Tuesday 20 May 2008

Ambivalence about the armed forces

What to make of the government's plans to encourage people to show greater respect for the military - for example, by instituting an annual armed forces day and making it illegal to discriminate against people in military uniform? My instinctive reaction is a positive one. Like many left-ish supporters of liberal interventionism, I've gained a new respect for the self-sacrifice of military personnel in the cause of liberty and democracy - in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and yes, even Iraq. And I've been angered by media stories of abusive behaviour towards returning servicemen and women by people venting their displeasure with government foreign policy.

But it's difficult to let go, completely, of the anti-militarism that was part of my political formation. I grew up in the long shadow of anti-colonial struggles, protests over Vietnam, and conspiracy theories about generals plotting coups against Labour governments that veered too far to the left. I've been reading Jerry White's brilliant book about London in the 19th century, and it's reminded me just how long-standing is this hostility to the military in the English radical tradition. It's another outcome of our absence of a national 'revolutionary moment'. I may be idealising republican nations here, but if you're American or French it's surely much easier to see the military as on the side of the people, rather than servants of the crown or the ruling class.

I draw the line, though, at Gordon Brown's proposal to set up army cadet forces in state comprehensives. I went to a grammar school in the '70s and we pinkish politicos loathed the CCF. Our worst fears were confirmed when the school regiment, battalion or whatever it was put on a show for some visiting military dignitaries, and a crowd of scruffy sixth-formers were coralled into staging a noisy demonstration, so that the cadets could demonstrate their skills in keeping public order. That seemed to say it all about the army as defender of the status quo.

Brown's plan is another example - like his proposal for more school sport, Britishness classes and compulsory volunteering - of his tendency to use schools as a forcing-ground for a kind of regressive muscular patriotism. I suspect he also sees these proposals as a continuation of the Blair-Clinton strategy of occupying your enemy's ground - tough on crime, etc - to undermine conservative accusations of being too soft.

The trouble is that Brown, with his political tin ear, doesn't realise that the game has changed. Thanks to ten years of New Labour (and thanks, largely, to Tony Blair), the Tories have had to move on to traditional Labour territory and conform to a new social-democratic consensus. The danger for Labour now (see yesterday's post on the Crewe campaign) is that they will come across as more reactionary and populist than the new, improved Cameronian Conservatives.

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