Tories pledge to bring in mandatory national service for 18-year-olds if they win general election

The reintroduction of compulsory service would cost an estimated £2.5bn each year

Holly Evans
Saturday 25 May 2024 23:31 BST
Rishi Sunak believes it will foster ‘national spirit’
Rishi Sunak believes it will foster ‘national spirit’ (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The Conservative party would bring back mandatory national service for young adults if they win the general election.

Plans are currently being drawn up for 18-year-olds to either join the military full-time or volunteer one weekend every month carrying out community service.

Aimed for the first teenagers to take part in September 2025, Rishi Sunak is said to believe compulsory service would help foster the “national spirit” that emerged during the pandemic.

The prime minister said: “This is a great country but generations of young people have not had the opportunities or experience they deserve and there are forces trying to divide our society in this increasingly uncertain world.

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The prime minister meeting with veterans on Saturday morning
The prime minister meeting with veterans on Saturday morning (PA Wire)

“I have a clear plan to address this and secure our future. I will bring in a new model of national service to create a shared sense of purpose among our young people and a renewed sense of pride in our country.

“This new, mandatory national service will provide life-changing opportunities for our young people, offering them the chance to learn real world skills, do new things and contribute to their community and our country.”

Those who opt not to join the military and volunteer instead would carry out duties such as joining the St John’s Ambulance or helping to build flood defences.

The prime minister is seeking to draw a dividing line with Labour on global security following his pledge to raise defence spending to 2.5% of gross domestic product by 2030.

Heightening his attack on Saturday, Mr Sunak said voters would be left “at risk” with Sir Keir Starmer in Number 10 because Britain’s enemies would notice that he “doesn’t have a plan”.

Teenagers who choose to sign up for a placement in the forces would “learn and take part in logistics, cyber security, procurement or civil response operations”, the Tories said.

The Conservatives said they would establish a royal commission bringing in expertise from across the military and civil society to design what they described as the “bold” national service programme.

The party said it would work towards the first pilot being open for applications in September 2025, after which it would seek to introduce a new “National Service Act” to make the measures compulsory by the end of the next Parliament.

Teenagers would have the option of joining the armed forces or carrying out volunteer work
Teenagers would have the option of joining the armed forces or carrying out volunteer work (PA Archive)

It estimates the programme will cost £2.5 billion a year by the end of the decade and plans to fund £1 billion through plans to “crack down on tax avoidance and evasion”.

The remaining £1.5 billion will be paid for with money previously used for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), which is a package to support charities and community groups, the Tories said.

Sir Keir’s party branded the announcement “another desperate unfunded commitment” and pointed out that Lord David Cameron introduced a similar scheme – the National Citizen Service – when he was prime minister.

Lord Cameron’s announcement had no armed forces component to it, instead encouraging youngsters to take part in activities such as outdoor education-style courses as part of his “Big Society” initiative.

A Labour spokesperson said: “This is not a plan – it’s a review which could cost billions and is only needed because the Tories hollowed out the armed forces to their smallest size since Napoleon.

“Britain has had enough of the Conservatives, who are bankrupt of ideas, and have no plans to end 14 years of chaos. It’s time to turn the page and rebuild Britain with Labour.”

National service is compulsory in a number of European countries, including the Baltic states, Greece, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.

It was last in force in the UK in 1963 but recent comments from top military officials in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reignited the debate.

Number 10 has previously ruled out any suggestion conscription was under consideration, saying there were "no plans" to change the British military’s "proud tradition of being a voluntary force".

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