THE threat to revive compulsory national military service by the Tories is obviously a pathetic electoral ploy designed to save votes among the older demographic in southern English constituencies.

After a week of gaffes by Rishi Sunak, this move smacks of sheer desperation. The latest polls have Labour on 45% and the Tories at 23% and falling. Even Jeremy Corbyn managed to garner 32% of the popular vote in 2019 against Boris Johnson’s 44%. The Conservatives are headed towards electoral oblivion with or without conscription.

However, do not think that the Tories getting their jotters means the end of the debate over compulsory military service. This genie is now well and truly out of its political bottle. By proposing the return of National Service (abolished in the UK back in 1960) Sunak has transformed an idea usually confined to the crackpot fringes into a mainstream debate.

Even if there is a Labour victory, that does not mean conscription is off the agenda. Quite the contrary, in fact. Welcome to a new stage in the new Cold War.

If you are aged 18, start to be very worried.

There is far more to Sunak’s military turn than electoral politics. Quite simply, the British armed forces, particularly the army, are desperately short of bodies. A Ministry of Defence report published in April revealed that UK military numbers have plummeted to their lowest levels since the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s.

All services are affected: the British Army, Royal Navy, Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force. Army numbers plummeted from 109,600 troops (which was already low) to 76,950 between 2000 and 2023. That’s a fall of 30%. The RAF is down to about 31,940 personnel, and the Navy and Marines to 32,590. That’s around 140,000 in total.

To put that number into perspective, you wouldn’t want to fight a war with Colombia (293,200 active military), Italy (165,000), Morocco (195,800), Sri Lanka (255,000), or Nigeria (143,000). Never mind the big boys: China (more than two million), India (1.5 million), North Korea (1.3 million), Russia (1.1 million), Pakistan (660,000), South Korea (500,000) or even Thailand (360,000).

Of course, raw numbers can be misleading. Training and equipment count. But at some point, the numbers kick in. And the UK simply does not have enough military personnel to fight a sustained war of any size against a modern opponent.

Of course, the UK isn’t planning any foreign wars of its own – yet. The last Labour government happily (and unilaterally) invaded Sierra Leone in May 2000, as part of Robin Cook’s “ethical foreign policy”. Emboldened by this return to gunboat diplomacy, the then defence secretary (our very own George Robertson) went mad and ordered two new aircraft carriers so New Labour could “project power” around the globe.

From there it was a short skip and a jump to Tony Blair brown-nosing US president George W Bush all the way into Baghdad and Afghanistan.

I’m not sanguine that Starmer & Co have learned any lessons. I fully expect Sir Keir to follow his Labour predecessors in signing up to whatever foreign adventures the White House and Pentagon have has in mind.

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Which brings us back to conscription. For some time, the Tories and senior officers in the UK military have been gently massaging public opinion regarding the need to force young people to sign up. Earlier this year, General Sir Patrick Sanders warned that if the UK went to war with Russia, we would need to train a “citizen army” because the current size of the military, even including reservists, is too small.

The general, the head of the army, was careful to use code. But a “citizen army” equals conscription. Labour’s response was what you might expect. Shadow defence secretary John Healey (a noted pro-Nato hawk) said: “Labour will ensure Britain is better defended. In government, we will overhaul military recruitment.”

But why can’t the Army get enough soldiers? In part it is down to Tory austerity cuts which have restricted military pay and worsened housing conditions for military families. Then there are the inevitable pressures on serving personnel as fewer soldiers means more work and greater danger. Result: the Army has more people leaving than joining. Last year more than 16,000 soldiers left, while only 12,000 joined up.

That said, the sudden rehabilitation of forced military conscription (especially in peacetime) is more than a simple response to a temporary recruitment crisis. We are being softened up for the day when the new Cold War becomes a very hot war. As their swan song, the Tories are cranking up the war rhetoric. Expect Starmer to outdo them.

OK, Labour’s first response is to call the Tory conscription plan a gimmick – and point out, correctly, that there is no cash in the Treasury kitty to fund it. But Starmer can’t afford to look “soft” on defence.

He will soon come up with a plan for more spending on the military and edge towards conscription if recruitment bribes don’t work.

A closer look at the Tory plan is instructive. Conscription was abolished because the Army itself did not want tens of thousands of sullen and increasingly left-wing conscripts causing trouble. Conscription is only good for cannon fodder, not for creating a trained, professional army that does what its political masters want. America found this out in Vietnam.

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So the new Tory plan splits conscripts into two groups. The military will cream off the 30,000 best – malleable, patriotic, ambitious – while the sullen rest get sent to sweep hospitals and plant daisies in public parks. (Incidentally, flooding the public sector with thousands of low-paid youth will drive down wages for ordinary workers. And will the conscripted youth be ordered to work through a strike?)

There is a case for national service in small nations that require home defence (as opposed to supporting American imperialist adventures). Switzerland and the Nordic counties retain various forms of conscription. But this is part of a permanent national reserve system, not a desperate manoeuvre to make up for 14 years of Tory defence cuts. And certainly not as a deliberate ploy to frighten the electorate into believing another major global conflict is inevitable.

Conscription in the UK was first introduced in 1916 during the Great War and proved deeply unpopular. It was brought in after the early rush of volunteers became a trickle, as the insane carnage on the Western Front became obvious. Some 1.3 million men were conscripted.

Many refused to fight or fled abroad. In 1917, when even this flood of cannon fodder proved too limited, moves were made to conscript previously exempt skilled workers in the munition plants. This provoked a near general strike in mid-1917.

The Tories are showing their desperation even if their conscription ploy wins them back a few Reform votes. But be warned: Tory and Labour war mongers have seized the initiative. Only Scottish independence can save us from the inevitable slide to fresh global adventures.