Should the UK Bring Back National Service? Considerations and Lessons from International Research


Jun 28, 2024

Emergency services workers rescue volunteers posing as flood victims during an exercise on flood response in Surrey, England, November 18, 2010, photo by Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Emergency services workers rescue volunteers posing as flood victims during an exercise on flood response in Surrey, England, November 18, 2010

Photo by Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Following the announcement of the 2024 UK general election, the Conservative Party set out a policy proposal for reintroducing national service in the United Kingdom. The plan would mandate all British 18-year-olds to either volunteer with civilian community organisations for 25 days over a 12-month period or apply for a year-long military training placement. The Prime Minister stated that the programme aims to promote a “shared sense of purpose among our young people and a renewed sense of [national] pride” and “address the fragmentation in society” by encouraging societal engagement among young demographics.

The proposal, which would see the United Kingdom return to a form of national service for the first time since 1960, has sparked significant debate. However, the ideas discussed are far from new: the United Kingdom once had national service, and many other countries still maintain mandatory military or civilian service. Others still are considering reintroduction of these schemes amongst increasing concern over societal resilience in a less stable international climate. But do they work? RAND has extensively studied the value of national service in contemporary national security and defence, yielding lessons for the United Kingdom.

National Service and Societal Resilience

Historically, plenty of countries, including the United Kingdom, have made use of mandatory conscription into their Armed Forces to bolster national defence capability. However, many, again including the United Kingdom, have recently deemed conscription inefficient and politically undesirable (PDF), choosing instead to maintain a purely professional military force.

The security landscape in recent years has revived interest in national service (PDF)—military and civilian—following increasing concerns over societal resilience. While the definition remains somewhat contested, societal resilience typically refers to the ability of a society to recover from crisis. As many contemporary security threats like urban terrorism, environmental disasters, and organised crime demand responses that are not strictly in the purview of the military, cross-societal awareness and engagement are considered increasingly essential. Engaging wider society is also seen as enabling effective deterrence through signalling a whole-nation commitment to national defence.

'Societal resilience' typically refers to the ability of a society to recover from crisis.

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Various indicators suggest the United Kingdom faces challenges in achieving this level of societal engagement in national security. Polls suggest that young people are significantly opposed to serving in the forces, even in the event of an armed conflict. Multiple factors are driving this, including fewer people having family connections to the Armed Forces, as well as decreasing support (PDF) for military intervention, a perception that military threats are not the primary threat that the United Kingdom needs to address, and increasing ambivalence about military activity more broadly, particularly among younger generations. Consequently, national service has been highlighted as one potential mechanism to foster social engagement in the making of defence strategy and to support national identity, cohesion, and societal ownership of national security. It has also been proposed as a key way to generate the mass that may be necessary to address threats both to the homeland and abroad.

International Lessons for the United Kingdom

While many countries have in recent decades abandoned conscription (PDF) in favour of all-volunteer, professional militaries, some have retained mandatory national service. Still others have recently reintroduced it to respond to contemporary national security threats. The variety of responses emphasise that while certain practices may be admirable or replicable, the approach to national service varies significantly between countries based on their security needs as well as their culture and history.

Singapore, where the military workforce is mostly made up of conscripts and reservists, is an example of a military-focused national service model. National service is used to generate military capability (PDF), but also to build collective commitment to national defence. It is an essential part of Singapore's concept of Total Defence—a whole-of-society approach to national defence—which is a key element of its national identity. Promoting national service among young people through education and engagement (PDF) has been important to this approach. Schools play an essential role in informing the public about the aims and principles of national defence and preparedness.

Similarly to Singapore, Finland has drawn on mandatory military service to reinforce armed forces capability. Interestingly, however, Finland includes an option of non-military service (PDF) as a way to promote civic education and readiness in the context of national defence. It also adds into the mix significant investment in National Defence Courses, which provide collective training for critical industries and businesses. The Finnish approach models strong civil-military relations and an active reserve force.

Lastly, some countries such as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have drawn on a competitive (PDF)—rather than mandatory—model, where young people have to apply for placements in the armed forces. While volunteer professional forces are in the majority, the model enables the armed forces to access young talent for certain tasks and professions. It also reinforces reserves, since everyone who completes national service automatically transfers to the reserve forces. Effective use of incentives (PDF) to support attraction into service, plus a long tradition of reserves recruitment, are key enablers for this approach. Nordic and Baltic countries are also frequently praised for their existing “total defence” models. Such models involve frequent and proactive communication with their populations about the need to be ready to respond to military threats nearby.

Complexities and Considerations for Implementing National Service

Examining the experiences of other countries would be useful for the United Kingdom if it ever seriously considers options for reintroducing national service. However, differences in national circumstances impact how national service is implemented, what form it takes, and what value it ultimately provides. Many of the countries discussed here face a very different threat landscape from the United Kingdom: namely, the close proximity of a physical military threat. This arguably speaks to a level of cultural and societal acceptance of defence, and a shared understanding of the need for national security.

There are several other considerations for the United Kingdom as it looks at future options for national service. Firstly, the United Kingdom should not lose sight of the logistical complexities that can arise from mandatory national service. Engaging a large number of people in military or civilian work involves large-scale mobilisation, training, and coordination. Establishing the necessary ecosystem for such an effort could be a substantial challenge for the United Kingdom, which has already identified challenges with mobilising Armed Forces Reserves (PDF) in the event of national security emergencies.

Examining the experiences of other countries would be useful for the United Kingdom if it ever seriously considers options for reintroducing national service.

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Secondly, mandatory national service may impose costs. The economic sense of national military service remains contested. Some have argued that it can be economically advantageous to alleviate the high budgetary costs that come with manning a professional military. Chiefly, though, national service in the form of mandatory conscription has been judged as undermining the economic efficiency of military organisations and comes with economic trade-offs (PDF). As the UK Armed Forces navigate a more competitive labour market in which they must do more with less, these issues will be important to consider, irrespective of whether mandatory military service is ever pursued by a UK government.

In the absence of fully fledged national service, the United Kingdom should consider alternative avenues for strengthening societal links with the armed forces, contributing to societal resilience, and encouraging engagement in national security and defence. RAND research has, for example, previously recommended strengthening partnerships of the armed forces with relevant nongovernmental organisations in, for instance, public health and disaster response. This opens up these organisations' preexisting networks with different demographics for national defence and could improve processes for activating and mobilising those networks in national emergencies. Such a move should go hand-in-hand with enabling greater public access to relevant education and training in areas such as disaster response and national preparedness. Lastly, the United Kingdom should seek to improve societal understanding of the national security ecosystem and military roles—such as the key role the military can play in nontraditional security threats like climate change—to encourage civic engagement, particularly among younger people.

Linda Slapakova is a research leader, Rebecca Lucas is a senior analyst, and Theodora Ogden is a senior analyst in defence and security at RAND Europe.