Sunak pledges mandatory national service in UK election ploy

The Conservative Party said it would revive a decades-old national service mandate for every 18-year-old Briton by the end of the next Parliament, a striking political gamble as UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sets out his six-week campaign messaging ahead of the July election. 

“This is a great country but generations of young people have not had the opportunities or experience they deserve and there are forces trying to divide our society in this increasingly uncertain world,” Sunak said in a statement.

The mandate would require 18-year-olds to choose between either a full-time placement in the armed forces or cyber defense for one year, or volunteering in their community for the equivalent of one weekend per month for one year.

The Tories would create a Royal Commission to help launch applications for the pilot program in September 2025. The party would then introduce the mandate via a new National Service Act by the end of the next Parliament.

Sunak is trying to set out a bold new agenda after he unexpectedly announced a general election on July 4, defying expectations of a vote in the second half of 2024. But passing the proposal would not only require Sunak, whose party is lagging behind Keir Starmer’s Labour, to beat the odds and win the election but would likely face a vigorous debate in any future Parliament.

The proposal would see the UK join a number of countries that have similar mandatory national service programs, including Israel, South Korea and Singapore. Britain last introduced mandatory national service in the years after World War II as the nation sought to manage its commitments overseas, eventually scrapping the plan in the 1960s.  

The UK Army has shrunk over the past decade, from roughly 110,000 full-time personnel in 2012 to 85,000 in 2023.

Even as Sunak pitched a plan that could alienate younger Britons, Starmer reiterated Labour’s support for opening up the voting age to 16- and 17-year-olds at a campaign event on Saturday, the Guardian reported.

Still, the surprise election call has coincided with a slight uptick in approval for Sunak. A YouGov poll published Saturday found that 25% of Britons view the prime minister favorably, up 5 percentage points from earlier in May. Meanwhile, the Sunday poll said that 34% of Britons view Starmer favorably. 

The national service plan is expected to cost £2.5 billion ($3.2 billion) each year by 2030, according to the statement. The Tories said £1 billion would be paid for with capital raised from a crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion, and the remaining £1.5 billion will be through funding previously used for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

“This is another desperate £2.5 billion unfunded commitment from a Tory Party which already crashed the economy, sending mortgages rocketing, and now they’re spoiling for more,” a Labour Party spokesperson said in a statement on Saturday. –BLOOMBERG