Bringing back national service? Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Sunak?

It’s the kind of policy that seems purpose-built to appeal to an extremely select group of people, which includes Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army, and precisely nobody else

Ryan Coogan
Sunday 26 May 2024 15:12 BST
Rishi Sunak justifies introducing National Service: 'Democratic values are under threat'

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


There’s nothing sadder when a relationship deteriorates to the point that one party has to start promising the moon. That trip to Paris we’ve been putting off? I can find the money. Your parents hate me? I can be more charming. Suddenly you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.

It’s a bad way to fix a relationship, and it’s a disastrous way to try and fix a country. Yet it seems to be the prime minister’s current strategy for holding on to office – and it’s going about as well as you’d expect.

Yes, we’re only a couple of days into Rishi Sunak’s re-election campaign and he’s already promising to bring back national service for 18-year-olds if he wins in July. Teens will be given the choice to either join the military full time, or volunteer one weekend every month carrying out community service.

It’s the kind of policy that seems purpose-built to appeal to an extremely select group of people, which includes Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army, and precisely nobody else. And, as Sergeant Wilson did at the Captain’s weekly risible attempts to assert his authority over his troops, the nation has collectively rolled its eyes in disbelief.

It’s almost impressive, how he’s managed to come up with an idea with so little appeal. Unless your only joy in life comes from the idea of young people being miserable (which, to be fair, is a non-zero percentage of the public), then what exactly is to be gained here? In a country whose biggest problems are the NHS, inflation, public transport and a lack of jobs, how exactly does wasting a year of a kid’s life enrich us as a nation?

Sunak argues that the scheme will “create a shared sense of purpose among our young people and a renewed sense of pride in our country”, but will it really? If anything it’s more likely to breed resentment from young people who know full well they’re having their time wasted by being used as political pawns in a desperate man’s last gamble. Do you know what would be a good way to renew pride in our country? By building a country that we can be proud of.

Never mind the fact that a lot of working class young people start work when they’re 18, either full time or on the weekends, to help boost the household income when mum and dad fall short, meaning this policy could potentially take money out of the homes that most desperately need it.

None of this is even to mention that fact that, for parts of the country, this is taking a sledgehammer to an extremely delicate political balance we’ve spent decades cultivating. Before I moved to London I lived in Derry, in Northern Ireland, and I can tell you right now that if you tried to make some of the kids there join the military for a year they’d laugh in your face – and that’s the most optimistic outcome. Good luck getting the Irish Nationalist community to agree to your mandatory service to the British crown. If the history books tell us anything, it’s that they famously love that.

Of course they’ll have the option of doing community service instead, but here’s the thing about community service – it’s most often used as a form of punishment. In effect, what young people are being told is that they have to atone for the crime of being young and vibrant, and for having knees that don’t sound like television static when they stand up.

If Sunak is already reaching for options this absurd, then you have to wonder what else he’ll do to appeal to the same voting bloc. Going back to imperial measurements? Forced labour for vegetarians? Banning left-handedness? I wouldn’t be hugely surprised is he suggested bringing back hanging before this election is over.

The problem is that when you start appealing to the half-baked extremism of a man in a Wetherspoons talking out of his backside, the barrel has no bottom – nor does it have any effective policy positions. Eventually you’re just saying things, trying to provoke a reaction from people – appealing to the base instincts of a group who, if we’re being honest, don’t even really believe half the things they say.

Of course all of this is a moot point, as the policy is dependant on Sunak winning – and if he thinks that’s going to be the case with policies like this one, then to paraphrase the esteemed Captain: “I think you’re entering the realms of fantasy there, prime minister.”

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