Tim Luckhurst: Brown's call for more cadets is bang on target

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As a schoolboy in Scotland in the late 1970s, I had a copy of Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book" in my jeans and was entranced by Lindsay Anderson's film If..." There was no Combined Cadet Force at my comprehensive, but I liked the idea. Given a rifle, I would have confronted the sadistic teachers who revelled in belting boys.

I am sure that was not the outcome Gordon Brown envisaged when he outlined his plan to expand the military cadet forces, "especially in state schools". Kirkaldy Grammar had the tawse, but E-stream boys whose dads were pillars of the Kirk were rarely beaten. Scotland is too deferential for that.

The Chancellor's problem is that deference has declined. Instant, unquestioning obedience to orders is alien to adolescent culture. Physical endurance, perseverance and risk-taking are remote from the modern curriculum.

But for all that Brown was blatantly playing to the gallery in his effort to persuade Middle England that he is as unthreatening as Tony, this idea deserves to be taken seriously.

Officers in the British Army are not called Ruperts for nothing. When Prince Harry assumed the role of parade commander during the 2003 Eton CCF tattoo, the scene was typical of hundreds in the country. Public-school boys expect to lead working-class lads from the Clyde, Mersey and Thames. Their state-school contemporaries do not.

Hard as the Army tries to overcome this problem in its recruitment of officers - and it does try very hard - it is still a handicap. The same applies in the Royal Navy. Only the RAF has embedded the ideal of classless meritocracy in its leadership cadres. It started earlier; wartime leaders had to recognise that Spitfires and Lancasters were complicated. Flying them required more than knowledge of field sports and country-house etiquette.

So if Brown's expanded CCF can work, if the teachers can be found to teach firearms drill, map-reading and fieldcraft, then the forces may reap practical rewards, and not just in terms of social inclusivity in the commissioned ranks. Britain's armed forces are overstretched, and a realistic assessment of the national interest will require overseas deployment of substantial forces for many years to come. School cadet forces are an excellent way to boost recruitment.

But there is much more that is good about the CCF than its proven ability to supply a willing stream of enthusiastic recruits. Having been deprived of the opportunity to play soldiers at school, and horrified by my father's tales of shooting holes in trees and jumping from Avro Ansons while serving in his grammar school CCF in the 1950s, I had never imagined my children wanting to join up. My wife ensured they got the chance. She regards school fees as a moral obligation and insists - absolutely - on sending them to a private school that lost a higher proportion of its sixth-form than Eton on the battlefields of the First World War.

Nine decades on, Glasgow Academy is still, officially, a war memorial trust. It has a thriving CCF in which all three branches of the services are represented. My eldest daughter did one year in the army. My son will join next year. Among their friends I have seen wild, undisciplined drop-outs turned into determined young leaders. One boy who was utterly lost until he spent a weekend on manoeuvres is now determined to become an officer.

The confidence-building and skills acquisition I have witnessed as a result of CCF training has astonished me. An insolent, lazy 14-year-old subjected to firearms training with live ammunition learns responsibility amazingly fast. Observing the reality of lethal force is an incomparably effective way to inculcate maturity. Learning to sail, glide and camp are just plain fun.

But the forces pay for these activities - and for the uniforms cadets wear. So it seems ludicrous that such intensely rewarding experiences should be reserved for privileged private-school children like mine.

I fear that Gordon Brown has no idea how viciously children wearing CCF uniforms are taunted in the street. A teenage boy in military uniform attracts challenges to fight from every chav. That is not an insurmountable problem, although in many schools the evening and weekend commitment required from teachers may be.

The Chancellor's desire to be taken seriously outside the Labour movement has produced an idea that can change lives. He cannot be allowed to pretend that this was just a notion. A new Treasury target is needed; half a million new CCF recruits from state schools by Christmas 2007, anyone?

The writer is a former editor of 'The Scotsman'