Notes From the Margins…

Miliband in Khaki

  • March 10, 2014
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Last week Ed Miliband visited Afghanistan and promised that a future Labour government would make it illegal to ‘abuse’ and ‘discriminate’ against members of the British armed forces.

The origins of this proposal go back to the 2008 National Recognition of the Armed Forces report commissioned by Gordon Brown and drawn up by Tory defector Quentin Davies, which included a raft of proposals on how to change the public image of the armed forces.   These included a greater public presence of uniformed soldiers, and an expansion of cadet forces in schools – and legislation banning discrimination against anyone wearing the ‘Queen’s uniform.’ .

Since then the prospect of an anti-discrimination bill has flitted in and out of public view, mostly as a Labour initiative.   In the summer of 2013, pressure for a new law re-emerged, boosted by a poll which found that 1 in five servicemen and women had experienced some form of discrimination, from the exclusion of uniformed soldiers from pubs and restaurants to physical attacks and verbal insults.

There are, laws that prevent physical or verbal assaults on soldiers already, because soldiers have the same rights as other members of the public.   But Miliband proposes to make it an ‘aggravated’ offense if servicemen and women are subjected to such assaults, leading to a potentially more serious sentence, in order to provide them with ‘ extra protection, similar to religious groups, ethnic minorities, and disabled people’.

This is a flawed idea for various reasons.     Firstly, the idea that ‘discrimination’ against soldiers should be placed on the same level as discrimination on the basis of religion, disability or race is entirely inappropriate.

Unlike members of the armed forces, people do not choose to be disabled or members of a race, and and verbal and physical assaults on members of a particular religion do – or should – fall under the category of hate crime.     Soldiers may be insulted or ‘discriminated’ against for various reasons.

Clearly it is immoral and inhumane to refuse to allow an injured soldier to stay at a hotel, as the Metro hotel in Woking did in 2008.   But the main reason why soldiers are prohibited from pubs and restaurants,  is because soldiers in uniform are often regarded by their owners as a potential source of violence and drink-induced disorder, and there is abundant evidence to show that they are right.

Should solders be given the opportunity to prove themselves?   Of course, but preemptive exclusions seem to be quite rare, and could easily be resolved by negotiation on a case-by-case basis.

Miliband’s proposal becomes even more problematic when soldiers become the object of political protests.  Soldiers who fight in wars that significant sectors of the population do not support or approve cannot be surprised if they get insulted when they come home.   People may not like Anjem Choudhary and his group of provocateurs for calling British soldiers ‘baby killers’ and ‘terrorists’ in Luton, and may not agree, but that is an opinion they are entitled to – providing, of course,   that they are not calling for soldiers to be killed.

And protest against Britain’s wars is not limited to Muslims.   My brother once criticized two British soldiers on a London bus in no uncertain terms for serving in Northern Ireland, and got his head kicked in as a result.   Under Miliband’s proposal, he presumably would have been found guilty of an ‘aggravated’ offense if it had ever gone to court.

That doesn’t mean that anyone should be able to say whatever they want to members of the armed forces because they don’t like the wars they fight, let alone physically attack them.   But you would expect soldiers to be tough enough to deal with verbal abuse, without needing a law to protect them.

The notion of ‘discrimination’ also has complications.     Not all schools and teachers want cadet forces in their schools, let alone the ‘Troops to Teachers’ scheme favored by Labour and Tory politicians.     The National Union of Teachers  has expressed serious reservations about the attempts by politicians to militarise the education system – reservations that could also presumably be interpreted as being discriminatory from Miliband’s perspective.

In the end however, his proposal isn’t really about protecting the rights of soldiers.

It is an attempt to take advantage of World War I war fervor and the Lee Rigby factor and enhance Labour’s credibility as a ‘pro-military’ party, after the surprising blip of the anti-Syrian intervention vote last year.   It’s another attempt by the British political elite to emotionally blackmail the public into supporting our ‘heroes’ in order to support the wars they fight and make these wars seem heroic, even when they aren’t.

In effect, Miliband’s proposals are part of the ongoing remilitarisation of British society, dressed up as an expression of the military covenant.   As Miliband said last week in defense of his bill ‘Men and women in the Army, Navy and RAF serve us with dignity and bravery.   It is our duty to ensure they are treated with dignity in return.’

This may be true, but soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan do not always serve with dignity and bravery, and these virtues are not unique to the military.  Nor are soldiers always treated with dignity when they return by the governments that send them to war.

Last year two soldiers hanged themselves  after returning from Afghanistan, aged 23 and 24.  According to their mothers, their sons were left to cope with PTSD without any help from the army or anyone else.   One had seen a baby blown up, and another had lost a friend.  800 military personnel have attempted suicide since returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the last two and half years, many of whom have gone through similar traumas.

The problems they experienced on returning home are clearly rooted in horrors that most politicians do not acknowledge or take responsibility, and Miliband might do more to help them if he could do that, instead of introducing this pointless bill.






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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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