In Service of the Nation - What problem is the Government really trying to address with its new National Service idea?

The Election Headline Grabber

Policy surprises come thick and fast in UK politics when the population are heading to the polls. Coming no less than a week after the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, announced the date for the next General Election, his next major announcement was to propose a new form of National Service. Although the immediate headlines turned to the military element of this proposal (for some 30,000 youngsters to do a twelve month military training scheme), the vast majority of approximately 745,000 school leavers would be involved in work in the civil sector, effectively working as community volunteers for 25 days in their 18th year.

Why Now?

But why this idea and why now? It certainly did not come from the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The Defence Minister Andrew Murrison stated that the Government has no plans for a National Military Service and earlier this year, the current Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Saunders' remarks about the need to think about 'national mobilisation' were dismissed not only by the MoD, but also by....... the Prime Minister (a week is a long time in politics). So it is a fairly good assumption that the announcement is not about military recruiting, nor is it about social cohesion for youngsters, for who the Government has not focussed on over the past few years. The content of conflicting statements and the rushed timing all point to this being about votes. In particular, it is the current government's appeal to potential Reform Party voters and possibly some of those 'Tory Red Wall' voters that this might also be of interest. One can recall various scenes from the BBC Sitcom 'The Thick of It', where desperate ministers, aides, advisors and spin doctors attempt to come up with ideas on the hoof for the sake of positive headlines and any possible subsequent vote share gain. Tragically, this did happen in real life shortly before the Conservative-Liberal Coalition of 2010, when in the dying days of the previous Labour administration, the Department of Transport announced the plans for the plagued, over cost and unwanted High Speed Rail 2 (HS2).

Nevertheless, a National Service is something that, over time, could contribute to improving society. Not only might it help the young to find a sense of combined purpose, but also help to solve some of the indirect problems that most western countries are facing, be that the ageing population, lower birth rates, employment in the public sector, cultural divides and all the problems that a social media driven society imposes on the young. Thus some form of National Service should be part of any new government's options. Given that the Conservatives have pledged their intent, it may just be that the next ruling party, which Labour are predicted to be the winners, will be gifted a National Service mandate with cross party support baked in.

Defining the Problem

The disappointment is that it has taken a General Election and a rather panicked Conservative Party to think up this policy at short notice. Their problem is how, against the odds, do they win the election? The rather greater societal problem is quite something else. As an idea, a National Service is worthy of public consultation and cross party debate. There is certainly a need throughout the UK to "address the fragmentation in society" and to deliver "a shared sense of purpose among our young people and a renewed sense of pride in our country". There are excellent examples to follow in Scandinavian countries, where similar schemes are perceived as a success and appear to encourage the young to aspire to greater things.

In the UK, a large part of the problem is the negative feelings so many young have about trust in the public bodies that carry out Government policy, be that the military, the police or any part of national security and even public administration. This needs to be addressed if society is to function smoothly in the 21st Century. It is true that many parts of the Public Sector, especially the military, have recruiting and retention problems. However, the national problem is so much larger than just this. Perhaps investing and resourcing in a much larger force of military reservists would address the resilience of the Armed Forces far better than offering them 30,000 untrained youngsters each year?

It is unlikely that by forcing most young people to volunteer in the civil or military sector will solve the problem of the social malaise amongst many of the young today. In truth, many feel (or perceived to be) forgotten, ignored and at times betrayed by years of governments favouring older generations. Take examples of the pensioners triple lock guarantee on welfare payments (which were reinforced today with the Government's latest manifesto promise to prevent pensioners paying any tax on their state pension), the introduction of full tuition fees for university (the graduate tax), the priority of the health of the elderly during the pandemic at the cost of freedoms and development of the young at school, the ever escalating share of tax spent on social care for the elderly, or the high cost of either renting or buying a house for the first time. These are all examples where a deliberate choice has been made by the Government to favour the older parts of society, rather than the young. Addressing these issues might go a lot further than compulsory National Service, in whatever form it may take.

The problem is that the young don't get to vote until they are eighteen, so there is no surprise why all major political parties avoid displeasing the higher aged groups in society and make their decisions accordingly. As the saying goes, "Turkeys don't vote for Christmas." 


Decision Making in a Complex and Chaotic World