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British calls for return of National Service kick-off interesting argument, but raise some valid points

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has used the first week of the UK’s election campaign to launch a return of National Service, prompting backlash from young Brits but support from older Brits. Nevertheless, the debate raises some important points worth consideration from both sides.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has used the first week of the UK’s election campaign to launch a return of National Service, prompting backlash from young Brits but support from older Brits. Nevertheless, the debate raises some important points worth consideration from both sides.

Depending on who you ask, National Service is a relic of a bygone era, outdated and a hangover from dangerous nationalism; for others, it is an important, tried-and-true policy mechanism for enhancing national cohesion, building opportunities for young people, and reinforcing national security.

These varying attitudes, of course, depend in large part on the strategic reality of the nation, and the history and culture, with nations across Europe still actively maintaining national service programs, while nations in the Middle East and across Asia continue to do so as well.


Where policies of national service have fallen out of favour is across the liberal, democratic Western world – particularly nations like Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States – largely as a result of the contentious policy of conscription and national service during the Vietnam conflict, set against the broader backdrop of political and social upheaval during the 1960s and 1970s.

That is, at least, until British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak set a cat among the pigeons over the weekend, announcing that should the Torie party be re-elected in July, they will introduce a policy of mandatory national service for all UK citizens from the age of 18.

Prime Minister Sunak said, “This is a great ­country but generations of young people have not had the opportunities or experience they deserve – and there are forces trying to divide our society in this uncertain world ... I will bring in a new ­version of National Service to create a shared sense of ­purpose among our young people and a renewed sense of pride in our country.”

He added, “This compulsory National Service will forge shared values, pull us together as a nation and develop critical skills of our younger generations. Conservatives know what a great country we are, the best country in the world, in fact, but we need to boost our resilience and secure ourselves against future shocks.”

All of this comes as the beleaguered British Conservative government, first elected in 2010, seeks another term in government following a revolving door of prime ministers and a number of successive policy failures following the COVID-19 pandemic and many Western leaders have come to accept that we are facing a “pre-war world”.

Echoing Prime Minister Sunak’s statements are comments made by General Sir Patrick Sanders, Chief of the General Staff and Head of the British Army, earlier in the year, when he said, “We will not be immune and as the prewar generation we must similarly prepare – and that is a whole-of-nation undertaking. Ukraine brutally illustrates that regular armies start wars; citizen armies win them.”

Now as if on cue, Australian politicians have entered the debate, with independent senator Jacquie Lambie calling for a similar policy to be implemented here in Australia, saying, “If you’re not earning or learning, then you are serving ... I want to speak really out there to those kids who are 21 and below: you can see what’s going on with climate change, you can see especially when we need to go in there and we need to do the clean-up, we haven’t got the feet on the ground.

“I would like to see some sort of compulsory (service), but I have to work around the kids of today and say, ‘What can convince you to come in and get the training that you need, and what do we need to repay you back?’” Senator Lambie told Sky News over the weekend.

All of this conveniently brings us back to my opening statement and the simmering tensions between the older generation and young people across the West and the breakdown of the implicit contract between generations – of those who come before will leave a better world to those who follow after.

Now for many young people across the West, this is a lived reality; in Australia, it is very much a lived experience for generations of Australians, arguably beginning with the millennials.

I know what the counterpoint will be, these younger generations are too soft, entitled, and want something for nothing, to an extent those criticisms are correct and valid, but only up until a certain point.

What is in it for us?

For many young Australians, their question is rather simple: What is in it for us?

I have frequently heard from young Aussies, why would we fight for a country where I will never be able to buy a home or struggle to find a long-term career, where I won’t be able to settle down and have a family?

What rubs salt into the wound is the fact that they often followed the advice of their parents, many of whom are Baby Boomers. They went to school, paid attention, went to university got a “good job” but still struggle to make ends meet and save for a house deposit, and are then condescendingly told that they don’t know how good they have it.

Even as I write this, I can hear my dad telling me for the millionth time, “We had to live with 18–19 per cent interest rates, you don’t know how easy you have it!”

No, that isn’t a jab at my dad either (I actually like it when he does this, because I know it’s an attempt to push me to do and be better), but one thing I, like many of my friends and particularly those of the younger generation – born in the late 1990s and into the early-2000s – collectively cringe at is the dismissive attitude of our parents and older generations and the expectation that we will go and fight and die to protect their interests, when very few in those generations walked the walk.

In fact, just recently while at a dinner with people from across the economy, I was told, “If young Australians have to own a home to want to fight for the nation, then perhaps they need to check their values set”, easy to say for a middle-aged man who is in the middle of his career, with teenage children.

That request is a completely different ask for a young Aussie who is struggling to pay rent on an apartment with three or four buddies to be closer to work.

This isn’t purely anecdotal either, highlighting this confluence of factors in the Australian context is David Llewellyn-Smith, the chief strategist with MB Super and Nucleus Wealth, who explained that the Treasurer favoured mechanisms such as increased migration to increase the tax base, while various “sectors” of the economy favour it for their own bottom line.

“That’s at the cost to the vast majority of Australians ... The winners of that immigration model – even in a per capita recession – are the banks, retailers and developers, and if you put those three together, you get what is known as the growth lobby, and they push for the model to continue because it’s good for them,” Llewellyn-Smith said.

The impact of this papering over the cracks inherent in the national economy is reinforced by comments made by AMP chief economist Dr Shane Oliver, who explained: We’re pumping more people in, but we’re not producing more stuff per person ... We’re inflating our economy by pumping more people in, but it’s not giving us growth in living standards per person – we’re actually going backwards, and also productivity is going backwards.”

This has a dramatic impact on young Australians’ attitudes and appetites for defending Australia, something explained by Daniel Wild, director of research at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), who stated, “As a result of years of relentless attack on our values by the cultural and media elites, young Australians are now so ashamed of themselves and their country that they would rather flee Australia than stay and fight if the need arose.”

The report and polling commissioned of 1,000 Australians by the IPA detailed: “Only 32 per cent of those aged 18–24 said they would stay and fight, and 40 per cent said they would leave the country (28 per cent were unsure), and 35 per cent of those aged 25–34 said that would stay and fight, while 38 per cent said they would leave the country (27 per cent were unsure).”

Wild added: “Young Australians don’t want to fight for Australia because the cultural elites in schools, universities, and the media have convinced them that there is nothing worth fighting for.”

This uncomfortable reality is only further compounded by the aforementioned financial and economic factors that disproportionately impact young Australians.

As if to prove this, public commentary on the IPA’s own report highlighted this, with comments ranging from, Young people can’t afford a home to live here, it should be land owners’ primary responsibility to put up the fight”, and “Our youth of fighting age are the poorest of any of the generations previously before them. Again, I say, why would they stay and fight?”

With other public feedback including this comment, Why would they stay and fight? This country has no national identity, no culture and poor leadership in both the main political parties.”

All fair points, given the rapidly deteriorating state of the world, we need to have this debate sooner rather than later and rather than being dismissive of the lived experience of young Australians, a bit of humility from the people who raised us and expect us to foot the bill for their vast entitlements over the coming decades wouldn’t go astray either.

I will also finish by saying that as an individual, I am all for a comprehensive form of National Service for Australia as a mechanism of enhancing and strengthening the Australian Armed Forces through a traditional national service component and building our soft power influence and capacity through something akin to the Peace Corps founded by President John F. Kennedy at the height of the Cold War, with incentives to entice and reward participating young Australians.

Final thoughts

Australians seem reluctant at best or, indeed, even oblivious at worst that the world is increasingly becoming “multipolar” and our own home, the Indo-Pacific, in particular, is rapidly becoming the most hotly contested region in the world.

Declining economic opportunity, coupled with the rapidly deteriorating global and regional balance of power and the increased politicisation of every aspect of contemporary life, only serves to exacerbate the very reality of disconnection, apathy, and helplessness felt by many Australians.

This attitude is only serving to be compounded and creates a growing sentiment that we are speeding towards a predestined outcome, thus disempowering the Australian people and, to a lesser extent, policymakers as we futilely confront seemingly insurmountable challenges with little-to-no benefit and at a high-risk/reward calculation.

Taking into account the costs and implications, it is therefore easy to understand why so many Australians, both in the general public and within our decision-making circles, seem to have checked out and are quite happy to allow the nation to continue to limp along in mediocrity because, well, it is easier than having lofty ambitions.

If both Australian policymakers and the Australian public don’t snap out of the comforting security blanket that is the belief in the “End of History”, the nation will continue to rapidly face an uncomfortable and increasingly dangerous new reality, where we truly are no longer the masters of our own destiny.

All of this combines to form a rather confronting and disconcerting outcome for our long-term national security and one that requires remedying immediately if Australia is to be positioned to capitalise on the truly epoch-defining industrial, economic, political, and strategic shifts currently underway across the globe.

After all, how can we ask and reasonably expect Australians, particularly young Australians, to put the national interest ahead of their own when the nation doesn’t seem to account for their own interests, particularly when taken to the end of its logical extension, the national interest is at its core, the individual’s interest?

Ultimately, Australia and Australians face these two concurrent yet interconnected challenges, which stand as the greatest challenges of our age, so which way, Australia?

Do we want to be competitive, consequential and thriving, or do we want to be “steady and sturdy” in our managed decline?

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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