Why the left should give military schools a chance

The armed forces already play a hugely positive role in our schools.

The government’s academy programme has had its fair share of critics. Many on the left have criticised the involvement of for-profit companies in the education system, particularly where those companies are being imposed on schools against the will of parents, teachers and governors. But what I cannot fathom is why, when the shadow education secretary promises to involve one of our most respected public sector institutions in the education system, the liberal-left run for the hills.

It seems to have been generally accepted in some circles that servicemen and women are “brainwashed”, “killers”, and hell-bent on converting our sons and daughters to violence. Stephen Twigg, in their eyes, is about to let the squaddies loose on their innocent children. It is nonsense – and offensive nonsense at that.

The “service schools” idea is still just that: an idea. Of course we need to hear how they will sit alongside other schools, how many there will be and how much of military life they will actually mimic.  But as yet there is nothing for people to shout “betrayal” at. In fact, there is plenty the Labour Party should be welcoming.

The military already play a hugely positive role in our schools. The Combined Cadet Force and Army Cadet Force are fantastic national institutions. These are organisations which offer adventure training, flying, sailing, white water rafting, and navigating Britain’s finest landscapes from Cornwall to the Cairngorms, all for free. Young people learn about hard graft, develop leadership skills and learn the importance of working in a team for a common goal. No one is coerced to join; every cadet has chosen to be there. Stating an ambition - as Stephen Twigg and Jim Murphy did - to make those activities available beyond the playing fields of Eton should be meat and drink for the left. It is not the beginnings of a reservist child army.

Parts of the liberal-left seem to be at their happiest when bemoaning the success of the polished, confident and articulate products of private education, whilst simultaneously blocking opportunities for poorer children to access the activities that foster those attributes.  

If those same sceptics cared about improving the life chances of the children of the urban poor, they’d know the importance of building resilience. Considering the pressures of urban life, the slow creep of a culture of instant gratification, where respect can be won by the glint of a knife and where self esteem can purchased (or looted) at your local Foot Locker, why should we deprive teenagers of an institution that might make them value something different?

Any sensible analysis of the riots and current thinking about behavioural economics points to the importance of human capital and character, so why shouldn’t armed forces personnel be involved in their cultivation? Our armed forces are, after all, resilience personified. The vigour and discipline of forces life is renowned, but important too is the access to role models.  Alongside those who serve as on the front line are engineers, electricians, linguists, communications experts, trainers, medics and electricians as well.

If we don’t believe they are worthy of contact with our young, what does that say about us? Do we really believe the men and women we send into danger are good for that purpose alone? That their skills and values can add nothing to our existence? That experienced soldiers, who will have spent much of their careers teaching their younger contemporaries, are incapable of making the transfer to the classroom?

Once the details have been worked through there will be a proper debate to be had about the role and value of service schools. Of course no one wants the modern equivalent of the borstal. But that is not what is being proposed. The reaction to the proposals has revealed an underlying attitude to the military that is deeply unhealthy. Our children deserve better than that – and so do our armed forces.

Cadets take part in the 148th Sovereign's Parade held. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

Getty
Show Hide image

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.