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Call of duty: The row over a 'citizens army'

(Illustrations by Tracy Worrall)

10 min read

Patrick Sanders infuriated Rishi Sunak by calling for a ‘citizen army’ in a speech dismissed as ‘alarmist’. But, as Sophie Church and Tali Fraser report, the debate on how to expand troop numbers has started and looks set to intensify after the election. Illustrations by Tracy Worrall

Gen Sir Patrick Sanders’ call for the United Kingdom to train a “citizen army” caused major ructions earlier this year, not least inside No 10. Such was the anger in Downing Street, the head of the army was rebuked by his boss, chief of the defence staff, Adm Sir Tony Radakin, who described the call to arms as “alarmist”. 

Sanders is said to have been surprised that his demand for a “whole-nation” effort to prepare for war led to headlines about conscription. He cannot, however, have been so naive as to believe that it wouldn’t trigger a national debate about whether the UK is ready for a conflict with, for example, Russia, at a time when the British army has sunk to its lowest level of regular troops in 200 years. 

“I know for a fact he [Sanders] was surprised that conscription suddenly came out in association with his speech on a citizen army and it infuriated No 10 because it was a mishandled bit of phraseology,” says professor Michael Clarke, former director-general of the Royal United Services Institute. 

“What he was saying is that unless we create a bigger force, in a few years’ time we might be facing a conscription problem.” 

But what would it take to build up a citizen army and could it really be done without conscription? 

Ukraine, of course, provides the most dramatic example of what it takes for a country to stand up a citizen army. Since the Russian invasion two years ago, British soldiers have trained more than 30,000 Ukrainians under Operation Interflex. They include former lorry drivers and shopkeepers, with many arriving for their five-week intensive training in civilian clothes. Ministry of Defence officials believe there are “useful lessons” to take for a future citizen army in the UK, based on the programme’s success.  

We really have a force which is hollow. It’s all in the shop window

But it is the Baltics that provide the most relevant model for the sort of capacity to which Sanders was alluding, given the UK is not, in fact, at war. Former chairman of the Defence Select Committee Tobias Ellwood hails Finland’s 280,000-strong reserve of soldiers, as well as regular retraining. The approach is, he says, “the best in Nato” in allowing “a very small, regular army and then a very large defence force that can be tapped into at any time”. 

“Of all the models I’ve seen – and we spent a bit of time as a committee looking at these – it fitted in very, very well with a population that doesn’t want to be twiddling their thumbs.” 

Elwood’s successor Jeremy Quin thinks the rest of government has a part to play. “In civil emergencies we have to ensure there is resilience in place so that the armed forces are genuinely the ‘break glass option’, and not the first port of call,” says Quin. “In the event of all-out war, each department must be prepared and ready to play its part.”  

But in building up a reserve force, ministers face severe recruitment challenges. Richard Drax, a Conservative MP and member of the Defence Committee, has a number of radical, not to say controversial, solutions. 

“In some cases, particularly among some of the young, they have got to a point where – for whatever reason – they’re not prepared to contribute to our country and to serve their country,” Drax says. 

“If they can’t be encouraged to do that, then maybe we’ve got to a point where they should be told to do so – and, if they’ve refused three offers of a job, or whatever the number would be, and they say: ‘I’m sorry, I’m not doing any of that’, you then say, in which case, you must go and do two years in the armed forces.” 

One cabinet minister did not totally reject Drax’s idea and says that a review of “how to engage young people in military service would be worth examining”, especially as we face up to “uncertain times” where “our future security cannot be taken for granted unless we invest in it fully”. 

Drax, who spent years training army personnel, also suggests that young offenders get their sentence shortened if they agree to go into the army.  

“Let’s say [a young person] has 10 pints of beer, slugs somebody and is locked up for it. If you get that sort of behaviour, you could, as a magistrate, say to these young men and women: ‘You’ve got an option; if you’re a good boy or girl, you’ll come out but you must do a year in the armed forces’,” Drax says. 

“Because so many come out even more rudderless and reoffend. If they get put into an institution that looks after them, trains them and teaches them all the good things in life, I would have thought that chance of reoffending is much, much smaller.”  

Illustrations by Tracy WorrallThose ideas may be politically unpalatable at the moment but Drax insists the picture could change dramatically. 

“It worries me because if it gets to the pitch – everyone keeps saying, well the Defence Secretary was saying, we are now in a pre-war period – and many are predicting a war against a peer adversary within the next five to 10 years, I can tell you 70,000 men and women won’t last long… You’ve only got to look at Ukraine to see the huge numbers of casualties they are suffering and the struggle they are having to replace them in a country of over 40 million,” he adds. 

Ellwood likens the situation to the run-up to the Second World War, in that it is difficult to get people to register the gravity of the situation. 

“There are big, big questions as to how we expand the defence environment’s architecture and nobody’s really willing to address that in an election year. Funds are tight. It is difficult. People like me make the argument that you need to do the preparations now, train people up, because it’s [just like] 1937, but it’s hard to convince anybody.” 

But he believes the UK’s capacity to meet the looming threat of war “will become a major debate” for the next government as there is a “haemorrhage of personnel where we’re not attracting enough, we’re not retaining enough, and we know that”. 

While many criticise Britain’s younger generation for being social media obsessed and workshy, Conservative MP for Wrexham Sarah Atherton is confident a form of military service might be made appealing.  

“I think we underestimate the young people of today in thinking they wouldn’t step up, because I think they would,” she says firmly. However, the question is how to sell national service to a modern society. “I think that’d be quite interesting, because they wouldn’t want to go into old-fashioned spider blocks [army accommodation] and do square bashing [marching drills].”  

Marketing military service as a means of boosting a young person’s career prospects could be the answer, she suggests. If young people knew that the skills they would gain by doing national service – through team building, outward bounds, sports and resilience building, for example – would translate into a strong CV, they may be more willing to take part.  

Equally, she says, if the military knew that “Joe Bloggs from Merthyr Tydfil is really quite good at cyber” through getting to know him in national service, he would be more employable in a military career. “If it was a trade-off where it was symbiotic, so the young person would get something from it,” she says, national service would become more normalised.  Illustrations by Tracy Worrall

“The old national service, going back to that, was designed to use people [so we would be] ready to go to war with the Soviet Union,” says Lord West, the Labour peer. “And it was quite militarised and focused absolutely on producing cannon fodder. I use that advisedly.”  

However, he points to the youth group Sea Cadets – in lieu of a modern-day national service equivalent – as proof attitudes to such service have changed. “It’s much more embracing, and gives much wider skills,” he says. “If you’re in the Sea Cadets, you get a chance to go sailing and learn how to sail a canoe. All these things are wonderful things to be able to do in a structured environment.”  

Attitudes against conscription, professor Clarke says, remain strong: “It is completely against our DNA as a nation.” 

The reality of the data supports that, showing large numbers would not want to sign up. Research from YouGov found almost one-third of 18 to 40-year-olds – the rough demographic used by the British government during conscription in the First and Second World Wars – would refuse to serve in the armed forces in the event of a new world war, even if the UK was facing imminent invasion. 

This is close to the proportion who said that if Britain was under threat in a world war they would either actively volunteer (11 per cent) or at least accept being conscripted (23 per cent). 

Of those who would refuse conscription, the most common reason was an unwillingness to fight for the rich and powerful (21 per cent), with seven per cent saying they simply weren’t prepared to fight for this country. 

Professor Clarke believes that attitudes might change among this group – “because they haven’t thought about it very much at the moment” – and if there were extra political capital spent on pushing the idea, alongside a good advertising campaign, there could be positive movement. 

Quin says the threat of war is already helping with recruitment and retention. “Are people in this country more aware of the threat, more aware of the risks than they were before? I’m sure they are. And will that help drive more people to apply to join the armed forces? Well, early signs, ministers are telling us, are positive. However we still need to get them through the process and, critically, ensure experienced personnel are retained.” 

Drax believes there will come a point where conscription will return, but it will only be accepted by the public once there is a direct, genuine threat – like ships being sunk or a battalion lost on the eastern front. 

I think the further west you go, the more complacent countries become

“I think the further west you go, the more complacent countries become. Understandably, Poland’s rearming now, and Finland. Even Sweden, for heaven’s sake, is spending more on defence and taking it very seriously. So in our country, whether we could organise something like that at this stage, I doubt,” he says. 

There are two main reasons that Drax flags. The first is that he doesn’t believe British citizens will commit to it at this stage, and the second is financial as “we just don’t have the cash to even partly train that sort of number of people”. 

Drax adds: “It is not until war breaks out, then, of course, the government would pass a law saying men and women aged between 18 and X must sign up. Then you’d have to sign up or you’d be breaking the law.” 

Professor Clarke believes that the recruitment challenges are currently too great to create Sanders’s vision of a citizen army – this side of the election at least. 

He agrees with the army chief’s statement that “regular armies start wars; citizen armies win them” – and in order to have a “ready and credible fighting force to deter a war”, says professor Clarke, Britain needs to be looking at gaining an additional 100,000 to 150,000 people. 

“We really have a force which is hollow. It’s all in the shop window,” he adds. “Nothing will change until the election… but it is not beyond our ability to create a genuine volunteer force of reservists, who are quite intense reservists, doing more than they do at the moment and are available in the event of a crisis or an emergency to immediately become regulars.” 

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