Exeter, Devon UK • Jul 24, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Features The Conservatives’ National Service Scheme

The Conservatives’ National Service Scheme

Annabel Jeffery, Online International Editor, examines the specifics of the Conservatives' National Service Scheme proposal.
4 min read
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(Lauren Hurley via Wikimedia Commons)

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced several key policy proposals in the three weeks following his shock general election mandate for 4 July 2024. Yet the Conservatives’ first proposal did not concern the hot issues of the cost-of-living crisis nor immigration. Backdropped by a dark, plain background, the Union Jack flag and solemn music, Mr Sunak instead used his Youtube Channel to announce ‘a bold new model of National Service for 18 year olds.’

How would the scheme work and how much would it cost?

Young people would have the choice of volunteering 25 days a year (one weekend a month) or taking part in a ‘competitive, full-time military commission over 12 months’.

Those who select the volunteer sector could help their local fire, NHS, police services, or work for charities tackling loneliness and supporting elderly people. Meanwhile, those who are accepted into a highly selective military placement would ‘learn and take part in logistics, cybersecurity, procurement or civil response operations’.

Should they be elected, the Conservatives plan to launch the scheme in 2025 with a small number of young people, before later passing a ‘National Service Act’ to make the measures compulsory by the end of the next parliament, which would be in 2029.

Many of the specific details are unknown: the party has announced that a Royal Commission will look at international examples – such as Norway – and how full-time armed forces placements can offer young people better opportunities later in their careers. Moreover, Mr Sunak announced that the commission will ‘explore an appropriate incentives regime’ for the scheme.

It is estimated that the scheme will cost £2.5bn per year by the end of the decade. Mr Sunak stated that £1bn would come from cracking down on tax avoidance and £1.5bn from money previously set aside to be used in the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (designed to regenerate underfunded towns as a part of ‘Levelling Up’).

Why are the Conservatives proposing the scheme?

The announcement of a scheme that enrols young people in military service may come as a shock. Back in January, the Conservatives dismissed a suggestion from the Chief of General Staff, Sir Patrick Sanders, that the UK might need a ‘citizen army’.

There have been significant cuts in the army since the Conservatives came into power in 2010, when the size of the British Army was 100,000. As of January 2024, the figure has reduced to 73,000.

Yet Sunak emphasises that the scheme benefits young people, saying that he believes a return of compulsory national service in the UK will help foster the ‘national spirit’ that emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This isn’t an entirely new policy for the party, who under David Cameron introduced a National Citizen Service (NCS) back in 2010. Whilst the programme took up 95% of youth service funding, it saw its funding cut by two thirds in 2022 after failing to attract its expected participants.

The last mandatory national service was introduced at the end of WW2 and ran between 1949-1960 for all men aged 17-21. This meant they had to carry out 24 months of military training before spending four years on a reserve list.

Just two days before Sunak’s announcement, his own defence minister Andrew Murrison announced in a written statement that the government had ‘no current plans to reintroduce national service’.

What criticism has the scheme faced?

Whilst many of Sunak’s fellow Conservative MPs welcome the policy, according to the Guardian, many privately revealed they thought it had been poorly communicated, saying ‘we’ve made something bold but actually incremental sound insane.’

Just two days before Sunak’s announcement, his own defence minister Andrew Murrison announced in a written statement that the government had ‘no current plans to reintroduce national service’, explaining that taking on ‘potential unwilling National Service recruits’ alongside professional men and women in the Armed Forces could ‘damage morale, recruitment and retention’, consuming professional resources.

Former chief of naval staff Adm Alan West called the scheme ‘bonkers’, adding that ‘money will be sucked out of defence.’ He also said that Rishi Sunak should have dedicated more funds to the defence budget before the election.

What is Labour’s reaction?

Labour leader Keir Starmer criticised the scheme, dubbing it “teenage ‘Dad’s Army’ paid for by cancelling levelling-up funding and money from tax avoidance that [the Labour Party] would use to invest in our NHS.”  During the first televised debate of the election between the two leaders on Tuesday, Mr Starmer called the scheme ‘not transformational but desperate.’

Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey called the plans ‘undeliverable’ and a ‘distraction’ from ‘failures in defence over the last 14 years. ’He emphasised that the British Army has been cut ‘to its smallest size since Napoleon’, adding that ‘it’s time for change. Britain will be better defended with Labour.’

How has the public responded?

The scheme seemingly deepens the generational divide in the UK. According to a YouGov poll, the split sees young Britons oppose the plans by 65% to 27%, whilst older Britons support the plans by 63% to 31%.

Indeed, many have been quick to highlight that this is yet another example of the  Conservatives’ disfavouring young people. A video shared on TikTok last week saw 16-year old Henry Hassell ask the Prime Minister  ‘..why do you hate young people so much?’, and has since been widely shared across different platforms.

Young people have been taking to social media to post memes ridiculing Sunak’s announcement. One by the X account @Parody_PM features a picture of the Prime Minister visiting an elderly man in a hospital bed, entitled ‘The good news is we’ve got an 18 year old coming in next Saturday to remove your spleen.’ Such posts widely circulating on social media, reflect the sentiment of a generation who feel that they have already carried out their ‘national service’; they stayed inside during the Covid-19 pandemic to protect the elderly, meanwhile sacrificing their education and development.

What does this signify for the Conservative election campaign?

The relaunch of a multi-disciplined national service scheme for the first time in 64 years, as seen in the YouGov poll, is likely to resonate with an older generation of voters, who may have once participated in national service themselves.

Following early election polls, over 70s are now the only age group more likely to vote Conservative, perhaps signalling the introduction of additional policies that will win their support, such as a ‘triple lock plus’ on pensions.

Whilst pensions will rise by 2.5% or in line with the highest earnings or inflation, student maintenance loans remain insufficient to cover rising rent costs. Youth services are being cut, ‘rip-off degrees’ are being scrapped, and important issues to the youth such as the environment and the Israel-Palestine war are being ignored. The announcement of National Service seems to further confirm the disillusionment of the Conservative Party when it comes to the younger generation.

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