Young people should welcome National Service

Officer Cadets take part in The Sovereign's Parade at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst
Officer Cadets take part in The Sovereign's Parade at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst

The furore around the prospect of National Service in the next parliament has made the programme a political football to be kicked between an opportunistic Prime Minister, and a Labour party for which the defence of the realm is little more than a gimmick.

The hard reality is that this should not be seen as a social engineering project for the “youth” – although some are now so transfixed by their phones that enforced physical exercise is probably needed – but essential to protect our nation from another fascist tyrant marching West at an ever-increasing speed. National service should not just be confined to those turning 18. Those young adults who benefited so much from lockdown and furlough – their health and jobs preserved by an enormous national effort – should be give an opportunity to thank their elders for their sacrifices.

The major lesson for Britain’s defence which we are learning from the battles in Ukraine is that mass has a quality all of its own – and one that is particularly important if your foe is Russia, which it is. Putin has lost staggering numbers of men and tanks in this conflict but shows no sign of running out of either.

Any person with a jot of military knowledge – and there are precious few on the campaign trail – knows the best way to avoid war in Europe is to prepare for it.  Our current conventional defence has been so pared down following the Cold War “peace dividend” that it is no longer a deterrent. Judging by the combat in Ukraine, the 72,000 regular British Army would likely be exhausted in 6-8 weeks of fighting.  There is no second echelon, and Putin knows this. This must change.

As the anniversary of D-Day approaches this week, we should reflect on how the last tyrant was defeated. Hitler relied on technology and built a small number of state of the art, world beating Tiger tanks. They were overrun and sent packing by the far greater number of serviceable, mass produced Allied tanks. Tech is important, but mass matters too.

Many of the even older armchair generals are rightly saying that we cannot afford to have the regular army uprooted by the envisaged National Service, and here they are correct. But we have a massive cohort of veterans who are currently vastly underused by the state. There are over 100,000 of us ready and able to lean into this challenge of shaping our young into a viable fighting force that can add an effective edge to our conventional deterrence. We may not be as fast or as strong as we once were, but we’ve all marched to the sound of the drums, fought the nation’s enemies and are willing to offer our experience to the effort.

Putin and his gangsters are readying their nuclear missiles, using chemical weapons on the frontlines and putting the Russian economy on a war footing. Nobody who studies, or at least understands Putin thinks he will stop in Ukraine. Finland, Sweden and Norway, all liberal countries, maintain National Service because they know a white flag to Putin is more like a green flag to the Kremlin to crack on.

The very able General Patrick Saunders, Chief of the General Staff, told Parliament and the Nation we required a national citizens army over 6 months ago. Now the Tories appear to get it. Labour, meanwhile, is still effectively encouraging Putin to march west.

Of course, the best way to ensure electoral success is to promise the sunny uplands of economic success, and peace in our time. National service is an irritating intrusion on this narrative. But the best way to secure peace is to prepare for war. Get defence of the nation wrong and the cost-of-living crisis will quickly become horrifically irrelevant. As the D-Day commemorations take place, we must learn from the past – and we must not repeat its mistakes.

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