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Sunak picks a generation fight

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers a stump speech to party members at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, while on the General Election campaign trail.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers a stump speech to party members at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, while on the General Election campaign trail.


The golden rule of desperate politicians? Find a target, pick a fight.

In Britain, they are frantically rewriting dictionaries to ensure the word “desperate” is spelled “Sunak” after the poll-parched British PM Rishi Sunk – I mean Sunak – launched his campaign for the July 4th election.

Because Ian wrote about Sunak’s quizzical election call yesterday in his GZERO newsletter, I won’t warm over the fandango of foozles that have left Sunak a gaping 27 points behind Labour – from the now infamous rain-soaked “Drowning Street” launch to his follow-up visit to the Titanic shipyard. But desperate times call for desperate policies, so as sure as Pimm’s at Wimbledon, Sunak has predictably picked a target: young people.

“There’s no doubt that our democratic values are under threat,” Sunak said as he sprung a new promise to bring back a compulsory service for young people in Britain decades after the last one was disbanded in 1960. “That is why we will introduce a bold new model of national service for 18-year-olds.” For once, a Sunak policy announcement made more headlines than his campaign clangers.

The plan would require that all 18-year-old Brits give a year of service in the military (up to 30,000 people could do this) or, for the rest of the 700,000 members of that demographic, some other form of community service for one weekend a month, working with organizations like the police, NHS, and fire service.

The plan would cost about 2.5 billion pounds a year and its goal is to unite diverse Britons in a shared mission of values, selflessness, and service.

How popular is the idea? According to a new YouGov poll, 47% of Brits support the idea, while 45% oppose it. Even better for Conservatives looking for a wedge: 63% of folks over age 65 – voters who go to the polls and who often vote Conservative! – support the idea, and 53% between the ages of 50-64 support it. That adds up to a winning issue for Sunak.

Who’s against it? The vast majority of young people, with 65% of those aged 18 to 24 and 47% between the ages of 25 and 49 opposed to it.

This is what you call an intergenerational political war. For a policy meant to unite the country, the first thing it has done is divide it.

Still, to Sunak’s credit, the idea has got folks talking and it has merit. He has finally seized back some control of the agenda with a provocative idea instead of a pratfall. He has pointed out that a similar program has been successful in Sweden and that he is building on David Cameron’s 2010 volunteer program, the National Citizens Service, which is still in place.

There are also similar programs in the US and Canada. Every year over 200,000 young Americans participate in AmeriCorps, getting them to volunteer in community programs across the country, while generations have gone overseas to work in the Peace Corps, the famed international development program set up by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

In Canada, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau started a youth volunteer program called Katimavik in the late 1970s. It’s now funded under the larger Canada Service Corps, which gets young people experience in community-based programs.

All these programs are seeds of the Kennedy “ask not what your country can do for you” generation. In principle,it’s a very good thing for leaders to push for public service and to engage with youth, giving them guidance, skills, opportunity, and structure.

However, the difference between AmeriCorps or Katimavik and Sunak’s idea is that the former two are voluntary programs, not mandatory ones. If a government wants to impose mandatory service on a generation, it would be wise to spend a long time socializing the idea, getting support, and, in general, building a consensus. Springing it on the public and using it as a major campaign platform signals to young people that they are the problem Britain needs to fix.

Really? The problem is young people? It’s not the self-inflicted wound of Brexit, which Sunak supported, that tanked the economy? It’s not the struggling NHS health care system? It’s not years of inflation, high housing prices, climate issues, security issues, immigration challenges, or the scandals that have riven the government for 14 years? Nope, forget all that. The problem is the 18-year-olds who inherited this screwed-up world. Now they are being told they must fix it.

No wonder they don’t like the idea. The young people who will be forced to start this program were only three and four years old when the Conservatives took power and steered the country to this desperate point. These same young people already had one mandated behavior policy forced on them during COVID, when they were told they must stay inside their homes for the good of the country. Now, the same folks who made them lose precious years of socializing while they held secret COVID parties at Downing Street and drinking merrily are telling youths they must “get out of the house for the good of the country.” Stay in. Get out. Make up your mind, old people.

Drafting young people into service to clean up a mess they did not make is as old as politics – every wartime draft faces this issue – but it can also point to a deep lack of accountability by governments, especially those that rely on older voters for success.

Encouraging public service is a good thing, but politicians might first want to do their jobs and create a high-growth economy before forcing young people to work (or “volunteer”) to fix the very system the politicians got paid to break.

Here is an idea. Maybe Sunak & Co. should offer to work as volunteers for one full year as politicians – do their job for free for 12 months – as an example of public service to young people.

Is that a fight worth picking? Politicians forced to work for free in service of the country they are leading? Outrageous. No way. Would never fly.

Especially when they can get young people to do the job for them.


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