*** DEBUG END ***

Paul Vallely: New plan not as uniform as it appears

31 May 2024

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


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.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available


Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


Visit our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)