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26 May 2024updated 28 May 2024 6:08pm

Rishi Sunak’s national service plan is a ludicrous fantasy

Whatever the merits of the idea, the Tories’ policy is riddled with holes.

By Andrew Marr

The Conservatives’ announcement of mandatory national service is a gloriously apt metaphor for everything wrong in the country and wrong in its politics. It’s perfect. Well done, CCHQ. Give that clever boy at the back of the room a medal.

As an idea, national service is far from absurd. To oblige younger people to give a limited amount of time working for others, and their national community, is something that happens in many progressive, well-functioning democracies – Sweden, Norway, Denmark – and that is being planned by President Macron in France.

In the British context, one can imagine youth volunteering featuring service in the NHS, local government, conservation and environmental charities; and for those who really wanted to, some military training as well. David Cameron, long ago, looked at something similar.

Some of the wider reasoning is decent, too. In the West, because of gross economic inequality and migration, we are becoming less unified societies; anything which encourages mingling, empathy for other citizens from different backgrounds, and a sense of the public good is to be welcomed.

My father’s National Service in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve brought him into contact with working-class men, many almost illiterate, which changed his view of society for the rest of his life. I don’t think he would ever have been a snob but after a couple of naval years he was exactly the reverse. In a parallel universe, I could imagine some version of national service being embraced by Keir Starmer.

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Finally, the policy announcement did, in the very short term, “work” for the embattled Sunak. After the most embarrassingly incompetent start to an election campaign for any major party in my lifetime, it finally got a Tory idea onto the front pages – and one that will be welcomed by many core Conservative voters. For Team Sunak in these dreadful days, that’s no mean feat.

But that is also, I’m afraid, where the positives end. For this national service scheme was sold, cynically, as a revival of the postwar 1949-63 National Service, capital N capital S; the Prime Minister was photographed grinning with soldiers. He explicitly connected the announcement to “protecting our nation… our defence spending pledge” and foregrounded enrolment on the 12-month military placement.

This was pitched directly at elderly, disillusioned voters, pressing buttons marked “long-haired idlers”; “puttees; Blanco; square-bashing” and the biggest button of all, “never did me any harm”. It was 1950s nostalgia on the level of, “let’s bring back Wolseley motorcars, caning and Arthur Askey”. And because of that it was intended to further drive older voters against younger ones, because there are almost no more of the latter left for the Tories to lose (they trail even the Greens among under-40s). 

Aside from that, it was also – let’s use a good 1950s word – cobblers. The military element of the proposed scheme is capped at 30,000 places and in areas such as logistics and cyber security. So that is a grand total of one in 20 of all 18-year-olds and a million miles away from what the more rheumy-eyed readers of His Majesty’s Daily Telegraph may have assumed.

The £2.5bn cost of the scheme would be funded by cracking down on tax avoidance and evasion (just a tad Rachel Reeves, Rishi?) and by plundering £1.5bn from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, currently used to underpin levelling up. (Has anyone told Boris Johnson, or indeed the departing Michael Gove?)

But even these little wrinkles aren’t the most embarrassing part. Ministers, presumably having realised just what they had chucked into the hornets’ nest, immediately explained that nobody would be sent to jail for refusing to take part in national service and were completely unable to explain what sanctions there would be. Would people be ordered to do community service for refusing to turn up for community service? And what would be the impact on our already creaking and heavily delayed court system?

The truth is that in a state which was already well-funded and operated with smooth public efficiency, a scheme like this might work. In a Britain where “nothing works” it is a complete and ludicrous fantasy.

Away from election campaigns, Rishi Sunak is a thoughtful man and I do not believe for a second that he would have let something like this go through. His famous interest in detail, numbers and spreadsheets would have killed it on day one.

So the most interesting aspect of this is that it throws a pitilessly harsh light on the desperation at the heart of the Conservative campaign. It’s the kind of thing you shout out from the back of the room when everything else has failed. No, on second thoughts, don’t give that boy a medal.

[See also: Tory disunity is poisoning Rishi Sunak’s campaign]

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