Discipline and Punish


Michael Portillo would like there to be an Army Cadet Corps in every school in the country, and he is prepared to spend public money to bring this about. Tony Blair thinks that the Army Cadet Corps is a Good Thing, but thinks that this scheme is unrealistically expensive. Michael Portillo thinks that children (even those children who do not want a military career) benefit from being in the army cadets. Tony Blair does not contradict him. Michael Portillo believes that the army cadets promote discipline and patriotism. Tony Blair agrees that discipline is a good thing.

As the middle-class surburban hegemony crystalises around a landslide majority, is there anyone left (or indeed left-of-centre) who believes that 'discipline' is probably a very bad thing, and that the sort that you get by wearing khaki jackets in leaking scout huts is certainly a very pointless thing?

I know whereof I speak. I myself was once member in good standing of a sinister paramilitary organisation called The Boys Brigade, rising through the ranks to the position of Corporal Rilstone (two stripes). The BeeBee was founded in the last century by a mad Scotsman named Bill (sorry, 'William Alexander') Smith. (I always confuse him with Joseph Smith who founded the Mormons. There is probably a sketch to be written about the Boys Brigade marching to Salt Lake City if I could be bothered to write it.) It was supposed to promote the advancement of Christ's kingdom among boys and the promotion of the habits of discipline, self respect reverence and all that tends towards true Christian manliness. I must say that I think that, discipline, reverence, self-respect and all that tends towards true Christian manliness are probably a more rounded set of ideals than discipline and patriotism, although I can't help wondering whether the heretical creed of Thinking of Others Before Yourself and Doing a Good Turn Every Day are more realistic in the short term than either of them. (Can you imagine the regeneration of 'standards' and 'moral values' and 'society' and 'community' if everyone in Britain resolved to do seven nice things a week?)

I don't know in what sense annual camping holidays in Welsh fields during the wettest July since records began (every July is the wettest since records began) was supposed to promote the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. Something to do with St Paul having been a tent maker, I suppose. That year, I think the last year I went I had achieved the supreme accolade of being a Tent Commander. There were nine of us in three tents, so the three oldest boys got to supervise the six smaller ones.

One evening, we had tiptoed through the guyropes into the small marquee — I can still smell the cold canvass, the muddy grass, the strange sense of being in your pyjamas in the open air — for our bedtime cocoa. Some people think that cocoa has to be drunk out of enamelled metal, but I find that only blue plastic hits the spot. Mr Baker, the Bee-Bee Captain decided that it was too dark for us to drink it in a disciplined and reverent fashion, so he asked me to nip back to my tent and get a torch. As I turned to walk the ten or twelve paces required, he stopped me.

'No, no, no, no, no', he asserted, salt and pepper moustache bristling in the shadows, 'When I ask a tent commander to do something I don't expect him to do it himself, I expect him to tell one of his men to do it for him.'

In the ensuing 20 years, scarcely a month has gone past without me regretting that it didn't occur to me to reply 'I'm sorry Sir, but I won't have one of my men doing something I'm not prepared to do myself.'

Of course, it was ludicrous but Mr Baker really believed that nine little boys in a field were in some sense a military unit and that a chain of command in making the cocoa was a good idea. (God only knows what the farmer thought about us bugling Come to the Cookhouse Door and lowering the Union Jack at half past nine at night.) Or at any rate, he enjoyed playing soldiers with eleven year olds, and thought that the game did as some sort of good. If you'd asked him, he'd probably said it instilled good manners; maybe even discipline reverence and self respect too. The boys simply accepted that you had to march aimlessly around the church hall for 20 minutes each Thursday, being yelled at my Mr Baker ('you seem to have some porridge on your trousers, boy ) if you wanted to use the coffee bar or join in the strange games involving flags and lighted candles in the car-park. (My father pointed out that Mr Baker wasn't very good at the game: a real officer would not have got away with calling a real solider 'boy'. 'With respect Sir, I have a name and rank.') You don't expect anything grown ups do to make much sense.

Another adult who didn't make much sense was Mr Goodyear. He was young and had short hair and a South London accent. He taught us a thing at school which was sometimes called P.E and sometimes called Games and occasionally called Gym. The men who taught us real subjects were middle aged and bald, and they sometimes shouted at us. Mr Hoth was a friendly, jockey French teacher who collected Muppets toys — not, so far as I could tell, to amuse the class: he just liked them — and who would occasionally blow his stack and throw chairs or (rumour had it) children across the classroom. Of course, this was frightening (he could be indiscriminate about who he aimed at) but it felt impersonal, like a thunderstorm and it was always for an understandable human reason. The rest of the time, he related to you like a human being. Mr Goodyear never lost his temper or shouted. On the other hand, he never talked quietly; his voice was always raised. He never talked gently, either: he was always aggressive. Football, tennis, running, athletics — they were always introduced as a threat, let's see how you lot damn well cope with rugby. On my first week in the school he made us run a cross-country with only the briefest of explanations of the route. The majority of the class followed the pack and got back into the school in 20 minutes. Inevitably, a few fat boys lagged behind, took a wrong turning, got lost, took a long route around, and took about thirty or forty minutes at the exercise. His permanently raised voice had an edge of anger in it as we came through the school gates, with our beginning-of-term running shoes already beginning to turn out white socks red. 'You are going to have to learn discipline one way or the other, run it again.' I was actually a good deal slower than the other slow boys, and managed to take the same wrong route the second time around. As we ran off, he shouted after us in a pseudo-military voice: 'One-two, one-two, no slacking'. Cross country runs and assault courses are often symbols of military discipline in that sort of American film.

'You are going to have to learn discipline' was one of his catch phrases; so was 'Let's sort out the boys from the girls.' The charge of being 'a girl' was, of course, deeply damning. If you had him for the last lesson of the afternoon, he would take off his clothes and shower with you, looking at you threateningly, daring you to be embarrassed. He would often threaten corporal punishment for non-offences like coming last in a race or being last to get changed, although since I was always last at everything and never got hit, I assume he didn't usually carry these out. It tended only to be the athletic boys, sort of his favourites, who he walloped. He didn't usually hit boys hard; sometimes it was only a sort of semi-comic pantomime, punctuated by expressions like 'Can't you take it like a man' and 'Stop whimpering like a girl.'

I have occasionally told stories of Mr Goodyear's excesses to friends, and very rarely have they said 'How terrible for you.' Their reaction has normally been 'I know, we had one just like him.'

Mr Baker was a buffoon who worked for a charitable institution, donated significant amounts of money to his church, spent several evenings a week running the BeeBee, and gave up a week's holiday each year to take us on camping. Mr Goodyear, was a damaged and possibly dangerous individual who should not have been allowed anywhere near children in the first place. What both of them had in common was that they used the word 'discipline' to explain apparently irrational behaviour.

Mr Baker was at one end of a continuum. He was marching out of step at the top of a slippery slope with Mr Goodyear at the bottom. Extend the line to infinity and you arrive at — to pick a purely random and entirely non-emotive example — Thomas Hamilton. The comparison is not entirely friviolous. He was kicked out of the Boy Scouts for making children sleep in a cold van in winter — which you might think is not too different, in principle, from making them run cross-countries in their underwear in February. Running quasi-military boys clubs and collecting boys underwear seem to have been strands in a psychosis which eventually went over the edge into mass murder.

The significance of men like Mr Goodyear is not the ways in which they abuse their authority, but the nature of the authority they abuse. Mr Hoth threw chairs at boys; but no-one argues that chair-throwing is a good and necessary part of French teaching. If you'd asked him, he would have said 'Yes, I lost my temper, and so would you have done if Russell Ewings and called you a poxy cunt in front of your class.' Mr Goodyear was eventually fired (I understand) for going too far in embarrassing, hurting and humiliating children, but the teachers who followed him (and presumably the headmaster who employed them) agreed that humiliation, embarrassment and pain — being 'made a man of' or 'having the rough edges knocked off you' — or, as they called it, discipline, was not only a necessary part of education, but a good thing in itself.

Now, I am reliably informed that school teaching of the sort which Mr Goodyear embodied died out approximately nine weeks after I left school, and that no Mr Goodyear's exist in the present education system. It is certainly the case that whackings are illegal (but then, in the form that Mr Goodyear administered them, they were then) and that children and parents are a good deal more aware of their rights than they were fifteen years ago. I also suspect that in the post Rantzan period, eleven year olds would be more likely to be suspicious of an adult schoolteacher who undressed in front of them. But it is also true that most schoolteachers (they 'grew up in the sixties' and were taught at 'trendy colleges') do not believe in discipline in the Portillan sense. Oh, they believe that it is easier to teach French if the class is quiet and listening and indeed present, and for ought I know, they hurl the odd chair to bring this about. But they don't think that giving the kids a hard time is a good thing in itself.

Hence, the elegance of the Portillo plan. For at least a few hours a week, take children away from these softies, and put them into the hands of people who believe that it is good for boys (all boys) to be yelled at and sent on assault courses. The ATC will not be run by elderly buffoons but by real military officers, who will really know how to shout at you: the assault courses will be real and so, may God forgive us, will be the rifles.

When I am Prime Minister, boys who enjoy Rugby and who have volunteered for the Military Cadets will be dragged off the playing fields and made to read poetry. I will pick on the toughest, most macho one and make him stand up and read 'Ode to Skylark' out loud. If I do not here his voice crack when he gets to the line 'thy unpremeditated art' I shall put my arm around him affectionately and say 'Come, lad, you aren't being sufficiently sensitive. When you read that poem, try to cry, like a woman. If Shelly has never made you cry, you aren't fully human.' After this, I will enact a National Disservice law, whereby everybody under the age of 25 who has a decent respectable job will be forced to take a year out, and spend it wandering through the woods, to see the cherry hung with snow. Squaddies in the Marines will be compulsorily be made to express their love for their comrades through poetry and dancing. Members of the TA will be required to do philosophy courses. Brighter students will be encouraged to laugh at them if they fail to give a convincing explanation of the Third Man argument. And — most importantly — when any of them ask why they are being made to do philosophy, creative writing, Morris dancing I shall put on my best Spanish accent, and (with just a trace of Sergeant Major barking drill) say:

'Philosophy is fun. Creative writing did me the world of good. Young people today would welcome the opportunity to become more free-and-easy. Art, culture and sensitivity are good things in themselves; there is only one valuable type of person; and anyone who is any different will be forced into it. By law.'

And in the evenings, every man will pour his own cocoa.