Poverty and militarism feed off each other. Unemployment has always been good news for army recruiters in need of people desperate for a livelihood. So it's no surprise that the recruitment of unemployed people has been formalised in a scheme in the English Midlands. Could this be a sign of the way things are heading? The government is already forcing unemployed people to carry out unpaid labour through 'workfare' schemes. Will they soon be forcing them into army training?
This might seem an odd suggestion at a time when regular soldiers are being made redundant due to army cuts. But let's not forget that spending on warfare – or 'defence' as it's euphemistically known – has been cut by far less than many other areas of public expenditure. War is increasingly digitised and reliant on such tools as armed drones rather than large numbers of troops. The government's policy is to increase the number of army reserves.
The scheme in the Midlands is named 'SPEAR', which stands for 'Supporting People into Employment with the Army Reserve'. Perhaps this was the only military-sounding word that they could turn into an appropriate acronym.
Eighteen people in Telford joined the pilot scheme, which involves going through a month-long training programme run by the army. At the end of the scheme, ten of the eighteen applied to join the army reserve. At the other pilot scheme in Stoke-on-Trent, five applied to join the reserves and three to join the regular army.
I don't know how the participants were selected. It may well be that the people who volunteered for them were more likely to be interested in the army, so more likely to sign up when the scheme was over. This may change as the scheme is extended. It is already set to be run in Coventry, Walsall and Wolverhampton. According to a report by Guardian journalist Ben Quinn, the army now believes the scheme may be implemented across the UK as a result of support from ministers.
SPEAR is run by the army in conjunction with Job Centre Plus. It is not the first time they have worked together. Earlier this year, the army set up recruitment offices in Job Centres, under a project called “More Than Meets the Eye”.
It is just another example of everyday militarism, normalising the role of the army in civilian life and helping the authorities to justify high military spending along with nationalism, hierarchy and other military values.
Labour MP Alex Cunningham has already expressed reservations about the army going into Job Centres. He's also concerned about unemployed people feeling “pushed into the army” because of a lack of opportunities. He's now told the Guardian that he would be anxious if benefits were ever to be linked to acceptance of military training.
Cunningham is right to be worried. The government is already forcing people to undertake full-time work for no pay or lose their benefits. Under the most recent scheme, misnamed 'Help to Work', long-term unemployed people will be forced into unpaid labour full-time for six months. Over 300 charities and other voluntary groups have already refused to participate, although the government is still insisting that the scheme will go ahead.
Could compulsory military training for unemployed people be another step in this direction? A few years ago it would have seemed impossible, but then it seemed just as impossible that any British government would introduce forced labour.
The SPEAR scheme is supposed to help people to gain “self-esteem and skills”. No doubt the same words will be used if the scheme becomes widespread, or even compulsory.
In reality, you don't need an institution based on warfare and hierarchy to gain self-esteem and skills. I do not see how self-esteem can be linked to military ideas such as unquestioning obedience and signing away your right to make ethical decisions. As an institution, the army exists to carry out acts of violence, however decent and selfless some of its individual members may be. Everything else the organisation does is secondary to this.
Furthermore, high unemployment is a result of economic factors; it is not caused by a national lack of self-esteem. It needs economic solutions, not dodgy training schemes and military intervention.
(c) Symon Hill is a Christian pacifist writer and campaigner, and an associate of Ekklesia. His latest book, Digital Revolutions: Activism in the internet age, can be ordered from the publisher at http://newint.org/books/politics/digital-revolutions. He is currently researching the peace movement during the first world war.
For links to more of Symon's work, please visit http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com.