ireland. Although it is a constituent part of the UK, its citizens have never had to sign up for any form of national service. Although the rifts between nationalist and unionist communities aren’t as pronounced as during The Troubles, good luck to any official who tries to impose it in Derry, West Belfast, or Newry. Even during World War II, Westminster twice failed to force national service onto Northern Ireland, so the chances of it happening now – especially with the republican Sinn Féin party holding office – are effectively zero.

That said, the main reason why this policy will never come to fruition is because, by the early hours of July 5th, Rishi Sunak’s government is likely to be dust.

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Ian Burke

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