The Tories hope to "Give young people the skills and opportunities they deserve by introducing mandatory National Service"Louis Ashworth with permission for Varsity

The election is here. Polls predict Labour will win by a landslide, scuppering the Tories’ wish to reintroduce some form of National Service in the UK. Reality aside, what would it look like? The (current) Conservative Party Manifesto states that the Tories hope to “Give young people the skills and opportunities they deserve by introducing mandatory National Service for all school leavers at 18, with the choice between a competitive placement in the military or civic service roles.”

National Service is not the same as conscription, and since Britain is not engaged in an active war, we will not be swapping supos for the frontline any time soon. But in case the proposal takes root in the Tory psyche, I spoke to some Cambridge students who know what it’s like to join the ranks; Cantabs who come from countries with National Service.

“For Benjamin, National Service presented ‘a long period of mundanity and a yearning for student life’”

Before coming to Cambridge, Benjamin completed a year of mandatory National Service in his native Finland. He said, “Whether national service is beneficial to young people varies significantly,” commenting that while some “got out of serious depression” thanks to the “routine and purpose national service granted,” that was not always the case. For Benjamin, National Service presented “a long period of mundanity and a yearning for student life” which was “incredibly destructive” to his mental health. He added that while imbuing young people with a patriotic purpose has benefits in a world which often feels “daunting and purposeless,” any advantages “coexist with a myriad of drawbacks,” such as “toxic masculinity, chauvinism, state control” and the “deprivation of basic freedoms”.

Anna Petrides, Treasurer of Cambridge’s Cypriot Society, shares Benjamin’s concerns for young people’s mental health. She told me that the issue of National Service is “a huge question in Cypriot society” and though, as a woman, she was not obligated to complete National Service herself, she witnessed male friends and family members go through the process. Some are lucky: they “say their year in the army is a rough character-building experience, during which they learn a lot and make friends for life,” but many leave “understandably traumatised and wish they were never forced to spend a year in the army.”

In addition to psychological downsides, Anna told me that the organisation of National Service in Cyprus is flawed. She said there is “corruption in the army” as parents of “incoming soldiers will talk to whomever they know to get them to assign their sons the least demanding post,” hoping to avoid being sent to the Green Line, the heavily fortified border between the Republic of Cyprus and the Northern Turkish side. The border is the toughest area to patrol, where men are trained to “act should a shot be fired from either side” and come face-to-face with soldiers from the Turkish side. Anna mentioned that Cypriot National Service is “compulsory right after school,” and that young men “need to get special permission issued to leave the country after they turn 16 to prevent desertion.” That boys’ need to get this issued “every single time they leave the country, including when they go on holiday or a school trip” proves National Service programs heighten state control.

“Not only is the National Service pledge at odds with the British military’s agenda, but the initiative seems wholly unjustified for the UK”

In Cyprus, there is a “conscientious objector” option where men can opt to volunteer instead of military service, though Anna told me in reality, “almost no one knows about it.” This is different in the UK where the Conservatives’ manifesto mentions civic service in the same breath as military contributions. Natasha Macbeth, a student at Pembroke, balances her studies with regular voluntary work at Brownies in Cambridge and at the local community kitchen. Though she is a “big advocate for community work,” she finds her volunteer work fulfilling not because she sees herself as “particularly instrumental for the community,” but for personal development. Natasha said she is “less keen on the social responsibility angle” and disagrees with equating “community work to military work”. For her, voluntary work is “people work,” endowing you with new skills and a broader perspective, and should be divorced from “the nation”. This is a common theme; most students who give their time to help others don’t see it as a duty, nor think goodwill should be allied to National Service.

And what are the views of students who are choosing to enter the military? Harry, who has just completed his Master’s at Cambridge will be heading off to Sandhurst next year. He recalled his time in the Cambridge Officer Training Corps fondly, forming some of his “closest friendships” through the OTC both here and during his undergrad at St. Andrews. It was a combination of “family role models” and his positive OTC experience which led him to enlist. However, Harry said Sunak’s National Service plan “doesn’t make sense”. He told me that the British army is “currently small and professional,” and its strengths are in its training and equipment rather than its size. He explained that “training for conscripts is entirely different and so there would have to be special conscript regiments created that would be expensive and also the worst in the army.”

Harris Wood, a current member of Cambridge’s OTC who voluntarily did a gap year commission in the army, agrees. He told me that while “serving your country is an extremely honourable thing to do,” it is “not a necessity for all, particularly in the current climate”. Harris said he is “baffled” by Sunak’s pledge since the introduction of National Service “clashes with the army’s development plan of the last several years”. The military is “looking to reduce numbers and specialise in particular fields,” so “increasing the level of inexperience within the organisation” is counter-productive. He argued that “building and maintaining international partnerships is the pinnacle aim for the military and National Service doesn’t support this.”


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Not only is the National Service pledge at odds with the British military’s agenda, but the initiative seems wholly unjustified for the UK. Though Benjamin “dreaded” his service, he said that the Finnish state has been able to justify it “through an inter-generational patriotic militarism that is thoroughly directed towards its Eastern neighbour.” Conversely, Benjamin argued that the “UK cannot find that same justification,” as “Sunak’s plan takes national unity as a consequence of forced service.” Meanwhile, Anna said that Cyprus’ “painful history of the Turkish invasion of 1974” justifies military service “in many people’s eyes,” leading to a “strong patriotic/nationalist sentiment in the army.” Where is the precedent or historical rationale for Sunak’s Service?

The consensus is clear: all of the students I spoke to, experienced in either volunteering or military training, are against its introduction in the UK. And if we listen to those from countries where National Service is already in place about its risk of psychological damage and the increase in state control, we should count ourselves lucky the Conservative plan will most likely be shelved, for now.