Why the hysteria over Sunak’s ‘national service’ scheme?

No, British youths are not about to be sent into the meat grinder or press ganged into slavery.

Lauren Smith

Topics Politics UK

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When UK prime minister Rishi Sunak announced his pledge to introduce a form of ‘national service’ over the weekend, it went down about as well as a cup of cold sick. Almost immediately, people were quick to point out his scheme’s obvious flaws, contradictions and shortcomings, which is fair enough. But there have also been a number of takes that have bordered on the hysterical.

Scroll through social media and you get the sense that many in the Twitterati genuinely believe that Sunak wants to send a whole generation of teenagers into the meat grinder. Apparently, unsuspecting 18-year-olds could soon find themselves fighting on the frontlines in Ukraine or Gaza.

In truth, in the unlikely event that the Tories are re-elected in July and this new scheme ever gets off the ground, very few young people would even be placed in the military. Youngsters will have a choice between a full-time placement in the armed forces for a year, or spending one weekend a month volunteering for organisations such as the police, the NHS or local charities. As it stands, the vast majority will go down the civic-volunteering route. Only the most willing and able would serve in the forces – and even then, not in combat roles. The British Army doesn’t have the time, energy or funds to train hundreds of thousands of spotty teens who don’t want to be there and won’t be sticking around once their 12 months are up. Wrangling reluctant conscripts would be far more trouble than it’s worth.

Others have breathlessly suggested that even the volunteering element of the national-service plan is borderline fascistic or akin to slave labour. This is absurd on the face of it.

Lots of other developed, democratic countries have national- or civic-service programmes that are similar to what the Tories are proposing. Germany had full-blown conscription until as recently as 2011, and its left-leaning government is currently debating whether or not to bring it back. France also introduced voluntary national service for 16-year-olds in 2021, which President Macron intends to make mandatory. Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark – nations that are often fawned over by Britain’s great and good – also all have some form of national service. None of these countries could credibly be accused of press ganging their teenagers into forced labour, just because they have a form of ‘national service’.

Of course, this being 2024, concerns have also been raised about the scheme’s potential impact on mental health. Parenting expert Kirsty Ketley warns that national service would be ‘catastrophic’ for young people’s wellbeing. ‘Even doing voluntary work will cause anxiety for those who already struggle’, she claims, somewhat implausibly. Another ‘parenting and children’s confidence coach’ claims: ‘Overall the emotional resilience of children and teens has drastically changed since the pandemic and I worry what this compulsory decision would do to teenagers who are forced to take part, yet are struggling with their mental health.’

It is true that Gen Z and Gen Alpha report disproportionate levels of mental ill-health. But if anything, you could just as easily argue that a well-run national-service scheme could improve their mental resilience, potentially giving them the skills and mindset to overcome problems and adapt to hardship.

To be clear, the Tories’ plan for national service is a daft idea. Getting teenagers to serve sandwiches in care homes once a month is not going to restore a sense of national pride, or foster social cohesion, as Sunak seems to imagine. But the idea that it would destroy the lives of young adults – by blowing them up on the battlefield or sending their anxiety into the stratosphere – is just infantile scare-mongering. The Tories’ hysterical critics need to grow up.

Lauren Smith is a staff writer at spiked.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK


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