This General Election Will Be a War on Young People

Get in, loser, we’re joining the army.

by Rivkah Brown

27 May 2024

Rishi Sunak and his wife leave a Conservative general election campaign event, May 2024. Chris J Ratcliffe/Reuters

Rishi Sunak, already spiritually halfway to Santa Monica, has decided the rest of us must remain in the trenches long after 4 July. On Sunday – the God-given day of rest, for Christ’s sake – Sunak proposed that 18-year-olds should get off their arses and do compulsory national service.

A policy scrapped – by the Tories! – over half a century ago, enforced national service has been coming back into vogue in Conservative circles, pushed by rightwing think tank Onward (one does wonder how long its director, ex-FT journalist and failed Tory candidate Sebastian Payne – a man whose milky-white skin and uncalloused hands suggest he’s yet to lift anything heavier than a cinnamon bun – would last in the army, but that’s by the by).

The idea isn’t just nicked from Onward, however, but from the Conservatives themselves. It’s effectively a reannouncement of the National Citizenship Service that was a cornerstone of David Cameron’s “big society” shtick, but with more guns. Cameron’s £1.5bn scheme has been an unmitigated disaster since he launched it in 2010, filling just 12% of places and allegedly forcing one of its charity partners into insolvency – but if there’s one thing the Tories love, it’s doing CPR on lifeless policies.

Sunak proposes that 18-year-olds be given a choice between volunteering at the weekends (yay!) or spending a year in the army (boo!). No sooner had the words left his mouth than they’d been panned by military chiefs unexcited by the prospect of managing legions of have-a-go heroes. “I’m delighted if more young people become aware of defence and are involved … but this idea is basically bonkers,” former naval chief Admiral Alan West told the Guardian.

While it may already be dead in the water, the policy has been parsed by lobby Tory-whisperers as part of Sunak’s attempt to make security the party’s USP at the snap election. Sadly, the images of a tanked pound, a furious IMF and a wilted lettuce remain seared in the national consciousness.

My read on this performative flag-shagging – or as I like to call it, the Reform voter mating dance – is slightly different. Yes, the Conservatives want to signal their security credentials, particularly given the bloodthirst Labour has shown towards Gaza. But it’s also about signalling their special loathing for the young.

Alongside migrants and the “extreme far left”, this election will be a war on young people – a lost cause for the Tories, who since the last election have slashed their share of 18-24-year-old votes from 21% to a pitiful 8%. Stagnant growth, Palestine flags everywhere, people using the wrong toilets, landlordophobia, chaos with George Galloway – all will be blamed on a generation that has lost respect for its country and needs to be taught a lesson.

Labour will chime in, obviously. Famously complacent about its traditional base and desperate to poach votes from the right, Labour will see the Tories’ generational warfare as an opportunity to present itself as the party of grown-ups, of “power, not protest”. Starmer will rewrite his countless U-turns as the sign not of abject untrustworthiness but of responsible parenting of a nation of whingeing teenagers. Mummy and Daddy have checked with the bank and someone’s maxed out the credit card – no rent controls for you.

The bigger idea is to beat out of us – not just the young, all of us – the notion that things could possibly improve, to instil a sense of inevitability in the millions of people who until recently believed that Britain could be better: that it could build 100,000 council houses a year, abolish tuition fees, and unshit its waterways. I’d say those people were probably the patriots, but then what would I know – I’m only 16.

The article was adapted from our newsletter The Cortado. For more general election analysis straight into your inbox, click here.

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.

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