The nice National Service debate: How Sunak’s plan divided the nation

It’s the debate that captivated – and divided – the nation. 

After Rishi Sunak revealed exclusively to The Mail on Sunday his plan to reintroduce National Service, a staggering 20,000 Mail readers commented online. 

The Prime Minister says it will cost £2.5 billion – with one in ten 18-year-olds required to serve 12 months in the military and the rest doing civic roles – and is modelled on successful schemes in European countries. 

Now read how it has gone down with the public…

After Rishi Sunak (pictured) revealed exclusively to The Mail on Sunday his plan to reintroduce National Service, a staggering 20,000 Mail readers commented online

Mr Sunak said the 'reinvented' scheme would 'provide life-changing opportunities for our young people'

Mr Sunak said the ‘reinvented’ scheme would ‘provide life-changing opportunities for our young people’


‘What a great idea. It will give kids and teenagers something to focus on instead of hanging around the streets and intimidating others. Knife crime and drugs trafficking will go down. It will teach them discipline and give them a sense of importance and responsibility.’ 

– Fairness to all, London

‘When I was in the RAF in 1961, the last National Service men were there. They were grateful because when they were called up they had no trade, but were leaving as qualified electrical engineers. One of the boys on my watch was given a choice of either going to prison or enlisting voluntarily. He made something of his life.’

– PatN127, Kirk Ella, Yorkshire

‘In fairness, I do think a lot of kids would benefit. Most kids have no structure, no meaning or goals. I agree that most are probably not for the job, but what they can take away from it will add value to how they plan and discipline themselves in life.’

– Stellawoos, Guildford

‘Great idea. Many countries have an 18-month national service programme and it’s better that than going to university to get indoctrinated with useless degrees and Left-wing poison…’

– shefski1, Glasgow

‘Absolutely spot on. Private schools have the Combined Cadet Force for students. It should be available for all.’

– Bran Flakes, London

‘Anybody who disagrees with this are the parents who still treat their 20-somethings like babies, still living at home, doing their washing, paying their bills etc. I’d sign my daughter up in a heartbeat if she was still lazing about at home at 17 or 18!’

– Dude next door, Aberdeen

‘As a mum of two young adults, I agree to all he has suggested if they are not in education or working full-time. My son is in sixth form and works two jobs.’

– yola73, Liverpool

‘I mean as an Austrian with a constitution that ensures neutrality, we have National Service for nine months and I think it’s a great idea! Discipline and you do something good for the country!’

– TheAlucard, Southampton

‘Conscription here in Sweden works and is accepted by all. Swedish people are very proud of their country and will fly the national flag at every opportunity.’

– HMRC, Stockholm, Sweden

‘In theory it’s a great idea, but I wouldn’t envy the people who had to try to turn a bunch of entitled 18-year-olds into disciplined soldiers who will accept orders without question. Can you imagine, in the middle of a live firing exercise, someone needs to answer their phone, or send a text? Ban their phones and there would be a riot.’

– lillylouise, Wolverhampton

‘This is the type of policy we need to win the culture war. Bring it back for all 18 to 30-year-olds and make benefit claimants do it as well: no National Service, no handouts.’

– John, Cambridgeshire

‘Given the choice, most would opt for community service work, only a minority would opt for some sort of services training. Either way it might instil some structure and routine to their lives and introduce them to future potential career options.’

– Muon389, UK

A vintage propaganda recruitment poster from 1939

A vintage propaganda recruitment poster from 1939

Under plans that will be in the Conservative manifesto all 18-year-olds would have to do paid military service for a year or unpaid community work one weekend a month.

Under plans that will be in the Conservative manifesto all 18-year-olds would have to do paid military service for a year or unpaid community work one weekend a month.


‘National Service is a terrible idea. A modern military needs a well-trained, specialised force, not a bunch of 18-year-olds who don’t want to be there. We need soldiers who have the right mental strength and resilience and drive, from the start, and actually choose the military as a career.’

– ReportAngleOwl, London

‘What is this fantasy? Most school leavers won’t pass the medical or basic fitness and the Army has nothing like the required facilities to cope.’

– username42, United Kingdom

‘As someone who has served, let me tell you that you’ll have a difficult time finding people in the Armed Forces that would be chuffed at the prospect of having to babysit a bunch of teenagers that don’t want to be there.

‘There’s also the cost . . . Boarding, food, kit, the instructors, etc. That money would be better spent on improving the wages and careers of those who are already serving and would help to encourage more young people to willingly join up.’

– Richi K, Tokyo, Japan

‘Young people have better things to do with their time for their future than being shouted at on a parade ground by a sadistic sergeant-major or peeling potatoes in Aldershot. Sunak forgets young people have the vote too and Labour are almost certainly going to have a slogan: “Vote Labour to stop National Service.”‘

– Roscoe5, London

‘This will appeal to the dying breed of Alf Garnetts who are still able to get to a polling station or put a cross on a piece of paper, but not to the young people who will have to waste their time in doing this nonsense. What penalties will be faced by those who refuse to comply?’

– Cat_nip, Nonsuch, Surrey

‘Get a job OR do National Service perhaps. But to penalise my 17-year-old who is doing three A-levels and works three jobs (in caring roles) is not acceptable. Why punish the hard working when he just wants to get people off benefits? Overhaul the benefits system.

‘Sunak has no grasp on reality at all, you can’t even accidentally call someone by the wrong pronoun and he’s expecting to force this age group to do National Service?’

– Blinkeredtho, Sussex

‘So our young do National Service, while illegal migrants get housed and given benefits. Guessing this will be for poorer kids. Zero chance of the elite’s children having to do this. The Conservatives are going to lose the election, and it is what they deserve.’

bc67, Hereford

‘Quick way for me to not vote Tory — as if I want my 13-year-old to have to sign up for this.’

around in circles, United Kingdom

‘National Service would never work. Too many would have an excuse. You need people who want to serve and you do that by rewarding them through a decent salary, career progression and make them want to defend their country. In this country you’d get into trouble if you flew the Union Jack in your garden. You’re not allowed to be patriotic.’

– nzxt, Hebburn, Tyne and Wear

‘When we last had National Service we were coming out of World War II where military conscription was the norm, and the services had the manpower and infrastructure in place to handle large numbers of conscripts. Today we have none of that — the armed forces can barely handle the new recruits that they can find. And I dread to think of the disruption and harm to military effectiveness that a bunch of unwilling and recalcitrant teenagers will cause.’


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– Stuart, Halifax

‘This is not the Government’s job. It’s for families and individuals to decide what is best for themselves. Just like lockdowns and the smoking ban, it’s state interference. I also take exception to the way the policy has been introduced. They’ve been in power for more than a decade without any hint of it. Now, just before an election they make the announcement.’

– Tudedude, UK

A national service poster from 1939

A national service poster from 1939

The plan to reintroduce National Service was drawn up in secret, with only Mr Sunak's close advisers

The plan to reintroduce National Service was drawn up in secret, with only Mr Sunak’s close advisers

‘It’ll instill pride and purpose’

FOR – by Harry McCallion

This is a bold, far-sighted decision by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. He knows how dire the threat is of imminent war in Europe – and that, perhaps in the near future, conscription will become a necessity if Britain is to survive.

If Putin’s Russia attacks any Nato country, we will be forced into a confrontation. At that point, National Service would be inevitable. The PM is laying the groundwork for that.

When I was serving in the Army, between 1970 and 1985, the idea of conscription was anathema, both to the Forces and to the country as a whole. But successive governments have allowed our defences to be run down to the point where our Army is a fraction of the size it was half a century ago. It is now barely more than a militia.

That’s why, though the proposal to reopen National Service for 30,000 18-year-olds provoked mixed reactions yesterday, few were shocked by the idea.

The prospect of a major conflict is now very real. We need to be preparing, and one way to do that is to start training up a large cohort of young people. Nobody wants to see them sent into combat but, if war comes, the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force would be able to draw upon a pool of well-trained, disciplined people.

Every young person who is called up, whether they serve in the Armed Forces or in another capacity such as working in cyber defence, the emergency services or even care homes, will benefit from the sense of self-worth and discipline this instils.

The Army saved me from a life of poverty. Without it, I would have drifted into dead-end jobs and perhaps even petty crime, as so many kids did growing up in Glasgow. I left school with no qualifications. The first real word of encouragement I ever heard came after I took the Army entrance exam: ‘You’ve got a good brain, McCallion. You should use it.’

The SAS encouraged me to get an education. I ended up taking two A-levels while serving with the regiment. And it was the SAS that set me on the road to studying for a law degree when I left the Army and becoming a barrister.

Every recruit who does a year or two of National Service will gain a sense of purpose and pride that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. And that couldn’t be more important for Generation Z.

Today’s teenagers have been affected by unprecedented factors. Lockdowns shattered their schooling and compounding that is the isolating influence of social media. Cut off from the real world by screens and headphones, young people are deprived of ordinary contact with their communities. Anything that opens their horizons must be good for them, and serving in the Armed Forces will open their eyes to all the possibilities of life.

But National Service doesn’t have to mean military life. The Americans have the Peace Corps, an international voluntary organisation. The UK has nothing quite like that, though the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme and Voluntary Service Overseas [VSO] both produce great results. Every sort of public service has to be a force for good. It gives young people a reason to do work that helps others.

They need that more than ever. Anxiety and mental health issues are worse for today’s teens than at any time in living memory.

S o is the decline in physical fitness and the rise in obesity. This country will face a catastrophic health crisis as they reach middle age, unless we take action now.

Drugs are also an ever-increasing problem. Young people sucked into addiction can quickly become embroiled in crime.

National Service can rescue young people before they fall that far. It can offer a renewed sense of meaning to young lives.

And it promises a first step back on the road to strengthening our defences, in the terrifying event of another war in Europe.

  • Harry McCallion is a former member of the 22nd SAS regiment and author of A History Of Modern Mercenary Warfare.
National Service was first introduced after the Second World War for all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 21

National Service was first introduced after the Second World War for all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 21

‘Won’t shore up our defences’ 

AGAINST – by Stephen Pollard

For many supporters, the idea of National Service harks back to an idealised 1950s – those patriotic halcyon days when you could leave your front door unlocked, the police cycled around nabbing petty criminals and old maids drank warm beer.

But we aren’t in the 1950s. And bringing back National Service is not going to magically take us back there.

The problems young people face today are the same problems we all face – crime, drugs, the economy, family breakdown and so on. Tackle those, and you tackle the issue of young people who feel they have no purpose.

A national volunteering scheme is a sensible idea. And we have one – the National Citizen Service, set up by Lord Cameron in 2010. In 2019, its budget was £158 million. Today it’s £50 million, slashed by the same Rishi Sunak who is now saying he will spend £2.5 billion on a compulsory scheme.

Supporters of Mr Sunak’s scheme cite Israel and some Nordic countries where there are forms of National Service. But we are nothing like Israel. As the military operation in Gaza shows, Israel is a country which faces a permanent existential and terrorist threat and where national security is the most important issue by a mile. No other issue comes close.

And army service in a tiny country such as Israel is not really about building character or national identity – those are by-products. Army service is the only way to sustain its defence – and it carries on long into adulthood. The likes of Norway and Finland are not worthwhile comparisons either. Nordic countries have a very different approach to state control. Their citizens accept state diktats in so many areas, where we Britons view the state with scepticism.

In that vein, one can only imagine what will happen when the first hapless army recruit breaks a leg on an assault course. It will be a lawyers’ bonanza. I can already see the class action suit looming.

I am left wondering what it is about the young that so many people in power appear to dislike? It was under this government, don’t forget, that so many young people were forced to miss school and stay cooped up at home during lockdown in order to protect the elderly. Now the plan is to tell them they have too many free weekends and they need to do what the Government says with their spare time.

Mr Sunak’s bombshell plan is a dismal misfire. It will do little to shore up our underfunded Armed Forces and it won’t paper over the cracks in our fractured society.

  • Stephen Pollard is editor at large of the Jewish Chronicle.