Prime Minister Rishi Sunak proposes national service for 18-year-olds

Britain’s Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak, center, takes part in a Q&A session with students and staff at Cannock College in central England last Friday. (Henry Nicholls / AP Photo)

LONDON — All 18-year-olds in Britain will have to perform a year of mandatory military or civilian national service if the governing Conservative Party wins the July 4 national election, the party said Sunday.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to bring back a form of national service for the first time in more than 60 years, seeking to energize his election campaign after a faltering start.

The U.K. introduced military conscription for men and some women during World War II and imposed 18 months of mandatory military service for men between 1947 and 1960. Since then, Britain has had an all-volunteer military whose size has steadily shrunk.

Under the plan, a small minority of 18-year-olds — 30,000 out of an estimated 700,000 — would spend 12 months in the military, working in areas such as logistics or cyber defense. The rest would spend one weekend a month working for charities, community groups or organizations such as hospitals, the police and the fire service.

Sunak said the program would help “create a shared sense of purpose among our young people and a renewed sense of pride in our country.”

It remains unclear how it will be made compulsory. Home Secretary James Cleverly said no one would be forced to serve in the military.

Cleverly said Sunday the main goal of the new plan was not boosting the military but building “a society where people mix with people outside their own communities, mix with people from different backgrounds, different religions, different income levels.”

The Conservatives estimated the cost of the national service plan at 2.5 billion pounds ($3.2 billion) a year. They said it would be paid for partly by taking 1.5 billion pounds ($1.9 billion) from the U.K. Shared Prosperity Fund, which was set up in 2022 to regenerate poor communities.

Labour said the national service announcement was a “desperate 2.5 billion pound unfunded commitment” from a party “bankrupt of ideas.”

Former Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson said the Tory plan amounted to “compulsory volunteering” and predicted “it’ll never happen.”

Elections in the United Kingdom have to be held no more than five years apart. The prime minister can choose the timing within that period, and Sunak, 44, had until December to name the date.

He took most people – including those in his own party – by surprise when he announced on Wednesday that the election would be held on July 4.