Sunak’s Scam: Why National Service is a betrayal of young voters

by Oscar Gill-Lewis

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently announced his plans to reintroduce National Service if he wins the general election 4th of July 2024. The proposal is for 18-year-olds to work for either the fire service, police, NHS, or other public services for one weekend every month of the year, 25 days in total. The other option is a competitive placement in the military, capped at 30,000 places per year.  He has also suggested encouraging employers to favour young people who have completed this year of service. In Orwellian doublespeak, the government is calling it volunteering while in fact being mandatory, threatening to seize driving licences and bank accounts of those who refuse. 

In the run-up to the election, this seems like a poor policy proposal if Sunak is looking for more young votes. It seems doubtful that it will attract any young people to the Party for the first time. Therefore, the obvious assumption is that it is meant to seem attractive to older generations, who tend to be a key portion of Tory voters. This assumption makes even more sense when taken together with Sunak’s plan to further protect pensions and even save pensioners more money. Perhaps this policy will make the older generations nostalgic and reinforce the idea that it will be the necessary discipline that young people have been lacking recently. 

Indeed, some supporters of this policy harken back to the days when the United Kingdom (UK) was a far more successful country with less social division across religious and ethnic lines. They see this policy along with other illiberal ‘solutions’ as necessary to solve this crisis. The Conservatives see this year-long service as a way to build a “stronger national culture” and instil liberal democratic and British values. At the same time, this policy may also be an underhand way of supporting the elderly and the pensioners while plugging gaps in our failing state-provided services and military.

Unintended Consequences

In the UK, there are 14 years of compulsory education. As well as teaching children basic skills like reading, writing and mathematics, the process is also meant to teach children to appreciate Western values and to carry these values forward after they have finished school. However, there is very little evidence to show that this has actually happened. The government has the same aspirations that the National Service program will achieve the same thing. For most, the program will last a little under a month over the course of a year. It makes this aspiration seem hopelessly optimistic since a full-time schedule for a decade and a half has failed to achieve the same outcome. Importantly, it may have the opposite effect, making young people resentful and distrusting of Western values and institutions and may lead to them holding starkly different, even opposing views. Indeed, these values and the desire to protect their heritage have already become a minority viewpoint amongst the British youth, and this trend is only getting worse.

The Future of the British Youth

The proposal to reintroduce National Service came at the same time the Conservatives proposed an update to increase the pension allowance. Both the new plan to improve pensions and the plan to reintroduce National Service, carry eye-wateringly expensive price tags that seem to lack a substantive plan for funding them. The pension proposal would cost £2.4 billion per year, but the actual cost will be greater, as the cost will only increase due to the scheme’s format. The National Service program will cost £2.5 billion per year. If the last few decades are any indication of future performance, the UK government will likely postpone the hurt of paying for these programs further into the future. This will only worsen the plight of young people who are expected to work and pick up the cheques for these programs. By the time they retire, they may not be so fortunate to enjoy the benefits of a system they spent their entire working lives paying for, while struggling to find stable and adequate accommodation due to the soaring costs created by the housing crisis. 

The new generations entering the workforce will have to bear the burden of paying for pensions and healthcare costs, the two biggest costs of the welfare state. Borrowing to pay these costs puts the younger generations in debt, or the government could increase taxes, putting a greater burden on the young. At the same time, the young are having more and more trouble getting on the housing ladder. The rate of homeownership of the young has halved from its highest point in the 1990s, and now they have to settle for smaller accommodation as house prices soar. This situation is only exacerbated for those living in London, often having to endure cold, mouldy, damp and cramped living spaces. This only worsens problems raised earlier. How can you expect people to be capitalists and support Western values if you make it increasingly hard for them to acquire capital? For the next generation, it feels less and less likely that they will have prosperous futures in this stagnating economy.

The Ethics and Economics of Conscription

One of the initiative’s desires is to bolster military ranks and give some young people military experience and training if they were ever needed to be called upon in times of war. However, young people forced to partake in this program may feel rightly aggrieved by this proposal, which at best is ethically fraught. In a free and democratic society, what right do we have to send young men and women to war? These young people might ask Rishi Sunak why the Conservatives have cut defence spending by £10 billion in real terms since coming to power in 2010. This has caused Brits, who chose to join the military of their own free will, to leave in search of another job. 

While conscription may seem cheaper initially, it is actually a more expensive and less effective policy. Some scholars have argued that the manpower costs are the same for a conscripted army versus a volunteer army. In the former, the poor men, who are drafted, bear the cost, while in the latter it is the taxpayer funding those who have decided to fight rather than forcing everyday people with no other option. 

Another problem with conscription is the great lengths people go to avoid it. In some cases, the overall cost to society was two and a half times greater than what the draft saved the taxpayer. This is because they are not volunteers, and in a free society the opportunity cost is so great, given all the amazing things they could be doing instead. Therefore, they expend a large amount of energy and resources reorganising their lives in order to avoid the draft. This policy completely fails to take into account the fact that many young people work part-time jobs to fund their studies. Some have sporting or hobby commitments, and some have to take care of family. Even if the program was voluntary, how are they supposed to find the time to take part in it? 

Furthermore, the policy would simply not fulfil one of its goals of having a young population with the requisite skills that could be called upon in times of war if need be. Enlistees actually spend more time in the army and have higher re-enlistment rates, and they have the necessary quality to meet (high) military standards. Whereas those drafted spend a lot less time in the military and therefore don’t spend enough time to develop any real skill or knowledge in the area they work in. In addition, they may be resentful of the fact that they have been forced into the military, which could be counterproductive in meeting military standards and building social cohesion. 

While the high costs of conscription are often not paid upfront and can sometimes be hard to quantify, it does not mean they do not exist and also does not mean it is cheaper than funding a voluntary (professional) military. It is an affront to our values that the government would try to force young people to serve, despite the fact that even at a quick glance it is obvious the policy would not achieve its stated aims and that maintaining and funding the military is one of the government’s few legitimate roles.

If this is the Conservative short-term plan, we should hope they are voted out in July. They plan to avoid current fiscal responsibility by continually kicking the can down the road. Instead, they will force young people to shoulder the responsibility by completing National Service work that benefits the elderly more than most. Then, when they enter the workforce, increase their tax burden to pay for the pension boost for our ageing population.

National Service is usually reserved for national crises. However, the only national crisis is that the Tories’ poor governance and tacit acceptance that indentured servitude of the young in favour of the old is perfectly acceptable as long as it wins them another election. The Tories’ disdain for the young and willingness to use them as sacrificial lambs for political gain is a stain on British politics. It demonstrates the shamefulness of the Conservative Party, betraying the young so they can pander to pensioners. This feels like a national crisis, certainly not one that requires National Service, but rather on the 4th of July, a tick in a box that doesn’t say “Conservative”.

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