'We force people to do things all the time': Cleverly defends national service plan

The home secretary defended the Tories' election proposal as a way of addressing the 'fragmentation of society'.

London, UK 26 May 2024 James Cleverly,  Home Secretary, at the BBC for Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg.
James Cleverly defended the Tories' plans on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg. (Alamy)

James Cleverly has defended the Conservative Party's proposal of mandatory national service for 18-year-olds, claiming: "We force people do to things all the time."

The Home Secretary was challenged on the BBC's Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme over whether the Tories' election pledge clashes with the party's "liberal values" and belief in "personal choice".

Cleverly responded that we "force people to do things all the time", referring to changes in 2013 requiring 16-to-18-year-olds to stay in further education or training.

"We force teenagers to be educated. No one argues with that, I think we all agree it is an investment in them. This is about maintaining that investment in young people, in the future of our society, in bringing people together, in pushing people sometimes out of their comfort zone and perhaps pump-priming a lifelong habit of volunteering, which is good for the individual and good for society."

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Asked whether the policy was simply an attempt to "grab the attention of a certain kind of voter" nostalgic for the "good old days" of national service, despite the Tories' proposal being "nothing like it", Cleverly said: "This is a modern approach to a modern phenomenon."

While Cleverly, an Army reservist, said he has "loved every minute" that he has spent in uniform, the government recognises that military service is not for everyone, adding: "We would never force anyone into the military."

Under the Tories' proposals, as an alternative to one year in the Armed Forces, 18-year-olds can alternatively spend one weekend per month carrying out community service.

Cleverly said examples of community service could be being a special constable, an on-call fire fighter, an emergency health responder or working in environmental flood defence.

While those in military placements will have to remain there for a whole year, those taking the civil option will only be compelled to carry out duties for the first 25 days, although the government hopes this will trigger a "lifelong commitment to volunteering" among many.

The government has said that no teenagers will face criminal sanctions for failing to comply with the scheme.

Watch: James Cleverly discusses the Tories' national service plan

Cleverly said the scheme was a way of addressing the "fragmentation of society", forcing Britons who "live in a bubble" to mix with people from other faiths and social backgrounds.

The home secretary said £2.5 billion has been allocated for the scheme, 40% will come from "cracking down on tax avoidance", while the remainder will come from the government's "shared prosperity fund" – put forward in 2022 to boost investment in more deprived communities.

When Kuenssberg argued that the government has been trying to tackle tax avoidance for the past 14 years with little in the way of results, Cleverly insisted the government has been succeeding. Quoting external figures, he said the Treasury can claw back about £6 billion via a crackdown.

Asked why the shared prosperity fund is now being "spent on something different", Cleverly said the scheme had been earmarked to finish and that it is now being extended, adding: "We are continuing our commitment to levelling up, and as well as investing in places, we're investing in people in those places."

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves branded the proposal as a "desperate gimmick from the Conservative Party with no viable means of funding".

"One minute they say that levelling up is really important, then they raid the levelling up budget and say that it's going to be used for national service," she told Kuenssberg.

Nigel Farage, founder of UKIP and Reform UK’s honorary president told GB News that the military already has a "massive recruitment problem".

He added: National service on any scale is literally impossible unless you build up the size of the Army, and you need another 20,000 people to be trainers if you were doing it seriously. We now learn from James Cleverly that only 30,000 people out of 700,000 school leavers would be doing military service, which shows you what a joke it is.”

British eurosceptic populist Nigel Farage speaks during the
Nigel Farage described the proposal as a 'joke'. (Getty Images)

The SNP's candidate for Mid Dunbartonshire, Amy Callaghan, suggested the Conservatives are “completely out of touch with families and young people”, warning that the scheme could threaten funding for Scotland.

However, others defended the plan, including Elisabeth Braw, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank. Writing in the Spectator, she said it "won’t be the miserable existence imposed on all young men in conscription years past", pointing out that those on military placements will be working in cyber security, logistics and civil response.

She adds: "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."

  • Norway: Norway has a selective military service model when only the most-capable are selected for military duty. Men and women aged 18 to 19 are required to undertake online assessments and later physical tests, with a limited number making the cut. Last year 9,840 men and women were selected for military service, reports Defense One, making up just 17% of the 2023 cohort. Service lasts for 19 months in peace time.

  • Israel: The State of Israel requires every Israeli citizen over the age of 18 who is Jewish, Druze or Circassian to serve in the Israel Defence Forces, with some exceptions. Israeli Arabs, religious women, married people, and those deemed medically or mentally unfit are exempt. Men are expected to serve for a minimum of 32 months and women are expected to serve for a minimum of 24 months.

  • Finland: In Finland, universal male conscription for those physically and mentally capable applies from the year men turn 18 to the year they turn 29. They either serve 165, 255, or 347 days depending on the training they receive. Alternative non-military service for men, who can apply on grounds of conscientious objection, and voluntary service for women is also available.

  • South Korea: All physically fit men aged 18-35 are required to carry out 18 to 21 months of compulsory military service in South Korea. After passing training, recruits are assigned to different units, with length of service lasting for around one-and-a-half years. Some professionals are assigned to non-active duty, which could include public health, sports or arts roles, or working in community centres or public facilities.