Are Tory plans for military service “desperate and unfounded”?

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Two days after the general election was announced, Rishi Sunak made his first election pledge of mandatory military service, a bold move considered by many. The policy states that by 2029, a scheme would be in place requiring all eighteen-year-old British nationals to complete one year of mandatory National Service. Conscripts can choose between joining the British Armed Forces for a twelve-month paid placement or volunteering for one weekend per month for a year for the NHS, the fire service, the police, or charity organisations. National Service was previously in effect in the UK, with the last conscript being discharged in 1963 and the country transitioning to a volunteer-based military. 

The rollout of a National Service policy recognises both military mismanagement and political desperation

This policy announcement came after the House of Commons defence committee said Armed Forces personnel were leaving faster than they could be recruited, creating a “vicious cycle” that must be addressed given the “increasingly challenging” threats facing British defence. This is partially why the outgoing Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders, called for the creation of a volunteer “citizen army”; as it stands, the Armed Forces do not have enough personnel to fight a high-intensity war. The recent invasion of Ukraine is the apparent security risk that Sir Patrick was highlighting, encouraging the UK to look to other European nations who are putting their Armed Forces on a “war footing”. Sir Patrick previously sounded the alarm about the shrinking size of the army, which now numbers roughly 73,000 compared to 100,000 soldiers in 2010. Despite the Ministry of Defence agreeing that recruiting and retaining soldiers is a top priority — with their added aim to raise defence spending to 2.5% GDP — the rollout of a National Service policy recognises both military mismanagement and political desperation. 

Due to the heightened security situation, Latvia and Sweden have reintroduced mandatory service

Despite the seeming archaic nature of such a policy, the Tory government is looking to other European nations, especially Nordic countries, which still utilise military conscription to fill their ranks. Due to the heightened security situation, Latvia and Sweden have reintroduced mandatory service, raising the total number of European countries to use this system to 15. Some European governments have decided that mandatory service is the remedy to the problem of recruitment and retention, a statement clearly recognised by the Conservative Party. In addition to the military benefits, Mr Sunak mentioned the success of conscription in Sweden. A poll found that 80% of young people completing National Service would recommend it to their peers. The Prime Minister further claims that National Service will improve young people’s “real world skills, while contributing to their country and community”, and enhance the UK’s defence capabilities. Despite these outlined benefits, it should be remembered that the scheme is estimated to cost the government £2.5 billion and only 30,000 places within the Armed Forces will be made available. Therefore only 4% of eligible eighteen-year-olds would be conscripted. 

The Labour Party, on the other hand, described the rollout of National Service as “desperate and unfounded”, with the only accomplishable skill being a burden on the budget and taking public resources away from vital services like the NHS. Indeed, such a policy faces ideological backlash from within aspects of the Conservatives who balk at the compulsory requirement of the policy. Whether to galvanise patriotic fervour or apply a short-term solution to deeply set shortfalls within the British Armed Forces, the proposed reintroduction of National Service recognises the many predicaments surrounding British security. 

Image: Corporal Andy Reddy RLC via Wikimedia Commons

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