A two picture collage of young people looking at their phones and a closeup of a UK flag on the shoulder of an army officer
Rishi Sunak's plan on reintroducing the National Service scheme for 18 year olds sparks a debate. Image credits: Saleem and Bumble Dee on Adobe Stock

The idea of national service is not new. Several countries in Europe, like Sweden and Norway, already have a scheme.

But prime minister Rishi Sunak’s announcement of reintroducing it to the UK has caused surprise, anger, and questions around how realistic the idea is.

Under the plan, 18-year-olds will have to choose between a year of military service or one weekend a month to volunteer for charities, NHS, police or fire services.

Matthew Mokhefi-Ashton, politics and international relations professor at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), believes that there needs to be more data about the national service scheme before it can be judged and raised several questions around its practicalities.

A man in glasses
Nottingham Trent University’s politics professor questions the practicalities of the National Service scheme. Image credits: Nottingham Trent University

“Would everybody be doing it equally? What about Northern Ireland? There’s an awful lot of people there who ideologically wouldn’t necessarily want anything to do with the British Army. I think if the Conservatives do win the election and have to deliver on this policy, they are going to run into huge amounts of problems. I think it would take a very long time to successfully roll out.”

He also points out that costs for training thousands of people over 12 months are unclear. The Conservative Party estimates that the scheme would cost an estimated £2.5 billion per year.

“What if the scheme does turn out to be incredibly popular? What if loads of young people join the army and you have to let them in? How do you pay for it? How do you organise it? Do we have enough money for them to actually do it? It would cost a huge amount of money to train significant numbers of people over a year on a rolling basis. A large part of the army is training, but it’s also sort of waiting around for things to happen.”

‘What if loads of young people join the scheme? How do you pay for it? How do you organise it?’

Home Secretary James Cleverly told the BBC that these funds will be diverted from the UK Shared Prosperity Fun (SPF) and by “cracking down on tax evasion and avoidance.” Taking money from the SPF is already deemed controversial.

According to the BBC, it would cost Wales £275m if the SPF funds are diverted to the National Service scheme. The SPF was set up to replace the EU economic aid to help level up economically inactive places.

Mokhefi-Ashton also feels that the scheme is targeting traditional Conservatives and older voters, alienating the demographic the party knows would not vote for them. He added that it seems like an “election-winning stunt”.

“This might really be about shoring up their older voters. One thing we know from the polling is that it tends to be older people who are keener on the idea of national service than younger people. It’s trying to keep these voters on the side, knowing that young people who aren’t keen on national service aren’t going to vote for Conservatives anyway.”

A Tory focus group study found that parents were worried about raising a generation of TikTokers, insist party insiders.

A young adult using TikTok
The National Service scheme is a bid to keep teenagers out of trouble as parents are worried about raising ‘TikTokers’. Image credits: Afreen Khan
Young people believe the plan reinforces stereotypical view of ‘lazy’ teenagers

Criticisms from some of the younger generation have already started pouring in. They are particularly irked over one of Rishi Sunak’s reasoning of parents being “worried” about what the youngsters were up to on the weekends. A National Service scheme, then, would add rules, structure, and discipline to their lives.

Lauren, a 23-year student in Nottingham, questioned what structure it might give to young people, considering they would have completed more than a decade of structure in education.

“No one has asked for this plan. It has almost come out of nowhere. People should have the right to choose their path in life and freshly-turned adults do not need to be held to a regimented scheme after finishing 15 years in school.”

She said the reason was “ironic,” considering the governmental cuts to children’s services such as the community centres shutting down.

She added that the prime minister’s statement had a stereotypical tone of what youngsters might be like.

“It is implying that 18-year-olds are unruly citizens with limited self-control over their actions which is not true.”

‘It is implying that 18-year-olds are unruly citizens with limited self-control over their actions which is not true.’

Similar sentiments were echoed by 21-year-old Sophie, another Nottingham student, who is not a fan of the scheme. She said, “It also reinforces the idea to the older population that young people today are lazy or have no drive, and that national service would ‘fix’ that.”

She pointed out that numerous 17 and 18 year olds take part in volunteering as part of their college or the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (DofE). “I think if they’re forced into it they will eventually resent it,” says Sophie.

She agrees that although it is a good way to give young people more experiences in NHS or other emergency services,  she believes it should be voluntary, as this is a generation that had a “part of their lives taken away by the pandemic.”

“They may soon be thousands in debt from university, and then have the challenge of the current cost of living crisis, trying to get on the property ladder.”

As a politically engaged young adult, Sophie believes that there are other ways to promote skill-building in young people.

“It would be better to invest in services for young people, such as mental health, or set up youth clubs so they can use them from an earlier age and foster a sense of community and responsibility from those, rather than from work that is forced on them.”

What is the National Service scheme?
A picture of UK flags
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s plans on reintroducing the National Service is met with intense reactions. Image credits: Chris Boland on Unsplash

The Conservative Party plans to reintroduce the National Service scheme if they win the General Election on July 4. Under the plan, 18-year-olds will have to choose between a year of military service or one weekend a month to volunteer for charities, NHS, police or fire services.

Home secretary James Cleverly said that teenagers will not be sent to prison if they refuse either of the options. However, those who choose the military option will be paid, as reported by Sky News.

YouGov’s survey on May 28 revealed that 65% of young UK adults aged between 18-24 opposed the scheme while only 27% supported it. In contrast, 63% of people over the age of 65 years supported, while only 31% opposed it.

The Labour party has called the scheme “a desperate gimmick.”