It may have come as something of a shock to the UK’s young people, struggling with the cost-of-living crisis, cut off from the property ladder and facing the prospect of never being able to retire, to find they could soon be deployed east to fight the Russians.

On Wednesday General Sir Patrick Sanders, Chief of the General Staff, warned that the military is too small and the nation should prepare itself for the possibility of being called up to fight Vladimir Putin if NATO goes to war with Moscow.

Speaking at the International Armoured Vehicles exhibition in London, he said ministers must be prepared to “mobilise the nation” and declared “regular armies start wars; citizen armies win them”.

That was soon followed by Tobias Ellwood MP, a former soldier and defence minister, telling Sky News “there is a 1939 feel to the world right now” and saying we should “listen carefully” to General Sir Sanders.

The remarks inevitably sparked debate over whether mandatory national service should be brought back, an idea popular with elements of the Conservative right.

As pointed out by many on social media, many who did national service could have been in and out of the army, navy or air force in the time it takes them to get an NHS appointment in 2024, while others have underlined the epic mismanagement of a government which is forced to contemplate returning to conscription to beef up its own armed forces.

For many though mandatory military service is an attractive proposition. They argue it would give young people the opportunity to learn skills and “increase a sense of belonging”, as well as – it’s claimed – reducing crime and petty vandalism.

Are we really about to see the return of national service? Or is it all just a load of hot air?

Bring it back?

Though the end of the Second World War meant thousands of men and women being demobilised, it was decided that the nation needed to maintain a large armed forces, not least to secure the British Empire around the globe.

Troops were stationed in West Berlin following its partition under the Potsdam Agreement, as well as in India and in Mandatory Palestine, something which was not popular with a nation still suffering the aftershock of war with Germany.

Despite significant opposition from both the Liberals and within its own ranks, Clement Attlee’s Labour government passed the National Service Act in 1947, with a revised and extended version brought in the following year.

All physically fit men between the ages of 17 and 21 were required to spend 18 months in a branch of the armed forces, after which they would be a reserve for the next four years.

The Herald: National service soldiers

National service was abolished in Britain in 1960, with the last recruits completing their service three years later.

Despite the “bring back national service” cries from the usual suspects, the idea is not particularly popular with the public.

A YouGov poll in September last year found 64% opposed compulsory military service of 12 months, while 62% opposed compulsory service for a month.

Public proponents of some form of national service include Nigel Farage, who was born in 1964 and has never done national service, and Penny Mordaunt who was born in 1973 and, as a woman, would not have been required to participate anyway.

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Actor Michael Caine did serve – and saw action in the Korean War – but cold, hard demographics indicate most of the relative few who support military service have never served in the armed forces and never will. In the aforementioned YouGov poll, those aged 18-24 were 78% opposed, with 67% ‘strongly opposed’ while support stood at around a third for people aged between 50 and 64.

Among the countries which retain some form of conscription are South Korea, North Korea, Israel and, yes, Russia while others such as Slovakia, China and the United States can, in theory, require national service but will only mobilise the general population in the event of a national emergency.

To Russia with Love?

National service, then, is perhaps not a panacea for whatever social ills Britain may be facing, but could it be necessary due to the state of the country’s armed forces?

Attached to the warnings over conscription were calls to boost defence spending and warnings over the depletion of things like bombers and fighter jets since the end of the Cold War.

General Sir Sanders’ comments may well be a call for yet more money to be ploughed into the UK military – replacing the Trident nuclear system could cost over £200bn – but he’s far from alone in openly speaking of all-out war with Russia.

Last week Dutch admiral Robert Bauer, head of the NATO military committee warned: “We need to be readier across the whole spectrum. You have to have a system in place to find more people if it comes to war, whether it does or not.

The Herald: Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (Nato/PA)

"Then you talk mobilisation, reservists or conscription. We have to realise it’s not a given that we are in peace. And that’s why we are preparing for a conflict with Russia."

Ahead of General Sir Sanders’ speech, Mr Ellwood said the world has a “1939 feel” to it, while US president Joe Biden has raised the spectre of “American troops fighting Russian troops” in his calls for more funding for Ukraine.

At this point it is perhaps worth considering whether this kind of rhetoric is wise. There are several myths and half-truths propagated by Mr Putin when it comes to NATO and the west. In 1994 in Budapest, Russia, the United States and the UK agreed to provide “security assurances” to Ukraine in exchange for its surrender of Soviet-era nuclear weapons so, while the accord stopped short of providing guarantees of military assistance, it is hardly unforeseen that NATO countries provided munitions and other assistance following the Russian invasion.

Furthermore – and despite the urgings of Mikhail Gorbachev – the alliance never pledged not to accept any former Soviet bloc countries as members with US President Bill Clinton saying: “I can't make commitments on behalf of NATO, and I'm not going to be in the position myself of vetoing NATO expansion with respect to any country”. In 2022 Reuters reported that a provisional deal had been put to Russia before its invasion by its chief envoy to Ukraine, Dmitry Kozak, that would have assured Kyiv would not join NATO. This has been denied by the Kremlin, but even Volodymr Zelenskyy has admitted membership is “impossible” at least in the near-term.

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Mr Putin cited potential expansion of NATO as one of his pretexts for invasion, but made clear at the same time that he does not respect the sovereignty of Ukraine and sees it as part of Russia. He said: “Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians.. modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia… You want decommunisation? Very well, this suits us just fine. But why stop halfway? We are ready to show what real decommunisation would mean for Ukraine.”

A dangerous game

That is not to say, however, that there isn’t real – and in some cases justified – suspicion of the west in Russia. Following the October Revolution of 1917 troops from France, the US and the UK were all deployed to fight against the Bolsheviks in subsequent Civil War, while the Soviet Union lost 27 million as it repelled Nazi Germany in World War II. NATO may never have promised not to expand to the east, but it was clear from the end of the Cold War that to do so would be considered provocative by Moscow.

The Herald: The Kremlin

President Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright said in her memoir that “(Boris) Yeltsin and his countrymen were strongly opposed to enlargement” while her deputy Strobe Talbott, while arguing in favour of growing the alliance, warned “many Russians see NATO as a vestige of the Cold War, inherently directed against their country. They point out that they have disbanded the Warsaw Pact, their military alliance, and ask why the West should not do the same.”

In that context, you don’t have to be a Putin apologist to suggest that perhaps open talk of armed conflict with Russia, a nuclear power, may not be the best idea.

On the other hand, it might help deal with another right-wing fixation. The return of national service probably isn’t on the cards and probably wouldn’t do much for society anyway – but there’ll be no need to bring back hanging if we’ve all been vapourised by nuclear fire anyway.