Conservatives to bring back mandatory National Service if they win the general election

All 18-year-olds to be given a chance to join the military full-time for 12 months or 'volunteer' in their community

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak inspects the Passing Out Parade of the Parachute Regiment recruits during his visit to the Helles Barracks at the Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire. Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

The Conservative Party plans to bring back National Service if it wins power at the July 4 general election, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said.

He said 18-year-olds would be given a choice of joining the military full-time for 12 months or spending one weekend a month for a year “volunteering” in their community.

Mr Sunak said the policy would help unite society in an “increasingly uncertain world” and give young people a “shared sense of purpose”.

Volunteering could involve helping local fire, police, and NHS services or working with charities to tackle loneliness and support elderly and isolated people, he said.

This is an unfunded commitment, a headline-grabbing gimmick, it is not a proper plan to deliver it, it doesn't deal with the big challenges facing young people
Liz Kendall, shadow minister

On Sunday, Home Secretary James Cleverly said 18-year-olds would not be forced to go to jail if they refuse to carry out the "mandatory" national service.

Asked on Sky News's Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips programme whether the consequences of resisting the compulsory scheme could involve a prison term, the Home Secretary said: "No, there's going to be no criminal sanction. There's no one going to jail over this."

The Conservatives would want to make sure the programme "fits with different people's attitudes and aspirations", Mr Cleverly said.

Opposition critics dismissed the plans as unserious, with Labour saying the pledge would never come to fruition and amounted to “another unfunded commitment”.

Mr Sunak is seeking to draw a dividing line with Keir Starmer's party on global security after his pledge to raise defence spending to 2.5 per cent of gross domestic since he called in a rain-soaked statement outside Downing Street earlier this week.

Military conscription in Britain – in pictures

Mr Sunak has said he is “pumped up” and enjoying himself on the campaign trail despite a difficult start that saw him encounter several hiccups on a whistle-stop two-day tour of the four nations.

His trip included a visit to the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, which invited undesirable “sinking ship” comparisons with his party's fortunes, and to a brewery in Wales where he made a footballing gaffe about Euro 2024 – for which Wales did not qualify.

Heightening his attack on Saturday, Mr Sunak said voters would be left “at risk” with the Labour leader in No 10 because Britain's enemies would notice that he “doesn't have a plan”.

Teenagers who choose to sign up for placement in the forces would “learn and take part in logistics, cyber security, procurement or civil response operations”.

The Conservatives said they would establish a royal commission bringing in expertise from across the military and civil society to establish the details of what they described as the “bold” national service programme.

The party said this commission would be tasked with bringing forward a proposal for how to ensure the first pilot is open for applications in September 2025.

It would then seek to introduce a new “National Service Act” to make the measures compulsory by the end of the next Parliament.

Mr Sunak said: “This is a great country but generations of young people have not had the opportunities or experience they deserve and there are forces trying to divide our society in this increasingly uncertain world.

He said national service would create a “shared sense of purpose among our young people and a renewed sense of pride in our country”.

“This new, mandatory national service will provide life-changing opportunities for our young people, offering them the chance to learn real-world skills, do new things and contribute to their community and our country,” Mr Sunak said.

On Saturday, he suggested a government led by Mr Starmer would be marked by uncertainty and a “more dangerous world.”

“The consequences of uncertainty are clear. No plan means a more dangerous world. You, your family and our country are all at risk if Labour win,” he said.

Shadow work and pensions secretary Liz Kendall told Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips the national service announcement was a "gimmick".

She said: "This is an unfunded commitment, a headline-grabbing gimmick, it is not a proper plan to deliver it, it doesn't deal with the big challenges facing young people who are desperate to get the skills and qualifications they need to get good jobs, to have a home they can call their own."

Earlier this year, chief of the general staff Gen Sir Patrick Sanders called for the return of military conscription to train and equip a citizen army to fight Russia in a future war.

He said that the army would not be big enough to fight an all-out war with Russia even if it had 120,000 fully trained soldiers.

The UK army, which has trained more than 30,000 Ukrainian citizens to become soldiers, is predicted to have 72,500 soldiers by 2025. Downing Street ruled out the proposal at the time.

Conscription is being reintroduced across Europe, with several Nato members, including Latvia having rolled it out. Other countries on Russia’s border, including Sweden and Estonia have also extended their programmes.

Updated: May 26, 2024, 9:56 AM