Rishi Sunak’s National Service: Insights and Discussion  

Author: Chloe Schuber, Operations Assistant : Strengthening Democracy Desk

26th of May. Rishi Sunak proposes reintroducing mandatory national service for 18-year-olds where the ruling Conservative Party is reelected. This announcement was recent, politically, as well as electorally strategic, given contrasting statements from the party days before. This strategic move by Sunak has stirred controversy and criticism by both the public and opposing parties in the upcoming elections, casting a shadow over the Conservative’s already troubled campaign.   

The plan aims to have every 18-year-old by September 2025 enrolled in armed forces placements or non-military volunteering. Community volunteering, equating to 25 days over a year would be within organisations such as the NHS, emergency services, and local infrastructures. The military placement is a more intensive and selective program with 30,000 placements intensive for the “brightest and the best” 18-year-olds in areas relating to cyber security, civil response, or even logistics. 

This 2.5 billion-costing attempt at a renewed sense of purpose amongst younger generations and patriotism has been criticized by Labour amongst others as desperate and unfunded.  

Who is this for, if not for the younger generation concerned with this policy?  

This announcement has been analyzed to be a move for Sunak to appeal to the older Tory electorate especially with the Right dividing itself with the upcoming elections. Why the national service? Aligning with Conservative values such as the strengthening of a nation is key to winning over certain electorate demographics. A 2024 YouGov Survey on this very subject underlines the statistics.  

Older Conservative individuals surveyed prevail as those who support this proposition. This demographic seems to view national service as a solution to bridging the generational and ideological divide, fostering a stronger connection to declining national identity and traditional values amongst youth.

Only 10% of 18 to 24-year-olds strongly support national service.

The data is clear on who Sunak made this promise to. 

Criticisms from Military and Political Figures  

Former military chiefs and Conservative figures (Admiral Alan West, former Chief of the Naval Staff & Michael Portillo, a former defense secretary amongst others) have been particularly vocal in their opposition, amidst an underfunded defense budget unable to maintain or even enhance the current professional armed forces. Fiscal responsibility and overall public demands on more pressing needs seemed to antagonize what Sunak’s campaigning agenda put forth with this announcement.  Imposing an underfunded government brand the inclusion of tens or hundreds of thousands of untrained teenage volunteers would strain the armed forces with no benefits or better funding in sight.  The policy is unlikely to be successful without first solving rooted structural issues in this institution. 

Political and Public Reactions

This announcement, characterized as optimistic electoral opportunism, is undefendable regarding the statistics and insights available to politicians on the current situation and views of UK Youth. (Richard Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff) A sensible policy measure is needed rather. Fixing the current state of defense and further down the line, establishing a dialogue with youth on how to build a sense of civic identity with these generations who did not experience mandatory military service, most likely for the best, many agree on. 

John Healey, Labour Candidate and Shadow Defense Secretary stated, ‘The Conservative made recruitment crisis is just one example of their failure in defense for 14 years.’ 

Conservative ministers during this past decade in power have repeatedly missed recruitment targets, leading the British Army to its smallest since the 1800s. (UK Defence Journal, 2023) Returning to the disconnect, lack of consensus, and strategic planning from within the Conservative Party, some Tory MPs applauded this policy as a bold and smart move, it was vastly acknowledged as very poorly communicated which sparked confusion and skepticism about the very foundation of this idea. 

Broader Implications and Risks  

The broader implications of Sunak’s proposal extend beyond immediate financial and logistical concerns. This initiative blatantly displays Sunak’s critical and somewhat impulsive political moves to appeal to more right-wing voters and respond to political pressures. The rise of parties like Reform UK has divided the Right and the Conservatives have seemingly resorted to more radical measures to try and reclaim voters. Alongside this, a more general fear and questioning has been brought up in light of geopolitical tensions, some seeing this push for more military conscription as the prediction of future conflicts and the use of national services as a tool for future military actions 

How will this impact the armed forces in practice? Financially, the proposal is contentious. The estimated minimum £2.5 billion annual cost by the end of the decade of the program alarmed many. In addition, the training of 10,000 volunteers would require additional officers, leading to this project costing much more. Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Andrew Murrison also highlighted the risk of unmotivated recruits being mixed with committed professionals, damaging morale, recruitment, or retention. This goal of bringing purpose and pride to their nation to 18-year-olds seems counterproductive considering the compulsory nature of the new system.  

Societal Impact  

The societal impact of the proposal reflects Conservative priorities. The fundamental motivation behind this promise Sunak made, was not to benefit younger voters but rather to please, target and rally votes from older generations. Young people typically unfairly feel to a deeper extent where UK society’s flaws come to light, underfunded education, cost of living crisis, and oversaturation of the workforce. Rather than addressing these issues through more effective or inclusive policies, 12 months of state-mandated national service or ‘compulsory volunteering’ does not prevail as the most thorough plan to help the youth. And perhaps, it was never meant to be. The youngest generation entering the electorate is predicted to vote Labour to an overwhelming extent. Rishi Sunak has already lost this battle of connecting with a youth who does not feel heard by the Conservatives.  


To conclude, the overwhelming criticism of Sunak’s proposal for mandatory national services has sparked discussions in a diverse sphere of societal issues the UK faces. As Conservatives continue navigating this issue, criticisms regarding its feasibility impact, and financial burden and it is seen as a blind and inconsiderate political motivation. The elections will tell the story of how this policy will impact the Conservative’s results and broader strategies.  


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