Ex-military chief says Rishi Sunak’s national service plan is ‘bonkers’

Rishi Sunak’s pledge to enforce national service for 18-year-olds has been described as “bonkers” by a former British military chief.

The policy proposal, announced on Sunday by the prime minister, would see young people would be given a choice between a full-time placement in the armed forces for 12 months or spending one weekend a month for a year volunteering in their community.

It is the Conservatives’ first major policy proposal since Mr Sunak hastily announced the general election in the pouring rain last week, with his party now scrambling to find some 190 candidates amid a post-war record exodus of Tory MPs.

The prime minister insisted on that his plans for mandatory national service would help unite society in an “increasingly uncertain world” and give young people a “shared sense of purpose”.

However, the policy has been met with broadly negative and confused reaction.

Rishi Sunak speaks with British troops in April (PA) (PA Wire)
Rishi Sunak speaks with British troops in April (PA) (PA Wire)

Former chief of the naval staff, Admiral Alan West, labelled the plan as “bonkers” and added it would deplete the defence budget.

“I’m delighted if more young people become aware of defence and are involved … but this idea is basically bonkers,” he told The Guardian. “We need to spend more on defence, and – by doing what he’s suggesting – money will be sucked out of defence.”

Mr Sunak claims the programme will cost £2.5bn a year by the end of the decade and plans to fund £1bn through plans to “crack down on tax avoidance and evasion”.

The remaining £1.5bn will be paid for with money previously used for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF).

Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Liz Kendall noted to Sky News that the fund “is supposed to be used to tackle economic inactivity and helping people get back into work”.

There are many outstanding questions about the details of the scheme, though these would potentially be addressed a royal commission bringing in expertise from across the military and civil society to establish how the scheme would work in practice.

Labour have criticised the policy proposal as the general election campaigns begin
Labour have criticised the policy proposal as the general election campaigns begin

Facing questions about the proposal on Sunday, James Cleverly, the home secretary, said that no teenagers would be sent to prison for avoiding “mandatory” national service.

However, Foreign Office minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan did not rule out the possibility of parents being liable for fines if their adult children refuse to take part in the plan.

Labour frontbencher Liz Kendall accused the Conservatives of merely “asking young people to solve the problems in the NHS, the police and the armed services that the Tories themselves have created”.

Nigel Farage noted that, under the plans, there would be only 30,000 full-time military placements for around 700,000 school leavers, tellingSky News: “National service on any scale is literally impossible unless you build up the size of the Army, and you need another 20,000 people to be trainers if you were doing it seriously.”