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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.