The Insider

Sunak’s ‘national service’ policy is an unworkable gimmick

Like many Tory policies, the national service plan is aimed at generating tabloid headlines

May 29, 2024
Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Rishi Sunak’s “national service” plan turns out to be a tabloid headline with virtually no credible policy whatever behind it. Just like Brexit in 2016, “levelling up” in 2019, and so much else done by the Tories in their 14 years of misrule. No wonder they are en route to evisceration.

Everyone serious knows this, including those who cynically devised the policy. There are of course a litany of problems with compulsory military service for teenagers, an idea which had been rejected by the defence personnel minister only last week in a written answer to parliament. But Sunak’s only response has been that there will be a royal commission to consider all the issues. His concern was one day of headlines and media talking points, then on to the next headline (an equally cynical promise of a tax cut for pensioners, to reverse all the tax increases since 2010).

The complete unworkability of the national service scheme is obvious. Today’s professional armed forces are tiny and understaffed. They don’t need a mass of raw teenage recruits for a year: they need more investment in permanent staff and equipment.

To give even a semblance of credibility to the scheme as announced, only a tiny fraction of the 18-year-old cohort would go into the military. About one in 25. Almost all of the teenagers liable for the scheme would do weekend “civic” service instead.

But what would the selection process be? What would the civic options be? How would compulsion be enforced? Would there be exemptions? When would it start? Who would manage it?

“Wait for the royal commission” was the only answer to this and a host more questions. No pretence whatever of anything that can actually be implemented.

Why does this kind of gimmick policy no longer work? Partly because there is now a mainstream Labour alternative, so voters have no need to swallow such nonsense for fear of something worse. But also because this kind of Tory populism has now gone bankrupt after more than a decade of over-trading.

In the specific case of national service, the bankruptcy is obvious to all commentators outside the Tory bubble. It’s not just the list of unanswered questions. There is the fact that David Cameron promised a “national citizen service” plan in 2010—and it never happened. The only thing brought forward was a small voluntary scheme with no military component, whose residual funding was slashed by… Rishi Sunak.

Equally telling is the funding black hole. For how is this new multi-billion scheme to be financed? The one-pager gave two suggestions. Savings from “cracking down on tax avoidance”. Cue hollow laughter. And slashing the funding of the “shared prosperity fund”.

Here we get into another dimension of the Tory bankruptcy, for the shared prosperity fund was supposed to be a major component of “levelling up”. But now that levelling up has failed and Sunak is trying to move on, it is to be redeployed on the next gimmick.

It is worse even that that. For the shared prosperity fund itself originated in the funding which, before Brexit, the European Commission used to allocate to disadvantaged areas. Except that the new fund was smaller than the EU budget it replaced, because this had already been raided for other gimmicks by Boris Johnson. So it was never a credible post-Brexit means of “levelling up” even when it was devised.

Follow the money, and what you see is a political Ponzi scheme, with money simply moved from one unviable policy to the next over the last decade, in line with the imperative simply to get through immediate electoral and political events.

The trouble is, the Ponzi scheme is now collapsing because its sponsors have been found out. And the reckoning is on 4th July.