Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, plans to institute military cadet corps in schools. The idea, apparently, is not only to provide future recruits for the British army, but also to instil discipline and ‘British values’ – whatever he thinks they may be – in young people.
School cadet corps started up in the later 19th century in order to encourage national and imperial patriotism. Most public schools had them; state schools refused to, out of anti-militaristic principle. (That was one reason Baden-Powell founded his Boy Scout movement.) As far as I know, the public schools have them still. So do, or did, the grammar schools that liked to ape the public schools, such as mine. At my direct grant school, corps was compulsory: parading in uniform every Thursday afternoon; going on soggy, chaotic camps; shooting on a rifle range on the Rainham Marshes. The only way of getting out of it was a note from your parents to say they were pacifists, and even then you didn’t entirely escape it, but had to go into a ‘medical’ squad, still in uniform, but with bright white webbing rather than the usual khaki to show up your cowardly nature to the other boys. I was too genuinely cowardly to risk that.
Everyone hated the corps, except for a few fascist-minded boys; they formed the ‘Right Wing National Party’ in our school mock elections, and went around with little polished sticks shouting themselves blue in the face. Many of them went on to Sandhurst, one of them after being expelled from school for his part in a gang rape. The rest of us resented them, and the whole business of Blancoing our webbing, Duraglitting our brass, ironing creases into our tunics, and shining our boots ‘so you can see your faces in them’.
I loathed Thursday afternoons, especially the mechanical waving your arms about and marching up and down in lines. ‘Squad, atten – wait for it, wait for it – shun!’ On the other hand I quite liked – and was good at – the shooting. Even there we could be easily distracted. On one occasion a sheep wandered across. We all turned our rifles to blow it into a ball of wool, bones and blood. ‘Sorry, Sarge, I missed.’ God what a farce. I learned nothing, except perhaps how to strip down a Bren gun, and even then I couldn’t put it together again. I was only promoted at the very end because they thought it would look bad if I went up to university still a private. I was jumped up to colour-sergeant on the last day of school.
My school cadet corps played no part at all in my later realisation that most soldiers aren’t militarists (that’s left to draft-dodgers, like George W. Bush and Donald Trump). Rather, my aversion to playing at soldiers only made me appreciate more the non-military 'values’ in British history and life. Maybe that’s what Fallon intends, though I doubt it.