No, Conscription Will Not Fix Britain’s Army Crisis

Over the last 20 years, the British Army has been brutally and remorselessly hollowed out, and policymakers are finally waking up.

Since UK Lieutenant-General Richard Sander’s words in the last months of 2023, conscription has remained a constant feature of British defense discourse and discussion. Beyond headlines, the issue has been a sharp wake-up call to the state of the British armed forces.

Over the last 20 years, the British Army in particular has been brutally and remorselessly hollowed out. Its conventional combat arms have suffered particularly badly.

At least one senior NATO figurehead has had the courage to point out the obvious: the British Army is no longer a functional fighting force. It is a skeleton army, composed of understrength units that have had their historical identities, and therefore much of their cohesion, destroyed by repeated amalgamations over the last 30 years.

Capability Gaps

Attempts to paper over this problem have largely consisted of beefing up special forces units. Even this, however, has been done on the cheap.

Instead of raising completely new formations, the Ministry of Defence took four existing infantry battalions, unceremoniously wiped them of their 400-year-old identities and battle honors, and called them the Ranger Regiment in imitation of the US Army.

A similar fate befell the historic London Regiment, which was reshaped into the London Guards to act as a reserve depot for the four Guards regiments.

Even more egregious is the failure to replace equipment as it wears out or to keep stockpiles of old equipment in storage. The British Army now faces grievous capability gaps in artillery, air defense, armor, and conventional infantry — in short, everything an army needs to actually fight.

A UK Royal Air Force F-35B
A UK Royal Air Force F-35B from 617 Sqn prepares for night flying training exercises. Photo: UK Ministry of Defence/Crown copyright 2023

Universal vs. Selective Conscription

Now, finally, British policymakers are waking up to the probability that this weak, poorly balanced army might have to fight a war similar to those of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. Its inability to do so leaves British influence curtailed, rendering the UK vulnerable to being swept up by decisions made in other countries.

To avoid this, the British Army will have to rapidly expand within the next few years. Whatever headlines might claim, universal conscription can safely be ruled out. Senior British officers oppose it, and those facing call-up would bitterly resist it.

Instead, certain figures have suggested a system modeled on Scandinavian “selective conscription,” whereby only a picked minority of conscripts are actually inducted.

The danger here is that Britain has used a selective conscription system before, and it proved highly controversial.

From 1757 until 1831, every British county was required to choose by ballot a certain number of men who would serve for five years in the Militia. Those who did not wish to serve could provide a substitute or pay a fine.

Like selective conscription today, Militia service had many advantages, both for those who took part and for the British Army. It offered the opportunity for travel, a degree of social prestige, and an easier route into the regular army for those who were inclined. From 1802 to 1815, 110,000 militiamen and officers transferred to the regular service.

British Generations

Despite this, militia service remained stubbornly unpopular for much the same reason that selective conscription would be unpopular in modern Britain. The burden of the ballot fell disproportionately upon the rural poor and the working class, who understandably feared being dragged into service overseas.

This fear has a deep resonance with British youth today, whose trust in the government’s judgment and integrity has been destroyed by the legacy of Iraq, the cost of living crisis, and the mismanagement of COVID-19.

Like the ballot before it, even merely selective conscription would also risk exacerbating economic and intergenerational tensions within British society. The primary age groups that would face conscription are late Millennials, Generation Z, and the earliest age brackets of Generation Alpha.

All three generations face a grim economic future, with low spending power, poor job security, limited opportunities to emigrate, and looming environmental disaster.

Baby Boomers, by contrast, enjoyed the benefits of economic ties with Europe, free university tuition, and a large generational bloc that gives them immense electoral power. Baby Boomers were far too young to be conscripted when National Service ended in 1960 and are far too old to be conscripted now, yet they are the generation that most support its return.

For young Britons, the author included, the prospect of being sent off to fight a war on behalf of a society that favors rich pensioners is not an inviting one.

Light Close Reconnaissance Commanders Course
British Army soldiers during the Light Close Reconnaissance Commanders Course. Photo: Sergeant Mark Larner RLC/Crown Copyright 2021

Wider Reforms

If this is to be avoided, any reintroduction of conscription must be accompanied by wider reforms aimed at redressing the imbalances within British society.

British youth must be assured that, when their service ends, they will come home to a good job, decent accommodation, and a rebuilt social support network. This is not too much to ask for in exchange for facing the horrors of warfare.

Failure to do so risks a repeat of the situation facing Britain after 1815, when the country was flooded by unemployed veterans who resented their mistreatment at the hands of Industrialization. The next 20 years were characterized by riots, political instability, and the prospect of violent revolution.

It is the duty of British policymakers to ensure that, however the army is rebuilt, this does not happen again.

Headshot William Morris

William Morris is a graduate of the History Department at Anglia Ruskin University and of the War Studies Department at King’s College London.

His primary sphere of research is British home defense and national readiness.

His Bachelor’s dissertation addressed the British public image of defense during the Napoleonic Wars, while his Master’s Dissertation focused on British anti-invasion capabilities in 1940.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

The Defense Post aims to publish a wide range of high-quality opinion and analysis from a diverse array of people – do you want to send us yours? Click here to submit an op-ed.

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