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National Service: Tories have shot themselves in the foot

We’re not even a week into the General Election campaign yet and it’s already been a rocky start for Rishi Sunak in his Conservative re-election bid.


Sunak’s election announcement itself was like a comedy sketch from Morecambe and Wise. When you’re behind in the polls and decide to do your election speech outside in torrential rain, what other headlines do you expect but the likes of ‘Drowning Street’ and ‘Things Can Only Get Wetter’?


And then we hear that Sunak is taking a day off – just 72 hours after calling the election. What on earth was that all about? Aside from sending his drenched suit to the dry cleaners and realigning his hair, what could he possibly be doing that’s more important than getting out on that campaign trail and winning the votes he so desperately needs? You don’t call an election and then hide away at home just as you don’t start a war and then go on holiday to Barbados.


Rumour has it that this ‘day off’ was spent talking with his closest advisers. Clearly, however, they didn’t get the memo that there’s an election to win. Because, the very same day, the latest news is that the Tories will bring back mandatory national service for all 18-year-olds if they win the election.


Before I start my lambast-athon, it may surprise you that I actually like the idea of reintroducing national service.


You see, we’re rapidly losing our sense of community in Britain – a tragedy that has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. We now barricade ourselves in our homes using computer screens and Microsoft Teams. Our next generation, forced out of school by the pandemic, has grown up in a nest made of cotton wool, Fortnite and mobile phones. We are increasingly insular, isolated and inward-facing.


But now more than ever, in times of hardship we need to be reaching out to others. This communal civil society is what national service can help achieve. Don’t be fooled into thinking national service is only relevant in the trenches. It’s about learning to become a good civilian.


And it’s not a radically daft idea that nobody else has even considered doing in today’s world. Quite the opposite. National service is mandatory for all 18-year-olds in countries including Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark – all the Scandinavian countries who we are forever idolising. What’s more, they consistently get positive results. Social interaction during your service decreases social marginalisation, helps everyone find their purpose, and equips you with important skills. No wonder a staggering 75% of Fins support national service.


So national service is not about becoming a war leader and learning how to throw grenades into your dislikeable neighbour’s garden – it’s the complete opposite. And when you realise that it isn’t about signing your children’s death wish in the next world war, it becomes more appealing.


But this is where the problems start. Because everyone’s immediate reaction is that national service equals forcing kids to fight Putin’s Russia. And this is why the Tories have shot themselves in the foot with what is otherwise a reasonable proposal.


If you’re going to announce something as drastically controversial as national service, for the love of God do not do it just after you’ve triggered a General Election. Asking people to vote for you so that you can force their kids to fight on the Russian battlefield – which, even if incorrect, is what they will think – is not good campaigning.


The timing of this policy announcement is even worse for the Conservatives given how far behind they are in the polls. The latest figures show 44% of voters will go to Labour – with a measly 23% voting Conservative. When you are falling to the bottom of the barrel, pick something that makes people go all gooey – like outlining a clear plan for more affordable housing, getting more dental appointments or booming the economy. Don’t go with a Marmite policy like national service which only gets people’s heckles up.


The point of it, so we are told, is to win back Conservative voters who have defected to right-wing Reform UK. But Nigel Farage – essentially the godfather of Reform – said the plan was ‘a joke’ and ‘totally impractical’. Clearly, then, the gamble hasn’t paid off.


This is a great shame because, as I have hopefully made clear, national service would massively benefit our next generation.


It’s time to address the elephant in the room, which is that a civil war has broken out at Europinion. You will undoubtedly have read our Managing Director Will Kingston-Cox’s excellent article which unilaterally supports national service. Whilst I have made remarkably similar arguments in favour of the policy, I remain vehemently critical of the inappropriate timing of the announcement.


Being embroiled in this directorial civil war has led me to find another argument in favour of the national service, for perhaps my combat skills would be greatly improved had I benefitted from military training when I was 18.


Nevertheless, the headline is that we are absolutely agreed on the benefits of this policy. Opposition parties are whinging more than ever about national service because, deep down, they know it’s a good idea – they’re just bitter they didn’t think of it first.


We know it works in Scandinavia, a region regarded as a utopia to strive for by most European politicians. We know it enhances social cohesion by uniting people from all social backgrounds with one shared purposeful experience. We know that community service equips individuals with vital transferable life skills which could help them find a job – benefitting the economy. And we know that, like it or not, having a bolstered reserve of British fighters will stump up our security.


At a time of seemingly unprecedented social fragmentation, rampant youth knife crime and post-pandemic disillusionment, all of these benefits would be beyond welcome. Hypothetically, I would support national service regardless of which party decided to bring it into fruition. I only wish I could wind back the clock to my 18th year to benefit from it myself.


But my dispute remains with the timing. Whilst it would be more of a civil service than a military service, nobody will see it like that. The unfortunate upshot is that everyone thinks Rishi Sunak is asking people to vote for their children to fight on the Russian battlefield. And that’s why the Tories have well and truly shot themselves in the foot at the very beginning of this election race.



Image: Number 10


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