Skip to main content

‘Quadruple lock for the oldies and send the kids off to war.’ This refrain has appeared in political discourse in various guises over the past couple of days, and it is clear that the Conservatives’ pledge to reintroduce national service has turned some heads.

The mandatory scheme would see school leavers either enrol on a 12-month military placement or spend one weekend each month volunteering in their community. I, for one, could see myself supporting the idea in principle, and would have valued the opportunity to do something of this nature myself. However, as it stands, its announcement is troubling – not because of the policy itself, but rather because of the motivation behind it and discourse surrounding it. 

First, though the Prime Minister suggests many purported benefits – forging a culture of service, building trust across our nation and unifying our society – there is a glaringly obvious electoral motivation behind this policy. At a time when the Prime Minister is arguably looking to shore up the Party’s core supporters to minimise losses, one cannot help but see the national service announcement as little more than electoral opportunism

According to polling conducted by YouGov, national service is only popular amongst Leave voters, 2019 Conservative voters and the over-65s; the Conservatives’ electoral base.

The policy – defended by a close team of advisors – was abruptly announced after the early days of the Conservative campaign had been marked by a series of gaffes. It comes across as a hastily devised bribe for the Conservative Party’s core supporters; an attempt to revive a floundering campaign, with any supposed benefits for young people merely an afterthought. 

Rather than providing opportunities for the young, the Conservatives have come across as using the young as a tool to placate the old. This is especially as the announcement of national service took place alongside the announcement of the ‘Triple Lock Plus,’ designed to further shore up the finances of pensioners.

I cannot help but feel that this overshadows and undermines any of national service’s  benefits.

Second, I find the discourse surrounding the policy troubling. William Hague, the former Leader of the Conservative Party, argues that national service would recreate a “common understanding of obligation,” with some going as far to suggest that National Service is about young people repaying their “debt to the nation.”  

The idea of reciprocity is clearly key to national service, but young people can only reciprocate benefits when they themselves have benefitted. Young people expect a quid pro quo from the government, but, in this regard, they have been left wanting. 

Young people increasingly must deal with skyrocketing house prices, the rising cost of living and overwhelming amounts of student debt, while older people have benefited from rapid house price inflation and large, triple-locked pensions in retirement. For young people, the state is not upholding its end of the bargain.

The Prime Minister appears to have acknowledged this point, arguing that “we must do more for our young people,” but he goes on to argue that “our young people must do more for our country.” 

This is incredibly ill-thought-out after so many young people made a massive sacrifice in the national effort to combat COVID-19: a virus that disproportionately affected the elderly. Young people gave up two years of their youth, with many still dealing with the aftermath in terms of the effects on their education, their mental health and more. 

It is deeply troubling that, considering all of this, the Prime Minister nonetheless feels he can tell young people that it is time they gave something back to a generation of people whom the economic system has favoured all throughout their lives. 

I am reminded of a moment during the EU Referendum campaign when a warning was made that there would be a decline in GDP if the UK voted to leave. An audience member responded, “that’s your bloody GDP. Not ours.” When young people are told they must ‘give back to society’ through national service, I imagine the response would be something along the lines of, “that’s your bloody society. Not ours.” 

It cannot be right that young people are being told to give back when many feel that they have not received much in the first place. Telling them so will only fuel resentment and apathy – not foster a sense of reciprocity or obligation. 

 

Nathan Stone is a student at the University of Warwick and a member of Bright Blue.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

[Image: Africa Studio]