The problem the Tory “National Service” idea is trying to solve

Most people who read this site are well used to being sickened to their stomachs by not just Conservative policy ideas but what they have done in practice.  In the past few months alone, we’ve seen them pick on disabled people, sick people, vulnerable people seeking safety in this country, people coming to this country to share their skills in the workplace and pay taxes,  trans people and anyone over 50 who isn’t working full time.

Today their big idea insults a generation of young people who have been failed by the Conservatives in spectacular style. A generation who, for the first time in a long time, is less well off than their parents.  According to the Conservatives, the way to fix this generation is national service, forcing them into either a year of military service, or 12 weekends of volunteering.  At a cost of £2.5 billion.

It doesn’t take long to think of better uses for that sum. Perhaps more housing so that young people don’t have to live with their parents into their 30s, perhaps by removing the discrimination in the minimum wage, perhaps by increasing social security to help the 1 in 4 children growing up in poverty, perhaps by making sure young people in distress can access mental health treatment quickly, perhaps by rebuilding youth services so young people can get the support they need in their communities. Perhaps by doing more to save the planet for future generations.

And then you come to the practicalities of all of this. Many young people are stuck in low quality, minimum wage jobs where they are treated badly – and which require them to work at weekends. And will they get expenses for travel to and from their volunteer placement? What if they are carers, or parents, or disabled?

I’m also increasingly worried about what seems to be attempts across several policy areas. The national service thing basically mandates adults to spend time in a particular way. What business is it of the state how law-abiding adults use their free time? That is a key principle for we liberals. I’m also concerned about the smoke-free generation stuff which may well be resurrected by Labour. Giving different rights to adults born on 31 December 2008 to those born on 1 January 2009 seems wrong, though I accept that this is one of these ideas where liberal principles can also lead you to support it.

But the national service idea isn’t about young people at all. It’s a cynical attempt to win voters back from Reform by throwing them a bit of right wing catnip. It’s about as morally bankrupt as you can get.

We’re used to this from the Conservatives. David Cameron inflicted Brexit on us, not because he believed in it but to try to unite the Conservative Party. Not only did that not work, but we are all paying the price.

The Conservative path to victory, or damage limitation, in this election, involves saving seats by stopping their more right wing supporters voting for Reform and their more centrist supporters voting for us. We will no doubt have prepared ourselves for the bile coming in our direction. We shouldn’t dismiss the threat. The Tories have cash to splash and will do so.  Will they actually be able to persuade anyone to listen to them, though? Or are voters just motivated to get rid of them because they are so discredited?

We’ll have our stomachs turned by many more Conservative ideas over the next few weeks. How do we deal with it? By getting out there and beating as many of them as we possibly can. We have laid some strong foundations in our key seats over nearly 4 years now. We have some amazing candidates we need to turn into MPs, like Josh Babarinde in Eastbourne, Victoria Collins in Harpenden and Berkhamsted and Bobby Dean in Sutton and Cheam. You can read more about them in my report from the Social Liberal Forum lunch at Spring Conference.

Now is the time to show young people that we understand their needs and that we will not put up with them being on the sharp end of another Tory gimmick.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

Read more by or more about , , or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Jack Nicholls 26th May '24 - 10:18am

    With my youth sector development hat on, and quite apart from the illiberal principle, even under ideal circumstances this would not reach or work for the people it is allegedly created for. I’m unipressed but unsurprised that labour have criticized the cost rather than the idea.

  • Jack Nicholls 26th May '24 - 10:26am

    Also, brilliant post Caron – analytical and heartfelt as usual

  • Peter Martin 26th May '24 - 10:35am

    Maybe this idea shouldn’t be rejected out of hand. It’s how it is implemented rather than the principle.

    As far as I know, previous National Service didn’t mean the use of unpaid labour. The pay may have been low but it was at least something to live on. So we should argue for more ‘carrot’ and less ‘stick’. Anyone who is making a positive contribution to the economy, as they would be, ought to be entitled to a share of what the economy can produce.

    In addition a deal for free university education could be offered in exchange for a number of years (2 or 3 ?) national service. Potential teachers could do a couple of years as teaching assistants. Potential nurses and doctors could do certain jobs in hospitals. It could be seen as part of their training.

    The emphasis should be about public service rather than military service but of course this could be an option for those who choose it.

  • More confusion….Sunak sys it will be compulsory with sanctions..Cleverly says it will be voluntary without sanctions…

    Pick a card; any card?

    It also seems that 30,000 of the ‘most suitable’ will serve in the forces whilst ‘others’ will just volunteer one weekend a month…If I have job ‘prospects’ my choice would be the week-end…

    As for my overall verdict, I’m old enough to remember 1969… “Fortunate Son”…

    For our younger members; It was a protest song written by a Vietnam-era veteran in support of the men who served and against the children of privilege who evaded the draft… Donald Trump being a prime example

  • Peter Davies 26th May '24 - 12:46pm

    This is not a serious proposal. If the Tories thought it was a good idea they’d have put forward a bill in the last nine years.

  • Ex-LD Leeds 26th May '24 - 3:56pm

    Nice to see the ‘As a liberal I’m furious’ Caron in full cry 🙂

    Emergency responders – 6 day full time training plus 32 hours in months 1-2. Commit to 16 hours per month.

    Search and Rescue – 4 weekends and 9 evenings training over 4 months

    Special Constable 23 days across 13 weekends or FT for 4 1/2 weeks.

    All roles suggested by James Cleverly today – doesn’t really seem workable. (all roles currently open to 18yos AIUI

    (having to go anon due to current role)

  • Nonconformistradical 26th May '24 - 5:01pm

    “Special Constable 23 days across 13 weekends or FT for 4 1/2 weeks.”
    I wonder what they’re supposed to be able to do at the start.
    Quite cmprehensive training for Special Constables –

  • Sally Chattey 26th May '24 - 5:14pm

    Will employers avoid employing school leavers if they know that they will have to have a year out for National Service? If the teenager opts to continue full time employment and do the one weekend voluntary work each month, is it fair on the worker having to work a seven day week or the voluntary organisation having help from someone who has worked all week?

  • If National Service is such a good idea “builds community spirit etc” why are the tories restricting its benefits to the young? In Rwanda, a country the Tories esteem, everyone is supposed to spend half a day on community projects one Saturday each month. It would be good to see Boris and Truss in high viz jackets once a month undoing some of the harm they have caused.

  • Graham Jeffs 26th May '24 - 6:14pm

    What a patronising proposal! Patronising to the “targets” and patronising and insulting to the armed services.

    We urgently need to rebuild the services, but not by making them a short-term nursery. The Conservatives have totally lost the plot.

  • I find this despicable little Englanderism at its worst. I can’t imagine how the professional army would react to having about 40% of its number refreshing annually, nor can I guess which element would be sent out into battlefields as ‘cannon fodder’ should, God help, the occasion is deemed to arise. What of the perfectly honourable young people who don’t believe in the UK as it is constituted – they’ll feel forever that their youth was hijacked by a period of state sanctioned forced labour.

    Most of all, what does it say about a state that says it can’t afford to educate its young folk, but it will force them to work for it and perhaps to die.


  • Paul Barker 26th May '24 - 7:43pm

    This proposal isn’t supposed to solve any problems – its straightforwardly reactionary – “Forward to the 1950s” seems to be the idea. Cleverley,s comment about The Young being in a “Bubble” show the Tory disbelief that other people don’t think like them.

    I don’t think Caron is angry enough.

  • I agree with @Peter Martin. This idea from the Tories is laughably unworkable. It’s obviously an election gimmick that hasn’t been at all thought through. I also suspect it’ll lose them more votes than it gains them.

    But the problem their national service idea is trying to solve – the need to foster a sense of community and public service that is sorely lacking in today’s society – is a real problem, and one we shouldn’t neglect. Too often, we seem to imagine that liberalism means, demanding that the Government does everything for everyone without ever asking people to do anything in return. That’s simply unworkable (and arguably morally indefensible too). We shouldn’t be raising our hands in horror at the principle of the Government expecting people to do something to contribute to the society that they live in and which provides for them: Rather, we should be condemning the stupidity and unfairness of this particular proposal, while remaining open to considering ways that we might encourage/expect people to contribute to their communities.

  • There is a need to first identify a problem. One frequently ignored problem is that of looked after children. They are children looked after by the local authority. This can be for a variety of reasons, but we need to look at them as a group because that is how the figures are produced. There are robust figures because local authorities have over the years been required to produce them. The last estimate I sa was that at 16 the group were about 2 years behind the cohort. They are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. If there is money available I would start by looking after the needs of this group. I would also look at the needs of children who have been designated as having special educational needs. Again the figures are available, and they are over represented in our prisons. Let us look at the real problems of real people.

  • Adrian Collett 27th May '24 - 11:10am

    Well said Caron!
    A classic “dog-whistle” announcement by the Tories.
    I wonder how many more of these will we see during this campaign.

  • This is another solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist. Young people are no different now to what they were in the 1990s, when I was one, some are willing to volunteer some aren’t, some are outgoing, some aren’t. The idea of forcing people to volunteer because they don’t want anything to do with the military is offensive and those who will receive the fruits of the ‘volunteering’ will know that the young person doesn’t really want to be there. Tom Harney is entirely correct we need to be doing a lot more for children in care and children with SEN.
    Unless I’ve misunderstood Ex-LD Leeds all the roles mentioned are ones freely chosen by those doing them. This would be something forced on 18-year-olds.

  • I went onto the Daily Express website (reckoning that most support for Sunak’s ‘National Service’ would be from a readership that are right wing and JUST too young to have experienced its reality)..

    To my surprise most posts were against the proposal.. If Sunak can’t even convince that readership then he is really in trouble..

  • David Allen 27th May '24 - 6:04pm

    Trust the Tories to know about “being in a bubble”. The Downing Street Partygate bubble?

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

This post has pre moderation enabled, please be patient whilst waiting for it to be manually reviewed. Liberal Democrat Voice is made up of volunteers who keep the site running in their free time.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Alex Macfie
    @Peter Martin: No-one was saying that at all, except maybe @Adam who is relying on BtL comments on news articles which cannot be taken as representative of anyt...
  • Peter Martin
    @ Chris, Adam and David, So can we all agree (except perhaps Alex ) that being in favour of the EU does require uncritical support? This is a big problem...
  • Alex Macfie
    @Adam: I rarely read BtL comments in newspaper articles as they tend not to be representative of public opinion. All I can say is that such opinions as you have...
  • Adam
    "Given the avalanche of unending and captious criticism of the EU from the pro-Brexiteer nationalist establishment prior to Brexit, it’s scarcely surprising t...
  • David Allen
    Peter Martin, "In practice, we seldom, if ever, see any criticism of the EU from its supporters." Yeah, yeah, yeah. When the Tories make a political broa...