National Service: a solution to turbulent times?

Carver Oakley, Junior Consultant

A generation of young people are now coming to age in a world that has not felt so unstable since the fall of the Berlin wall.

News headlines and political announcements seek to convince us there is a “1939 feel to the world”, and with conflict reminiscent of the First World War on the European Continent, war in the Middle East, sabre rattling across the Taiwan Strait, coups from Mali to Chad, and the shutdown of shipping lanes, it is hard not to believe them.

Simultaneously the ability and willing of western states to meet this challenge seems at its lowest ebb. The U.K.’s armed forces have never been smaller and much investment will be needed to enable British defence companies to scale up to meet demand. At the same time, young people appear more disconnected from the places in which they are born and raised with families and individuals becoming increasingly atomised.

The UK is possibly facing a dual challenge of military threat and societal apathy, absent of the military readiness or functioning public sphere needed to meet it. This has led to military experts and commentators alike to call on the next government to consider a form of national service.

Those extolling the benefits argue young adults should be incentivised and rewarded for joining a system which would restore the U.K.’s military, NHS, environment, transport, and justice system, in dual effort to maintain the country’s institutions and military preparedness.

These calls seem primarily prompted by the fact the U.K.’s entire army can now fit inside Old Trafford football stadium, heralding seriousconcerns that, despite the elite professionalism of the British Armed Forces, they are too diminished to be able to face current and future challenges.

Key figures in the U.K.’s defence architecture are signalling more needs to be done if the U.K. is to be able to defend its interests both at home and abroad. This is not simply an internal anxiety, allies have disparagingly described Britain’s military power as “barely tier two”.

A modern form of national service would look to rectify the U.K.’s diminished military whilst also enabling those who wished to serve in civilian roles.

Many European countries are exploring these ideas already, especially those most at threat from Putin’s Russia. Currently ten European countries have compulsory military service: Austria, Estonia, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, with Germany also considering its reintroduction.

Learnings from Germany’s recent rearmament could inform British policy in this area. In their recent reforms, the Bundeswehr (German military) will elevate cyber warfare to equal footing, alongside air, sea, and land. This move is a reflection of the ever-advancing nature of warfare during the 21st century. However, it also provides an opportunity to train young adults in essential cyber and digital skills which the private sector is calling out for and will pay a premium. A mixed national service of both civilian and military roles could bring these benefits and has a positive amount of support, with 53% of people favouring it compared to only 35% opposing.

The favourability for national service is fortunate as increasing global uncertainty has seen political leaders look to enhance sovereign capability and onshore supply chains. ‘Bidenomics’ is a key example of this, with the current U.S. administration seeking to boost domestic infrastructure and manufacturing of critical components such as semi-conductor chips.

The U.K. is following suit, with Labour’s brand of economic management being dubbed ‘securonomics’. Rachel Reeves, Shadow Chancellor the Exchequer, has framed her entire economic position on a return to domestic industrial strategy, yet this will require a committed workforce to match. The Conservatives agree, as both parties talk about increasing the productivity of U.K. labour with various skills and occupational health offers instead of over reliance on foreign workers. All these ideas will require greater investment from citizens, and as policies become ever more nationalistic, politician and public alike may become more open to the idea of a type of national service to meet these goals.  

National service is clearly in vogue across Europe, though its introduction here would certainly meet stiff resistance. Regardless, as the U.K. looks east, policies that demand greater engagement from citizens are rarely instituted in absence of concerns about military and economic isolation, suggesting the choice might be a false one. 

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