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OPINION - Conscription is what nobody wants, but Britain is at war in all but name so it’s time for national service

[object Object] (REUTERS)
[object Object] (REUTERS)

Across the Whitehall and Westminster villages there is no more toxic subject than national service and conscription for the military, and other services. Any revival of national service, which ended in 1959, would be costly and wouldn’t win votes.

Yet it is now a hot topic — and pretty sure to come up in the general election campaign, to the chagrin of Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer. The outgoing head of the Army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, has just this week warned that the UK needs to prepare a citizen army to handle the increasing prospect of a land war in Europe, threatened, as he sees it, by the antics of Russia and its allies in Ukraine and beyond. Sir Patrick’s suggestion was slapped down by a flat denial by the Prime Minister’s spokesman yesterday. That, however, is the beginning of the argument and not the end.

The armed forces are stretched, with too much money in the defence budget going in too many different directions. We are trying to pay for nuclear weapons, nuclear submarines, major new aircraft and submarine projects, tanks, howitzers, rockets, ships — and last but not least, the men and women under arms who have to live in extremely varied — some truly dreadful — living quarters.

A month ago the National Audit Office reported that the defence equipment programme is unaffordable on the present budget — which has now gone above £50 billion a year.

The trick is to encourage and reward national service but without resorting to coercion to join up

Something has to give. The UK has to be prepared to share with its major allies, and should cease trying to be an increasingly feeble miniature copy of the United States in its military posture.

The serious questions raised by Sir Patrick are now glaringly simple and immediate. The first is the shortage of personnel in the services. The number leaving the three services has exceeded the number recruited for several years now; and all three are under strength.

The second is the nature of the actual conflict we are in, and how it will develop. In the minds of the protagonists and adversaries, Russia, Iran, the Houthis, the Islamic State and the various Hezbollah formations across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, we are already at war.

A national public service would not necessarily be needed to join the military — though the three services could improve things by adjusting their approach to valuing reservists.

Today we face clusters of crises, or “polycrises” described by Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev in a recent paper on the troubles facing Europe this election year. We have the impact of the war in Ukraine, the choking of sea trade in the Gulf and Red Sea, migration, the lingering of Covid and the climate shock.

These will require greater full and part-time support. “We had 750,000 volunteers at the beginning of Covid lockdown,” a military chief put it to me, “Yet we didn’t really know how to organise them — a wasted asset and opportunity.” Such a force will be more than necessary if we face a polycrisis of a human or animal pandemic coupled with a perfect storm of weird weather, plus an actual threat of enemy disruption at home, abroad or in the near-abroad. History buffs, military history buffs especially, like to warn that we are in a moment like 1938, or 1912, the appeasement crisis and the Balkan wars in the run up to the Second and First World Wars.

Neither comparison helps because new weaponry and technology mean that the future wars won’t be conclusive clashes between big industrial- scale armies. They are and will be in General Sir Rupert Smith’s (and Mao) phrase “wars among the people” — clearly the case in Ukraine and Gaza. The civil populations now become major factors in deciding outcomes.

The trick is to encourage and reward public national service, but without having to resort to coercion and compulsion by law to join up. This is where the selective national service schemes of countries like Norway and Sweden become attractive. Finland has the programme of “Total Defence”, whereby most school-leavers and university students have paid training for a few months. Finland can call up an army of 250,000 trained reservists within four weeks.

This is going to be a tough one for Gen Z, their successors, and the Westminster and Whitehall political classes to swallow.

But with a second term anti-Nato isolationist Trump presidency likely in the US, European allies will have to get their act together on a comprehensive public defence doctrine. And for the UK that will mean, part-time or full-time, national service.

Robert Fox is the Evening Standard’s Defence Editor