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Conscription? Maybe stop cutting the regular army, first

The UK armed forces really are dangerously depleted - by the Tories own wanton cuts and piss-poor outsourcing, not by lack of patriotism. 

January 27 2024, 14.36pm

It’s quite easy to dismiss the recent floating of conscription as another hysterical Tory blather - yet another attempt to rally the bedraggled voters, this time by promising them to have a go at the indolent youth and instill in them some notions of Service and Patriotism and Duty. This has certainly been the tone of much of conservative commentators - safely removed from conscription age - and whenever you catch a whiff of someone thinking in Emphatic Capitals,  survival instincts compel you to back away slowly.

At the same time, it is true that successive Conservative governments have absolutely decimated Britain’s armed forces - however much they’ve done to bolster the fighting capabilities of allies, notably Ukraine. As of the time of writing, the total strength of the British army is a touch below 76,000. The Times ran the fairly consistent trends of soldiers leaving versus soldiers signing up, alongside already promised personnel cuts, and concluded that within a decade the army will drop to 52,000 - small enough, the paper notes, to fit, in its entirety, into the Etihad Stadium in Manchester. And even today - according to both US and UK military sources interviewed for the same Times analysis - the UK could barely manage to put a brigade in the field at short notice, to say nothing of an armored corps: it has the tanks but lacks the transporters to move them.   

So should conscription, at this stage, actually be entertained other than a sop to peevish grievances? Hardly. Conscription would be a disaster - taking young people at their most creative and energetic and teaching them to obey rather than to think will result in less cultural and economic dynamism down the line, not more. And anyway there is little to suggest conscript armies are necessarily better than professional ones. General Sir Patrick Sanders suggested Ukraine proved that was indeed the case; but Iraq had a conscript army facing a professional invader, too. 

Perhaps before we start talking about conscription, we should think about how to repair the damage done Conservative governments to the army as it stands. Increasing salaries and introducing post-service scholarships could boost recruitment. Putting a torch to Conservative cronyism and economic mismanagement could help find the money. Tellingly, as in most public sector failures of the last decade and a half, there is a flailing outsourcing contractor here, too: the recruitment company Capita took over £1 billion of taxpayer money, failed to meet its recruitment target every year for a decade, but just had its contracts extended by another two years. And forging an imaginative, optimistic, inclusive purpose for the UK that’s not about petty grievances, xenophobia and the preservation of slave-trader statues might make this country a little more inspiring to serve. For better or worse, all this seems quite outside the scope of talent for the current government. 

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