Why the Tory national service plan gets both defence and community wrong.

The proposal for a new model of national service fundamentally misunderstands the nature of modern warfare and the most pressing needs of our national defence. It conflates two distinct concepts: the requirements of our military and the benefits of community service, meeting the urgent needs of neither, it fails to learn the lessons from European countries that have abandoned it in recent years and applies the wrong lessons from the Russian war on Ukraine.

Contemporary conflicts do not necessitate a mass army from the UK as an expeditionary force in Europe, at least not yet. Instead, they demand a smart, technologically advanced military and massive supply to the frontline in Ukraine. Enhancing the size of the standing army and improving conditions for our service members are valid objectives: well-trained, highly motivated personnel with an emphasis on special forces is the shape required, and that needs massive investment. However, until ground forces are urgently required, this proposal remains irrelevant. When the need arises, conscription can be swiftly enacted. Putting £2.5b into the pay and conditions of the professional army would make more sense from a simple human resource and recruitment perspective.

But what we really need now is a significant investment in science and technology, focusing on advanced warfare capabilities such as laser weapons, uncrewed systems, C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) systems, and battlefield awareness systems alongside a massive investment in a professional army, navy, air force, intelligence services, counter disinformation service, and the creation, as in Ukraine, of a separate uncrewed and autonomous service. Expanding our production capacity for these technologies is crucial, as is an enhanced critical national ammunition production capability because of the potential of supply chain choke holds. A progressive military must be sophisticated, equipped to handle the challenges of modern warfare.

Community volunteering is undeniably valuable. It instils discipline and provides young people with beneficial experiences. The discipline inherent in national service is commendable, but it should be aligned with contemporary needs. Encouraging young people to volunteer with the fire service, police, and NHS is indeed beneficial for fostering community spirit and developing practical skills. Unison General Secretary Christina McAnea criticized the plan as a way to fill job vacancies cheaply, emphasizing the need for “proper resourcing and enough decently paid staff” instead of “reluctant teen ‘volunteers’.” Lauren Edwards, Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate in Medway, and the council Cabinet Member for Economic & Social Regeneration railed against the proposed diversion of funds she had used in her council role to support business and communities.

However, suggesting national service as a strategic response to modern military threats is misguided. The current geopolitical landscape requires immediate and focused investment in frontline capabilities. Resources should be allocated towards enhancing our technological edge and preparing a military that is ready for the complexities of present and future warfare, not one modelled on outdated concepts of mass conscription.

Historically, national service has disproportionately impacted young people from working-class backgrounds, while those from more affluent families often find ways to avoid it. This pattern is observed in various countries. Before conscription was suspended in Germany 2011, studies indicated that young men from more affluent families were more likely to avoid military service through deferments or opting for civilian service instead.  Germany is considering re-introducing it now but also debating improving pay and conditions for the armed forces instead.  During periods of national service in France (which ended in 1996), reports indicated that young men from higher socio-economic backgrounds had better means to secure deferments or be assigned to less dangerous and less demanding roles. This was often facilitated through educational deferments or medical exemptions that were more accessible to the well-connected and better-informed.  Greece retains national service and evidence suggests that individuals from wealthier backgrounds often find ways to delay or avoid service. This can be through pursuing higher education (which grants deferments) or securing postings in less demanding roles within the military. Similar inequality is seen in Turkey where the affluent  can pay for a form of exemption, known as “bedelli askerlik,” which allows them to avoid the longer, traditional service period.

This trend suggests that the reintroduction of national service in the UK would likely follow a similar pattern, placing an undue burden on young people from working-class backgrounds while those from affluent homes could navigate their way out of it. This exacerbates social inequalities rather than addressing the real issues of national defence.

The reception to the proposal has been almost universally hostile and if the government had been paying attention to statements by it’s own ministers it might have anticipated the reaction from people who understand the armed services.

On the 23rd of May, two days before the policy was announced Defence Minister Andrew Murrison said, “The Government has no current plans to reintroduce National Service.” He warned that the plan would “damage morale” in the military, highlighting the need for “highly trained, professional men and women” in the armed forces. He stated that “unwilling national service recruits” could harm morale, recruitment, and retention, and mentioned the difficulty in finding meaningful roles for separate units of national service recruits, potentially harming motivation and discipline.

Historian Glen O’Hara criticized the abandonment of “levelling up” and neglecting regions like coastal Britain, North Wales, and Cornwall. Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liz Kendall dismissed the announcement as a “headline-grabbing gimmick,” and even former UKIP Leader Nigel Farage described the proposal as a “desperate attempt to win back voters from Reform.”

Sam Bidwell, Director at the Adam Smith Institute, claimed young Britons have already done their fair share of national service during the Covid lockdowns. Former military leaders Adm Alan West and Richard Dannatt labeled the plan “bonkers” and “electoral opportunism,” respectively, highlighting the considerable costs involved and the potential depletion of the defence budget.

Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey criticized the proposal as “an undeliverable plan and a distraction” from Conservative failures in defence. He noted the Tories’ history of missing recruitment targets and underfunding the armed forces. Former Labour Defence Minister Kevan Jones called the plan an “ill-thought-out and expensive election gimmick” with no real security benefits.

Some Tory MPs welcomed the policy but criticized its poor communication. Concerns were also raised about the scheme being a preparation for war and conscription. The proposal was criticized for potentially punishing a generation already affected by the Covid lockdowns.

The real agenda here is not about national defence but rather an anti-woke rhetoric designed to position the Conservatives as the party of national defence. This proposal attempts to frame the debate on irrelevances rather than addressing the fundamental needs of modernizing and adequately resourcing the UK’s defence capabilities. The reintroduction of national service is outdated, wrongheaded, and ultimately a gimmick that fails to address the real issues at hand.

 

If you enjoyed this piece, see Brian’s previous blog ‘Time for Labour to embrace her inner Ernie Bevin’.