After a week in which his laudable stance on Syria saw him blamed by Tories for the Ukraine crisis, Ed Miliband went lookinng for a free, headline-grabbing, populist, policy, to establish his militaristic credentials. He came up with the ludicrous idea of making it illegal to discriminate against members of the armed forces. Currently, the Equality Act 2010 outlines the following characteristics that employers, educators, and service-providers may not use to discriminate against people; age, being or becoming a transsexual person, being married or in a civil partnership, being pregnant or having a child, disability, race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin, religion, belief or lack of religion/belief, sex, and sexual orientation. The exception being when an organisation relies on discriminating along these lines for the way it works.
These protected characteristics are united in that they are either involuntary, or could be seen as intrinsic parts of who a person is. Most also relate to a long history of societal prejudice: racism, homophobia, etc. Hence some involuntary characteristics are not protected; people with green eyes don’t particularly need protected from the tyranny of the brown-eyed majority.
Ed Miliband’s notion that armed forces personnel are another repressed minority is not an original one; Thomas Docherty, Labour MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, presented it unsuccessfully to parliament a couple of years ago. He didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, though, and brought it back in 2013. It’s scheduled to be debated again in May this year. It aims to address the serious problem- I’m sure we all agree- of our heroes getting mugged-off in the street or told to fuck off by certain boozers or shops. As the insufferable Jim Murphy (the guy who looks like his skull kept growing but his face-skin shrunk) argues in a horrendously clumsy sentence on Labour’s website; “Our heroes’ patriotism should be celebrated not discriminated against in their everyday lives, which is why this bill is welcome and important.”
My point is not that one should discriminate against armed forces personnel. I don’t. Well, I don’t own or do anything that would allow me to discriminate against anyone in any legally actionable way. But even if I did, I wouldn’t. No, my gripe with this legislation is that it prevents me from acting on an opinion I may have formed about somebody based on their actions. Can I not infer something about the attitudes of a person who signed up for the British Army during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Perhaps I can’t infer much, but it would surely be reasonable for me to conclude that they supported or were indifferent enough to the conflicts to participate. Surely I can read something into the fact that a person chose to be trained to kill and went overseas in the knowledge that the state may order them to do so.
I don’t hate armed forces personnel, but I do think they are misguided. I also think their actions in the last few years- infact you can stretch this pretty far back in the case of the British army- have made the world a more violent place. Some people will feel even more strongly than this. Should somebody who has lost relatives in The Middle East, or Northern Ireland, or The Falkland/Malvinas Islands, be prevented from telling a person in British army regalia that they’re not getting a pint in their pub? Perhaps that seems rude. But remember; it’s not illegal to turn other professions away. You can refuse a police officer or a paramedic. I fail to see why soldiers should be given elevated status.
When I was at school (a typical Glasgow comprehensive with the associated number of disaffected and foolhardy young men on which the army likes to prey) the defenders of freedom came calling. They wanted to do a talk encouraging me and my classmates to join. I suppose if you make their prospects bleak enough, people will sign-up for anything. The headmaster shut the door in their face and told them to look elsewhere for their cannon-fodder. Should Ed Miliband come to power, similar action in the future could put him on shaky legal ground.
Political posturing is undoubtedly behind Ed Miliband shouting this unoriginal idea from the rooftops, but perhaps there’s something deeper at work too. Perhaps the Labour party are trying to deal with the guilt of their unpopular and illegal conflicts having irreparably damaged the image of the armed forces in this country. They can call them ‘heroes’ all they want, but one could also argue that many British soldiers are party to violations of international law as a result of Labour’s actions. No amount of fluff news pieces from Camp Bastian or poppies on television presenters’ lapels can undo the PR damage. Forcing people to pretend that they’re all behind ‘our boys’ solves nothing .