Sunak promises to bring back national service for 18-year-olds

Rishi Sunak announced last night that a future Conservative government would bring back mandatory national service last night, as he attempted to reignite his election campaign after an error-strewn start.

Under the plan, which appeared to be his latest attempt to reduce Tory losses by winning over voters drifting to Reform UK, the prime minister said that every 18-year-old would have to spend time in a competitive, full-time military commission or spend one weekend a month volunteering in “civil resilience”.

The party said that the country needed to be “open and honest” about the long-term challenges it is facing, adding the scheme would ensure young people had “the opportunities they deserve”.

The proposals would see a “bold new model of national service” for 18-year-olds that could see them opt to spend one weekend per month volunteering in roles such as special constable, RNLI volunteer, or NHS responder. Officials claimed it would give young people “real world skills, while contributing to their country and community”.

In practice, a royal commission would be set up to design the new national service programme, leading to a pilot programme to open for applications in September 2025. However, it would be backed in law by a National Service Act.

The Tories insisted the scheme did not amount to conscription, stating that the Covid pandemic had shown the importance of civic service. The party said that a new scheme was “completely essential”.

“Only by nurturing our shared culture and fostering a sense of duty can we preserve our nation and values for decades to come. This is an investment in both the character of young people and our security,” it said.

It insisted a similar scheme was successful in Sweden, claiming 80% of young people completing national service said they would recommend it to their peers.

Labour lambasted the idea as another uncosted policy from the Tories, who have already raised the prospect of tax cuts they have yet to fund. “This is another desperate, £2.5bn unfunded commitment from a Tory party which already crashed the economy, sending mortgages rocketing, and now they’re spoiling for more,” said a spokesperson.

“This is not a plan – it’s a review which could cost billions and is only needed because the Tories hollowed out the armed forces to their smallest size since Napoleon. Britain has had enough of the Conservatives, who are bankrupt of ideas, and have no plans to end 14 years of chaos. It’s time to …rebuild Britain with Labour.”

The Tories said the scheme would be part-funded through a £1bn tax avoidance clampdown and £1.5bn currently spent on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. A similar scheme was outlined in 2010 by David Cameron. Under his proposals, a special youth programme for 16-year-olds would be established to end a “pointless waste of potential” among teenagers. The plans never came to fruition.

Sunak was accused of hypocrisy over his scheme. In January, the prime minister rebuked the chief of the general staff, Sir Patrick Sanders, following his suggestion the UK might need a citizen army to fight Putin. The prime minister’s spokesman said at the time that Sunak did not agree with his comments and insisted there would be no return to national service, which was abolished in 1960.

Labour figures also privately accused the Tories of making 18-year-olds fix the problems the government had created, by boosting numbers in the military, helping the NHS and repairing infrastructure.

The Guardian