'There's a 1939 feel': Tobias Ellwood warns UK 'complacent' after army chief says Brits face being called up to fight

24 January 2024, 13:33 | Updated: 24 January 2024, 13:42

Tobias Ellwood warned that the UK has become complacent
Tobias Ellwood warned that the UK has become complacent. Picture: Alamy/Getty

By Kit Heren

A former defence minister has said that there is a "1939 feel to the world", after the head of the army warned that ordinary British people could be called up to serve in the military.

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Tobias Ellwood said that the government needed to "listen and listen carefully" to General Sir Patrick Sanders, who warned ministers of the need to mobilise the public if the UK goes to war with Russia.

Sir Patrick wants British men and women to be prepared to fight in a war with Putin's forces, two years into his invasion of Ukraine. The Ministry of Defence said there were no plans to return to peacetime conscription.

Mr Ellwood, who was also chairman of MPs' defence select committee, said: "We've been too complacent. What's coming over the horizon should shock us. It should worry us and we are not prepared."

The former junior defence minister said that Sir Patrick was "one of the most cerebral thinkers that we've got".

Read more: British public will be called up to fight if UK goes to war because ‘military is too small’, Army chief warns

Read more: Gen Z will not accept conscription as the price of previous generations’ failures

Tobias Ellwood
Tobias Ellwood. Picture: Alamy

Mr Ellwood, who served in the army himself, said he was concerned that hostile countries like Russia could "exploit our timidity, perhaps our reluctance to really put out fires.

"So Patrick Sanders is saying prepare for what's coming over the horizon - there is a 1939 feel to the world right now," he told Sky News. "These authoritarian states are rearming."

He added: "There's a risk averseness about the West in wanting to deal with that and our global institutions such as the United Nations aren't able to hold these errant nations to account."

The Ministry of Defence said: "The British military has a proud tradition of being a voluntary force and there is absolutely no suggestion of a return to conscription".

Although army chief Sir Patrick does not support conscription, he does believe there needs to be a "shift" in the mindset of regular Brits.

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Sir Patrick wants regular Brits to 'think more like troops' in case all-out war with Russia does break out.

Reports emerged last week that the shrinking size of the army had relegated the UK to a second-tier military power in the eyes of some in the US.

The army currently stands at around 76,000 regular full-time troops, down from nearly 103,000 in 2012.

Mr Ellwood agreed that the army is "overstretched", and said it was "half the size of what it should be", while the RAF didn't have enough equipment.

"In the Cold War, we had 36 fast jet squadrons, we're down to about six today, he said. "And that's just an illustration of just how small our armed forces are."

He called for defence spending to rise to 4% of GDP, from the current level of 2%. The government's target is 2.5%.

Members of the British Army Royal Irish Battle Group
Members of the British Army Royal Irish Battle Group. Picture: Getty

It follows a warning by a senior Nato official that the West faces all-out war with Russia within 20 years.

Admiral Rob Bauer said that although Nato and member governments are readying themselves for conflict with Vladimir Putin's regime, civilians must realise that they also have a role to play.

He told reporters last week that civilians would have to be mobilised in large numbers if war broke out, and governments would have to prepare for how to manage that process.

Read More: Putin 'prepared to use nuke' against UK and Nato 'because he believes West would be too scared to respond'

Read More: Ministers urged to 'get a grip' on the army as troop numbers fall, with NATO warning of war with Russia within 20 years

Former Defence Secretary Ben Wallace with General Sir Patrick Sanders
Former Defence Secretary Ben Wallace with General Sir Patrick Sanders. Picture: Alamy

Meanwhile, Sweden, who is preparing to enter the Nato alliance later this year, has also warned its citizens it could soon be fighting in all-out war.

The country's defence minister Carl-Oskar Bohlin recently told citizens: "The world is facing a security outlook with greater risks than at any time since the end of the Second World War.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin. Picture: Alamy

"Are you a private individual? Have you considered whether you have time to join a voluntary defence organisation? If not: get moving!"

Mr Bohlin's words have sparked a rush to join volunteer organisations and are said to have increased sales of torches and battery-powered radios.