LEADING ARTICLE:The Scouts tied in knots

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Hands up, how many of you former Eagles and Owls can still recite the Scout law (let alone find your old woggle at the back of the sock draw)? The writer of this editorial (former Kestrels patrol leader, failed 12-mile hiker circa 1970) had even forgotten the oath - until, that is, it emerged as the most schismatically threatening form of words since the juicier bits of Labour's Clause IV.

At first glance, the idea of the Scout movement choking on the prospect of vowing allegiance to an adulterous monarch seems sensationally absurd. The average Cub is likely to have more insight into divorce and its consequences than is implied in the stance of some who speak on behalf of the Scout movement's new Values Group. Older ex-patrol leaders, however, will surely recall that the first members of Baden-Powell's movement swore allegiance to Edward VII - not a monarch whose life would have borne scrutiny by a modern tabloid newspaper. At least the present Prince of Wales has had the good grace to admit his limitations. Nor is it immediately evident what an oath of loyalty to the House of Windsor has to do with the 15.5 million Scouts abroad, whose enthusiasm for the heritage of B-P is one of the more remarkable legacies of the hero of Mafeking.

Institutional soul-searching of this kind, however, is an inescapable feature of our times. As life becomes more complex, organisations from the biggest businesses to the smallest charities are propelled to define their "mission" or their "aims and values". Such attempts at codification expose stresses, but, handled well, they can prompt refreshing internal debate. Baden-Powell would have approved anything that kept the mind alert.

But the Scouts' soul-searching is delving deeper than yesterday's headlines implied. A Scout still solemnly swears "to do my best, to do my duty to God and to the Queen, to help other people and to keep the Scout law". If asked to pick the most ethically significant bits, most Scouts would probably ditch both God and the monarch - in fact, they in effect said as much in a survey last year, which found that only a quarter of Scouts regard the allegiance to God as important. Scout leaders who think a loyal declaration important would probably do well not to subject the matter to too much market-testing among the streetwise generation of adolescents among whom they recruit.

What matters is that 540,000 young Britons still choose to go scouting, in search of outdoor activities and new skills, and that in doing so they make a practical commitment to considering the needs of other people. Scott O'Grady would certainly have got his 12-mile hike badge.

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