Passengers on a crowded tube train, 2014. Photo: Getty.
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Behold how the wage-slaving grunts welcome the invasion of the rent-a-squaddies

Britain’s ongoing flirtation with a military way of life.

At peak hours, Oxford Circus Tube station in London is now so busy that they often shut the steel accordion gates at all four entrances and the crowd backs up, filling the pavement and milling into the roadway. The other evening, returning from my constitutional swim in the Marshall Street baths, I was struck by this noteworthy phenomenon: cheek-by-bluing- jowl with the lowing herd of quiescent commuters, I watched a young woman using both her pinioned hands to text a long message on her phone, as the gates were opened and the tight pack carried her inexorably down the steep, rain-slicked steps and into the bowels of the earth. Was this sheer sangfroid, I wondered, or simply a faith in the inherent orderliness of the British mob? After all, any number of manias might have gripped these clenched folk while she concentrated on her tapping and toggling – she could easily have slipped and been trampled by Evening Standard readers; a fate, I’m sure you’ll agree, far worse than death.

This little vignette of contemporary urban life returned to me a few nights later as, stopping my bike in Hyde Park to light a maximally high-tar cigarette, I was overwhelmed by a platoon of office workers being quick-jogged past me; at the rear was a superannuated squaddie wearing camouflage trousers and carrying a heavy pack on his back, who as he ran up and down shouted orders at them: “Tighten up, now! Come on, keep moving!” I’d witnessed this phenomenon before – and I dare say you have, as well. British Military Fitness (BMF) now holds sessions at over 100 venues around the country; as it so appositely puts it on its website, it has “nine parks in and around Birmingham”, four in Edinburgh, and so on. This bizarre territorial expansion is likely to continue: after all, Major Robin Cope, who started BMF in 1999, held his first outdoor fitness class with a mere three recruits and, given the subsequent rapid advance, we can look forward to no dog-shit-bedizened scrap of public space being without its tracksuited occupiers by, say, 2025.

What a strange invasion it is. It was said of Field Marshal Montgomery that he hung a sign on the flap of his HQ tent during the desert campaign that read, “I’m 99 per cent fit – are you?” But I doubt even his fervidly repressed imagination could have dreamed up the spectacle of 20 or 30 flabby arses rising and falling as one, as their possessors are inveighed at by their hireling commanders to hump the muddy ground.

I’m not so fanatic an individualist that I can’t understand the appeal of getting fit in this way but it’s one thing to voluntarily join an association of like-minded sports folk and quite another to pay for the privilege of being treated like a grunt. Besides, what have these people been all day if not under orders? Like the young woman at Oxford Circus, they’ve been moved by the crowd, their feet scarcely touching the ground, from mortgaged home to wage-slaving work, and now they’re in a darkened park being further molested. It’s a hardy perennial in the British political park that what the anomic youth need is a bit of military discipline. While cost – far more than public objection – is a bar to bringing back national service, the coalition seeks to continue the long-running bout in which flyweight Britain is tag-teamed with the heavyweight hegemon by putting reservist amateurs in the ring.

Still, while BMF is around, no one need fear a decline in national morale, nor an inability to field fighting-fit computer programmers and estate agents should the balloon happen to go up. In Hyde Park, puffing on my fag, I asked a camo-man who was locking the BMF van why his fellow instructors always seemed to carry heavy packs. I expected him to say they were full of rocks, to show the doughy what it was like to be 99 per cent doughty – but he only barked at me, “Water!” before breaking into a run.

After the First World War, quite a number of ex-army types sought to strengthen the national backbone by forming political organisations that drilled in public parks, in uniform. Eventually, the government had to crack down on them – but it seems that BMF is above the law when it comes to being paramilitary; perhaps because its uniforms are so risible but more probably because its fanatical ideology represents no threat to our supine and flabby state whatsoever.
 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital