Picture credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Talk of conscription is pure fantasy politics

We do not have the forces, the seriousness or the need for a major ground war

Can Brits look forward to being conscripted for the first time since National Service ended in 1963? Although General Sir Patrick Saunders, the outgoing head of the Army, hasn’t quite called for its reintroduction, he has warned it is a possibility in a major speech warning about the threat of war with Russia.

This comes hot on the heels of defence secretary Grant Shapps’ claim that we are now in a “prewar” phase and can expect potential conflicts within five years with North Korea, Iran, Russia or China. Back in 2022 General Saunders also said the Russian invasion of Ukraine was our “1937 moment”. So are we really heading for a major war?

Leaving aside whether generals should really be telling the public how to think, this beating of the war drums is deeply unrealistic.

While the possibility of conscription is raised, the armed forces are going through a recruiting crisis. Indeed, it is so bad that plans are afoot to mothball our two assault ships due to a lack of sailors, leaving the Royal Marines bereft of their unique role.

Quite why is hotly debated. Some suggest it is because they are finding it hard to compete with the private sector or because of the long time it takes to go from recruitment to actual training. Others have noted that the armed forces rely on young white men and suggested that stories about anti-white discrimination might be discouraging them, as appears to be the case in the USA. Some right-wing influencers agree, arguing that young Brits should resist being conscripted for a nation which won’t even control its own borders.

Efforts to turn this around have focused on a more diverse recruiting pool. Recently the Army ran a campaign in which YouTubers “Yung Filly” and “Elz the Witch” were supposed to play a video game against a team of Army gamers, although it seems to have fallen apart amidst a backlash and potential legal issues with using the videogame to promote recruitment.

The announcement that Gen Z might face conscription certainly didn’t lead to an outpouring of earthy beef-eating patriotism, with social housing activist Kwajo Tweneboa, saying it was a “Good thing I ain’t ‘British by ethnicity’ then”. Although that, and the many replies he got in agreement, could be dismissed as simply social media, the figures back them up.

Despite years of pushing for more diversity, only 9.6 per cent of the British Army come from ethnic minorities and 38.6 per cent of ethnic minorities in the Regular Forces don’t have British nationality, meaning British ethnic minorites are even more under-represented than it first appears. Nor is it much better when looking at other groups: a mere 3.8 per cent of soldiers have any religion other than Christianity or no religion; meaning that Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Buddhists rarely sign up. 

Only a few years ago the Guardian was reduced to hair splitting to get around the awkward reality that there were only 640 Muslims serving in the armed forces compared to around 750 British Muslims who’d travelled to Syria for jihad. 

Perhaps in a major industrial war all this would be swept aside, either by patriotic fervour or by the threat of prison for refusing conscription. Could Britain even fight such a war though?

First of all, it is worth understanding how big an undertaking that would be. Consider that the British Expeditionary Force sent to France in 1914 was around 100,000 strong, from a force of 250,000 regulars and 200,000 reservists. By the end of the year, pretty much all of those men had become casualties in one way or another. It took until 1916 for the new volunteer army to be ready and their first big battle was the Somme, where they famously lost 57,000 men in one day. It would take them another two years to develop into the war winning force of the Hundred Days offensive, in which 1.9 million British soldiers fought.

In contrast, the British Army today may soon drop below 70,000. Our Challenger 3 tank is about to begin trials but we have still only ordered 148 of them, in comparison to the 386 Challenger 2 tanks bought in the 1990s. Our Boxer armoured vehicles are still prototypes with years to go before they are fully operational and the Ajax programme will take until 2028 or 2029. All of these vehicles are complex, expensive and take years to replace.

So if there is a conflict within the next five years, our Army still won’t be fully equipped. When it starts taking casualties, it will also find it very hard to replace them. The war in Ukraine has depleted our stocks, to the point where British-supplied artillery in Ukraine has run out of shells, while British Army figures complain that we have nothing left to donate. In much the same way that Ukraine has found itself dragging antiques from the Cold War and even the Second World War out, we might well find ourselves stuck scavenging for whatever we can find after a few months of high intensity combat.

Increasingly we also don’t have the industrial base to support it either. Our sky-high energy prices as a result of the war in Ukraine and our own Net Zero policies have crippled many industries, with the Port Talbot closure potentially heralding the end of our ability to make steel. The sort of “shadow factories” set up before WWII to expand once war began simply don’t exist and, despite the rhetoric of Shapps and others, nobody seems to be suggesting the sort of infrastructure or reserves required will actually be built.

There’s also no guarantee that we can keep what we have. The war in Ukraine has been full of attacks on critical infrastructure, from Nordstream to attack drones hitting refineries. In any major war, our already overloaded infrastructure would be deeply vulnerable to sabotage.

we aren’t ready for such things and aren’t making much of an effort to get ready

In 1937 Britain was an Empire, with a Commonwealth to call upon, which spent huge sums to maintain a global military presence. That is no longer true and in any conflict we would be reduced to an auxiliary role: providing a small force for NATO in Eastern Europe, or a few ships to help the Americans in the Far East. Rhetoric about conscription and the imminent threat of war disguises that we aren’t ready for such things and aren’t making much of an effort to get ready.

If we want to be serious about defence then we should define our strategic priorities much more rigorously: we do not have the forces or the need to go to war over Taiwan or North Korean nuclear weapons. We do have an interest in Europe but deterring Russia is best met by supporting Ukraine rather than building a fantasy force. Most importantly of all, we should be looking at arresting our industrial decline with cheap energy, planning reform, and ending the glut of cheap labour which has led to us having one of the worst rates of automation in the developed world. That will be much more important than conscription.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover