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Paul Vallely: New plan not as uniform as it appears

by
31 May 2024

Paul Vallely delves into the Prime Minister’s National Service election pledge

Alamy

Rishi Sunak meets veterans at a community breakfast in his constituency in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, while on the General Election campaign trail, on Saturday

Rishi Sunak meets veterans at a community breakfast in his constituency in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, while on the General Election campaign trai...

THERE is something attractive about the idea of National Service. Our society is governed by consumerist individualism. Our culture is dominated by technologies that fragment rather than connect. So, there was something appealing about the Conservative Party’s election initiative to promote, in Rishi Sunak’s words, a “shared sense of purpose among our young people, and a renewed sense of pride in our country”.

Intriguingly, one of the first people to rubbish the proposal was Nigel Farage, who declared that it was simply intended to woo Reform supporters back to the Conservative fold. But Mr Sunak’s plan is unlikely to appeal to the Colonel Bufton-Tuftons who want to see groups of youths removed from our street corners and subjected to a bit of square-bashing.

Mr Sunak suggests there will be just 30,000 military placements in his new draft, and they will go to the “brightest and the best” in areas such as logistics, cyber-security, procurement, or civil-response operations. Only one in 26 would join this élite, which would become, Mr Sunak envisaged, as desirable a destination as Oxbridge.

The rest of the annual intake of 18-year-olds — totalling 775,000 in 2021 – would do their mandatory service at weekends with the police, fire service, NHS, or charities, without barrack-room discipline. That doesn’t sound much of a vote-winner among testy Telegraph readers in the Shires.

Nor are defence chiefs enamoured. The Government has been cutting defence spending, closing barracks, and reducing the size of our military for more than a decade. The British Army has not been so small since the Napoleonic wars. Yet to handle just 10,000 conscripts, one analyst estimates, it needs 432 additional battalions, 750 extra officers and 5000 more NCOs.

“Electoral opportunism,” one former Chief of the General Staff said. “Bonkers,” said a former Chief of the Naval Staff, who reckons that the scheme would suck even more money out of actual defence.

That’s not all. Some £1.5 billion of the cost is to come from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund — the “levelling-up” pot established to support neglected communities in coastal Britain, Cornwall, Wales, and the so-called Red Wall areas in the north which lost out after Brexit.

Various other paradoxes and contradictions have been thrown up. Will this National Service just be a form of cheap labour to plug gaps in under-funded public services? What sanctions will there be for those who refuse to join? Could military recruits later be deemed reservists, at risk of being called up first to fight in some future war?

Mr Sunak’s get-out-of-jail card is that all this will be answered by a Royal Commission after the election. Critics are unconvinced, and one wag observed: “Only this lot could come up with the idea of compulsory volunteering.”

Worst of all, the plan was announced just two days after Mr Sunak’s own Defence Minister told Parliament that there were no plans for National Service in “any form”, because it would divert resources and damage morale in the regular Army. And, the day after it was announced, another minister declared that the plan had not been drawn up “on the advice of officials”, but by some bright spark in Conservative Central Office. It was not the most auspicious start to Mr Sunak’s election campaign.

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