The National Service proposal is an authoritarian disgrace: liberals should call it out as typical coercive Tory populism

Perhaps it was all a grand bluff. It is just possible that when the various panicked policies currently coming out of CCHQ were conceived, Rishi Sunak’s true intention was to hit enough trigger points for enough people that they rouse themselves in fury, join other parties and reinvigorate popularly engaged democracy on a mass scale. Maybe that is the true Sunak legacy, revealed like the final move in an elegant game of chess. I doubt it though.

The Conservative Party believe in a mythical creature – ‘ordinary people’ – and thinks it understands what they want. It has an instinctual, hazy vision of who that is. The ordinary person is probably employed, probably not in the public sector unless they are in the better paid white-collar end of it, probably has or wants children, has or wants to own a home and run a car, probably aspires to the suburbs – homo economicus, with a quietly patriotic sheen. MacMillan had a version of this concept, so did Thatcher, Major and Cameron. Johnson refocused it to make it altogether more brexity, and temporarily changed the Tory coalition to his short-term benefit and long-term cost (wide, shallow lakes cover more space but evaporate more easily).

The key thing to understand about this mindset is the way it informs policy announcements, especially in the build up to or during elections. When DWP ministers talk about punitive and vilifying reform of welfare services, they’re not talking to people who use them, they’re talking to the ‘ordinary people’. When education ministers pronounce upon the apparent dangers of ‘contested ideology’, all while insisting schools make explicit statements on British values (a contested concept if ever there was one) they aren’t addressing the parents of children who are questioning their gender and need empowering support – they are addressing their mythical ordinary people. So today, when Sunak announces that 18-year-olds will be conscripted into either military service or community ‘volunteering’, he is not talking to the young people he is planning to force into work; he’s offering bromides and comfort to his unicorn of ordinariness in the hope that it will vote for him. Never let it be said that the right don’t virtue signal.

Liberals understand that the ordinary person in this sense does not exist. Every individual, and every community, is distinct, special and ever-evolving. Liberals should be loudly and repeatedly opposing this ridiculous, vicious idea as a point of hard principle, even if it is only a gimmick. Forcing people into public service on the basis of their age is utterly wrong and deeply authoritarian. Doing it for votes is even worse. The government have had years to systematically invest in real services for young people that they can engage with voluntarily and on their terms (both cardinal principles of youth work – someone should tell the ‘tough love’ department of the shadow home office). I would be genuinely interested to know if anyone behind this policy thought for a moment about young carers, young people with long term health conditions, young people who have been victims of bullying or any of a hundred other barriers that an 18-year-old might encounter in participating in this pretence at positive intervention. They could offer to spend the money this policy will cost and invest in community youth services, creative spaces, opportunity hubs and other things that would make a massive difference, but that won’t keep the unicorn happy – just people who already weren’t voting for them.

Sunak’s announcement has had one small achievement – it made me so angry I rejoined the party. How active I can be in this election I don’t know and wouldn’t want to promise, but with the likely soon-to-be opposition almost certain to become Reform-lite, and a large and, though better-intentioned, authoritarian Labour government in the offing, I want to be somewhere where I can fight against patronising and coercive policy and help defend meaningful liberty, proper progressive politics and real, liberal change.

* Jack Nicholls is a returning Liberal Democrat member based in North East England.

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  • Michael Cole 27th May '24 - 11:06am

    On Thursday 15 May 2024 the Secretary of Defence was asked “Whether he has made an assessment of the potential impact of the reintroduction of National Service on national security.”

    His reply: “The government has no current plans to reintroduce National Service …”

    Clear proof that the announcement was nothing more than an election gimmick.

  • Jason Connor 27th May '24 - 11:08am

    Apart from attacking the policy, I would like to know what this party would offer young people of that age group. National service just like volunteering could be a non compulsory option and alternative to further education and university. Training and apprenticeships also need more attention. It’s all well and good just attacking other policies but people need to know what this party proposes and how about the careers service which has all but disappeared and the Connexions service which supported young people at risk via mentoring.

  • Jack Nicholls 27th May '24 - 11:28am

    @Michael – so it appears, which in one sense is a relief, but in another depresses me more. Young people have born the brunt not only of desperately poor levels of investment but consistent parochial stereotyping from this government.

    @Jason – I couldn’t agree more. I have some professional experience in this area and there’s a serious need not just for more support for young people, but varied and multilateral support, rather than the one size fits all we see from various governments. It would also be nice to see all parties show a genuine understanding of both the value and the principles of relationship-based youth work, rather than using youth workers and related professionals as short term trouble shooters or soft police.

    Thank you both for your comments 🙂

  • @Michael Cole: They’ve come up with this idea on the hoof. But it’s current and now, whatever was said ten days ago.

    No thought has gone into it; what would compulsion look like? who would do the enforcing?

    It shows how out of touch they are with the multiple problems of adolescents and young adults.

  • Steve Trevethan 27th May '24 - 1:12pm

    Might we develop our greatest asset, which comprises our children and young people, by offering them all the provision of, and grants for, tertiary education, not least apprenticeships, without direct cost to them?

  • Yusuf Osman 27th May '24 - 2:24pm

    Welcome back to the party Jack, a well written piece which I completely agree with.
    What we ought to be doing is making it easier for 18-year-olds to go to university, enter apprenticeships, get healthcare when they need it including mental health care and most importantly building more houses at affordable rents so that they have a chance of having somewhere safe to live. Actually did I say most importantly before? Most importantly listening to them to find out what it is they are most concerned about. What I as a 44 year-old think is most important may not be for today’s 18-year-old.

  • John Marriott 27th May '24 - 3:02pm

    There’s no need to dragoon all youngsters into National Service etc. The Tories have a natural reservoir of experienced boys and girl in all those cadet corps that are the feature of our public schools. I assume most of their parents vote Tory anyway so they must surely be in favour. So, folks, practise what you preach and leave the rest of us alone!

  • Jack Nicholls 27th May '24 - 3:33pm

    Thank you Yusuf 😊

  • Mary Fulton 27th May '24 - 5:47pm

    If Sunak had suggested some form of National Service as a direct response to the Russian assault on Ukraine and the potential for the conflict to escalate to a direct war between NATO and Russia, he may have got some credit for being willing to take bold steps to keep the country safe. However, what he has proposed will annoy many without actually winning the support of those who believe that a real return to National Service is required.

  • Jack Nicholls 27th May '24 - 8:37pm

    @Mary that’s an interesting analysis – my immediate thought is that it would have played well with possible Reform switchers, per my ‘ordinary people’ angle, but less well in the Blue Wall where many suburban soft conservatives would be alarmed at the prospect of their children being forcibly signed up and potentially shipped out. I think it would have come across as more genuine* and considered, and less gimmicky, if he had done it as part of his ‘only i can keep us safe’ speech a few weeks ago.

    (*to others – I take very little he says as particularly genuine, which is not a nice feeling to have even about a Prime Minister I would never vote for)

    Thank you for your comment 🙂

  • Roger Roberts 27th May '24 - 9:38pm

    Since the ending of national service there has been a vast increase in sexual equality. Does this mean that Sunak intends girls as well as boys to be conscripted?

  • I did not do National service because I was born a year too late to be called up.
    I did take a lot of interest at the time in the debate in the press about it.
    One group who was keen on getting rid of it were the armed forces who had to train the recruits, only to say goodby to them when they started to be useful.
    Yes, we might need to train people for the possibility of a war. We need to take it seriously and listen to those who have the expertise.
    In the meanwhile we need to remove family poverty. There are many children who go to school without having had breakfast. There is a high correlation between poverty and low performance at 16.

  • Richard Church 28th May '24 - 8:24am

    And the next day they promise a tax break for pensioners. Reward the elderly while making the young pick up the pieces of our broken public services.

  • David Goble 28th May '24 - 9:04am

    @ Richard Church. Tax break for pensioners; why not for all? Increase the tax-free allowances for all in line with inflation. There is much talk these days about “equality”; equality, surely, means that all are treated equally – not one sector favoured over another.
    Also, as I read this “policy”; young people may, instead of National Service, volunteer for weekends over a period of one year. Is this “volunteering” to be compulsory; mixed-up phraseology even for the Conservatives!

    I speak, incidentally, as a pensioner!

  • Yeovil Yokel 28th May '24 - 9:26am

    My favourite comment on Twitter this morning was from some wag who said that the rollout of this National Service programme would probably run out of money and get no further than Birmingham.

  • Nonconformistradical 28th May '24 - 9:36am

    “There is much talk these days about “equality”; equality, surely, means that all are treated equally – not one sector favoured over another.”
    As far as I can see that equality doesn’t cover the seriously wealthy. If they are investing their wealth in UK businesses that may be fine – but if they are squirreling it away in offshore trusts and such like then why not tax them more?

  • David Goble 28th May '24 - 9:41am

    @ Nonconformistradical. I fully agree!

  • There has been much talk about “levelling up”. There should be some talk about “levelling down”. Too many people have far more money than they could possibly need.

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