Elisabeth Braw

Sunak is right, Britain needs national service

Rishi Sunak inspects the Passing Out parade of the Parachute Regiment recruits (Getty Images)

The Tories have announced that, if re-elected, they will introduce national service. And it won’t be the miserable existence imposed on all young men in conscription years past. Instead, the Tories will invite 18-year-olds to compete for selective 12-month spots in areas including cyber security, logistics and civil response. That’s the model Norway has successfully been operating for over three decades. In addition, young people will be asked to volunteer on a monthly basis with the NHS, the fire service or charities looking after elderly and lonely people. Such service is a win-win: it’s beneficial for the young people involved in it, and even more importantly it helps make our country safer and more resilient.

It’s illusory to assume that our current armed forces, overstretched and plagued by recruitment shortfalls, can do even more.

In 2019, I wrote a report arguing that the UK could learn from Norway’s competitive national service (which has in recent years been adapted by Sweden, and is also used in a somewhat different form in Denmark). This way, the UK could make military service a desirable proposition by making it highly selective. In Norway, where the armed forces test all 18-year-olds but select only some 17 per cent of them, being chosen for military service is like getting into Oxbridge.

This kind of hyper-competitive national service doesn’t just ensure that the armed forces get the best possible soldiers (and about one quarter of Norwegian conscripts opt to become professional soldiers). Unlike university admissions, it also allows youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds to shine in the admissions tests, because what matters is exclusively skill and aptitude. Princess Ingrid Alexandra, second in line to the Norwegian throne, is currently doing military service in an engineering battalion in the country’s north. She was assessed like every other candidate, and now shares sleeping quarters with young people from all sorts of backgrounds. The UK, I argued, could adapt the Norwegian model by expanding the national service beyond the armed forces to also include other essential services like cyber defence, fire and rescue, and the NHS. The Tories have adopted this idea (virtually) lock, stock and barrel.

The fact that the Tories have concluded that so-called ‘ordinary’ people would make a transformative contribution to the country’s security and resilience is, of course, hugely positive. Farewell to the tired binary debate pitting all-professional armed forces against conscription for all able-bodied men. There are different ways of involving the country’s teenagers in a way that benefits both them and the country, and by learning from allies the UK can save great amounts of time and effort.

Indeed, if the Tories win, the defence secretary and the chief of the defence staff would do well to quickly travel to Norway for a meeting with Defence Minister Bjørn Arild Gram and Chief of Defence General Eirik Kristoffersen. As commander of Norway’s special forces, Kristoffersen launched a pioneering all-female special forces unit – composed entirely of conscripts. Norway made its military service gender-neutral in 2016, thus dropping the odds of being selected from about one third to one sixth. (And yes, men and women compete against one another in the assessment trials.)

Perhaps regrettably for the Tories, Labour has been working on innovative national defence and resilience concepts for a long time. Shadow defence secretary John Healey, who has been making the most of his time in the post by scrutinising every aspect of our country’s defence, is likely to present equally innovative ideas. Indeed, one might ask why the Tories didn’t present their excellent national service proposal at some point during their 14 years (and counting) in power.

Either way, what matters is that the UK debate around defence and security is changing fundamentally. With threats of a military and non-military kind growing rapidly, it’s illusory to assume that our current armed forces, overstretched and plagued by recruitment shortfalls, can do even more. We have a whole generation of young people whose minds and skills might be just what we need in – and before – crises. It took Covid and Ukraine for the UK to realise it needed to think differently about crises. But now it’s happening.

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