Brown's army flies white flag

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
There is something rather endearing about an honest politician with a tin ear. We have had a bit too much, in recent years, of leaders with a fatal talent for sounding nice. So I much enjoyed the Chancellor's dangerous foray into educational policy the other week.

Speaking of patriotism, he mused that he would like to involve young people more in celebrating the contribution of our armed forces: "I would like to pilot an expansion of our cadet forces, especially in state schools".

God bless the man! Into the lion's mouth he stuck his head, and down came the teeth. The 53 state schools which still have cadet forces were pleased; no doubt his hearers on the day were pleased; but predictable squawks of outrage came louder.

Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, deplored any vision of Britishness that "is based on a notion of militaristic conflict". Not military, note - militaristic. Once that word is spoken governors flinch, parents shudder, and the Combined Cadet Force proposal is dead in the water.

Nina Franklin of the National Union of Teachers even accused the Government of "furthering its own policy of going to war....there are already reports of children having weapons in schools, now the Government is trying to encourage that!"

In The Times Martin Samuel launched a scorching attack on the idea, linking it to revelations of brutal squaddies in Iraq. Scorning the "tired old association of militarism and self-restraint" he saw CCF as an opportunity to "surrender individuality and start on the well-worn path to government endorsed violence..."

Not all opponents of the idea would go so far, but quite a lot will. In the 60 years since the end of World War II, mainstream Britain has lost touch with the services, and either mistrusts or idealises them. The reaction against the sadness of wartime was manifested in the 60s by a generation of prattish Monty Python colonels, skits on HMS Troutbridge, and universal sniggering at the moustachioed RAF hero saying "wizard prang" .

Now, as that generation is dying, we have begun to respect and marvel at the heroism of men in the trenches and 18-year-old boys who flew out over Germany by night, saw their friends die in flames and went out again next night. The D-Day commemoration saw a great nostalgia for a dutiful, decorous, uncomplaining generation which achieved a great thing for the world.

But that's nostalgia. We are disconnected from the modern services, which makes them feel insecure and paranoid and put-upon, especially when they are cut to the bone and asked for miracles. From time to time their virtues are displayed publicly, when they drive fire engines or efficiently take over from bungling civilians to organise the disposal of dead cattle.

But by and large they're another tribe; and revelations of brutality do not help. The odium is usually reserved for the common soldier, which may explain why it is independent schools which have three-quarters of the cadets: parents fondly think of their children becoming polite, clipped young officers, not drunken, rampaging squaddies.

Which is a roundabout way of saying what Alan Bennett's headmaster said in Forty Years On - that progressive schoolmasters always abolish three things -corporal punishment, compulsory games and the CCF. "They think it makes the sensitive boys happy," he says, and snorts. "In my experience, sensitive boys never ARE happy, so what's the point?"

So I don't see Gordon's Army taking off, which is a shame for all those kids who rather enjoy marching in bands, flying gliders, driving boats, learning map-reading and first aid and target shooting. A well-run CCF is fun, for some. Especially where scout troops are in decline for lack of leaders and outdoor adventure is cancelled for fear of litigation.

Some, however, will always hate it, and many will cleverly, joyously subvert it. My daughter much enjoyed doing section attacks on the chaplain's dog, but when required to shoot her blank in a woodland exercise, barked assertively: "Certainly not. It's far too loud".

Another girl got herself made Quartermaster and systematically nicked all the treats from the ration-packs, so that a generation of shivering cadets on field exercises remain unaware that rat-packs are supposed to have chocolate in them.

One of my brothers, in his teens, hit on the delightful fact that the uniforms looked realistic and set up a roadblock outside Pangbourne, earnestly directing obedient motorists and lorry-drivers round the lanes as a matter of national security.

So in a way, it's a pity that the Brown idea is a non-starter. There could have been some larks. However, one current school cadet shook her head and said: "Not in the end, no. It's not the CCF, that's sort of fun. It's the kind of teachers who fancy themselves running it. It's not good for them, you know." Nuff said.

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