Notes From the Margins…

David Lammy’s Army School for Rioters

  • July 15, 2012
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There was an awful article in last week’s New Statesman by Tottenham Labour MP David Lammy, accusing the left of a curmudgeonly attitude towards the government’s plans for military-staffed ‘service schools.’

Lammy condemns critics of the scheme for propagating the idea that ‘ servicemen and women are “brainwashed killers…hell-bent on converting our sons and daughters to violence” – arguments that he describes as “ nonsense and offensive nonsense at that.”

With that strawman out of the way, he goes on to argue that

The military already play a hugely positive role in our schools. The Combined Cadet Force and Army Cadet Force are fantastic national institutions. These are organisations which offer adventure training, flying, sailing, white water rafting, and navigating Britain’s finest landscapes from Cornwall to the Cairngorms, all for free.

Of course all these activities could and should be available in schools.     The problem is that neither school budgets nor the curriculum allow much space for them, not to mention the obsessive risk assessment process which makes schools reluctant to take their kids beyond the school grounds, let alone go canoeing in the Cairngorms.

But the ‘service schools’ idea is not just about inculcating a love of adventure and the outdoors.     They are part of a process of re-militarising British society and transmitting values that are perceived to be superior to those of civil society.

This is an reactionary idea that has generally been expressed historically by  Prussian army officers and outright fascists –   or by politicians who have never been in uniform.

The CCF/Service School idea is an import from the public school system, which  Lammy is clearly in awe of, and he makes his feelings clear with another strawman argument that a blindfold toddler would have no trouble knocking down on a windy day:

Parts of the liberal-left seem to be at their happiest when bemoaning the success of the polished, confident and articulate products of private education, whilst simultaneously blocking opportunities for poorer children to access the activities that foster those attributes.

Aren’t there any ‘polished, confident and articulate’ products of the comprehensive education system?     Does Lammy include the upper class louts of the Bullingdon Club amongst these sterling products of the parade grounds of Eton?   And where is  the evidence that the qualities he admires so much are due to the influence of the military?

Having been a member of the CCF in own schooldays, I have rather different memories of that institution.   More often than not it provided a pretext for licensed thuggery by older boys who thought that being ‘NCOs’ gave them even more right to bully those below them in age and rank than they usually did.

I remember ridiculous teachers living out their imperial/WWII fantasies who relished the opportunity to strut around in uniforms every Thursday afternoon – the kind that Malcolm McDowell and his gang gleefully shot down in Lindsay Anderson’s If.

I remember the mindless monotony of marching in the parade ground and the childish excitement of our playground warrior/teachers when  a real general came to address us.   I learned no values whatsoever, except one – that we must all accept orders from our ‘superior officers’ without question – no matter how stupid and pointless the orders or the officer.

This is of course one value that the government would love to inculcate in the nation’s turbulent youth.   For Lammy too, military schools can teach the urban poor to “know the importance of building resilience.”

These schools can also help them to reject “the slow creep of a culture of instant gratification, where respect can be won by the glint of a knife and where self esteem can purchased (or looted) at your local Foot Locker” since  “Our armed forces are, after all, resilience personified. The vigour and discipline of forces life is renowned, but important too is the access to role models.”

Could  some soldiers make useful role models for some young people?   No doubt, but then so could teachers and nurses, for example, though they never receive the kind of praise lavished on soldiers.

Today, the Independent reported that ten percent of prisoners in British jails are ex-servicemen and veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars – a staggeringly high number, and much higher than the official figure of 3.4 percent.     According to Trevor Philpott, a Royal Marines officer and founder of the Veterans Change Partnership,

There is a sense that the Government is reluctant to address the true figures: if there was the slightest admission of combat causing mental health problems, there is a fear of legal action.

So much for resilience then.  Of course it’s only to be expected that the politicians who send soldiers to fight meaningless and dishonest wars should ignore the horrific consequences of combat – both physical and psychological – on the veterans who they extoll as  our finest men and women.

No doubt that makes them feel a little better about it.   Lammy’s shallow vision of the military as an instrument of social regeneration would see the   UK’s schools transformed into a combination of barrack room and parade ground for very different reasons.

Rather than challenge an unequal and unfair segregated system that has always allowed the better-off to buy themselves educational advantage, he wants inner city schools to become like Eton, with everyone pulling – and marching – together.

All of which, coming from a Labour MP, is just a little disappointing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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