Resisting the Call-Up: Understanding Why Many Young British Adults Won’t Serve

In January 2024, a YouGov survey revealed significant divisions within British public opinion concerning conscription in a hypothetical global conflict scenario. The survey, targeting individuals aged 18 to 40, found that one-third would refuse to serve if drafted. This was up 7% on an answer to a similar question posed in a 2015 survey.[1]

A deeper analysis of the YouGov survey showed that 21% cited a reluctance to participate in warfare they believe benefits only the wealthy elite, highlighting a broader mistrust toward governmental intentions and perceived systemic corruption. Additionally, 19% expressed anti-war sentiments, viewing conflict as inherently futile and destructive, while 8% opposed on ideological or religious grounds, including pacifism and conscientious objection.[2] This article seeks to explore the societal factors that underpinned the survey responses and consider the implications for the introduction of military service in a potential future conflict.

Several profound societal and cultural changes have contributed to this resistance suggested in the YouGov survey. Over the past thirty years, there has been a significant increase in individualism. Many now prioritize personal autonomy and rights, impacting their willingness to participate in collective military actions.

Add to this, the growth of identity politics and the increasing diversity facilitated by digital channels have weakened traditional bonds of British patriotism. This has led to stronger regional identities, such as Welsh, Scottish, and Irish nationalism, which dilute a unified allegiance to Britain.

Cultural shifts have also led some communities, including parts of the Muslim and Jewish populations, to feel alienated from a nation they believe does not represent their interests.

Many younger people have a pervasive distrust in institutions and political figures which also significantly impacts public resistance. The perception that wars serve the elite at the expense of ordinary citizens fosters reluctance to bear the costs of conflict. This sentiment is compounded by disillusionment with political leaders, viewed as self-serving and disconnected.

In addition, the British public’s contact with the military has diminished since conscription ended in 1960, leading to increased scepticism about military interventions, particularly following the controversial deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of 2021, only 3.8% of residents in England and Wales had served in the armed forces.[3] Recruitment has been challenging; the British Army has not met its recruitment targets since 2010, accumulating a deficit of 22,350 recruits against a goal of 119,530 from 2010 to 2023.[4]

Many young adults face substantial university debt, live with their parents, hold insecure low-paying jobs, and struggle with housing affordability. This economic disengagement fosters a sentiment of receiving little from society, thus dampening any motivation to defend it.

Lastly, there is a notable shift towards preferring peaceful solutions over military interventions, reflecting evolving attitudes towards conflict resolution. This shift is influenced by a broader global trend towards diplomacy and international cooperation, which many young adults favour over traditional military responses.

A point to mention is that the reluctance of military-age individuals is not only a British problem but an attitude shared by many Europeans for at least a decade. In 2015, a WIN/Gallup International global survey found that 27% of Britons would fight for their country and this was way ahead of many other countries including the Czech Republic (23%), Spain (21%) and at the bottom, the Netherlands (15%).[5] A recent Gallup survey in March 2024 of Western EU states suggested that the overall percentage of citizens willing to fight was at much the same level as ten years ago with 20% saying they would not fight.[6]

What impact could these factors have on the reintroduction of conscription in Britain? While this is impossible to predict and would be highly dependent on circumstances, the societal factors mentioned above could influence the potential reintroduction of conscription in Britain in several ways.

The strong sense of individualism and personal autonomy prevalent among the younger generation could challenge traditional military discipline and hierarchy, which rely heavily on uniformity and obedience. This may lead to difficulties in command structures and unit cohesion, particularly in high-stress environments. If conscription models allow for role choice, this could result in an uneven distribution of skills and preferences, complicating the assignment of personnel to roles that are critical but less desired.

Enhanced regional identities might weaken the concept of fighting for a national cause, affecting morale, especially in operations perceived as not directly benefiting one’s region or community. Diverse identities within the armed forces could also lead to internal tensions, lack of cohesion in units or misunderstandings, particularly in a stress-filled environment. Managing such diversity effectively would be crucial, especially in multinational operations, peacekeeping or counter-insurgency operations where cultural sensitivity and restraint is paramount.

Persistent distrust in political institutions and the military could hinder recruitment efforts, leading to manpower shortages and impacting the retention of trained personnel, particularly if they feel the government or military is not transparent or acting ethically

. If the public perceives an operation as unjust or misaligned with national interest, it could lead to significant opposition, impacting morale and possibly leading to issues like desertion or refusal to serve.

Historical disillusionment with past military interventions could result in resistance to combat roles, making it difficult to deploy combat-effective units. Visible resistance or high-profile cases of objection could damage a nation’s credibility and relationships with allies, complicating international military collaborations. Economic incentives might initially attract conscripts, but if these young individuals are primarily motivated by economic benefits rather than a sense of duty, their commitment and motivation could wane in challenging overseas environments. Economic disparities among conscripts from different socio-economic backgrounds could lead to tensions within units, affecting unity and effectiveness.

A general preference for non-combat solutions might make it challenging to staff and justify combat-oriented deployments, potentially leading to a military force that is more geared towards peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, possibly at the expense of combat readiness. The political need to align military actions with public sentiment that favours diplomacy over force could restrict operational choices, potentially limiting the military’s ability to respond flexibly in crises.

Addressing these challenges would require developing robust training programmes that foster unit cohesion while respecting individualism, implementing transparent communication strategies to build trust and justify deployments, creating flexible conscription models that align individual capabilities and preferences with military needs and ensuring all levels of military and political leadership work to align military operations with national values and ethical standards. These adaptations are crucial for maintaining an effective and cohesive military force capable of operating under the complexities of modern societal dynamics.

[1] accessed 13 May 2024.

[2] More than a third of under-40s would refuse conscription in the event of a world war | YouGov Accessed 15 April 2024.

[3] UK armed forces veterans, England and Wales: Census 2021

[4] Army recruitment goals not met since 2010 ( Accessed 15 April 2024.

[5] accessed 13 May 2024.

[6] accessed 13 May 2024.