“Not long ago we ruled the world
 With cane and bowler hat
     Now all we’ve left is Ulster
        And we’ve trouble holding that.

            The public school taught us to rule
      We’ll keep those natives down
    So don’t call us tyrannical
   We’re loyal to the Crown.”

Verse from an Irish poem.

Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), the 1st Duke of Wellington, was the ‘great hero’ who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Born into an Anglo-Irish family of the Protestant Ascendancy, he was educated at Eton College (founded in 1440) and went on to become the leading officer of the British Army and twice was the British Prime Minister. As a senior officer Wellesley commanded British soldiers during conflicts in France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, the Netherlands, the Philippines and India.

Wellesley was also an example of the ‘old boys’ who were an integral part of the conquest and rule of the Empire ‘where the sun never sets’. Old empires, like Rome, had seized booty and extracted tribute from those they conquered, later, Spain became the richest European country by plundering gold and silver from South America. The British Empire was bigger than all previous conquests because of the system that lay behind it.

Early empire and the slave trade had brought the accumulation of capital that was used to fund the industrial revolution, which in turn, by exploiting cheap labour at home, had produced surplus goods to be sold for great profits in the parts of empire where indigenous production had been stifled. During Queen Victoria rein (1837-1901) there was a vast expansion of empire, which was supported patriotically by much of the British population. As the Army and Navy, using superior weapons, subjugated increasing areas of land across the globe.

In 1897, Victoria was applauded by large crowds as she travelled from her palace to St Paul’s Cathedral to celebrate her jubilee. Accompanying her in the vast procession were soldiers from all parts of the Empire and, when reporting this event, the ‘Daily Mail’ commented on the troops:

“White men, yellow men, brown men, black men, every colour, every continent, every race, every speech – and all in arms for the British Empire and the British Queen. Up they came, more and more, new types, new realms, at every couple of yards, an anthropological museum – a living gazetteer of the British Empire. With them came their English officers, whom they obey and follow like children. And you began to understand, as never before, what the Empire amounts to … that all these people are working, not simply under us, but with us – we send out a boy here and a boy there, and the boy takes hold of the savages of the part he comes to, and teaches them to march and shoot as he tells them, to obey him and believe in him and die for him and the Queen.”

[Daily Mail, 23rd June 1897].

The ‘boy here’ and the ‘boy there’ were mainly ‘old boys’ produced by the British private-school system. In the past, primogeniture in Britain had tended to restrict opportunities in ruling families to all but the first-born son, but empire and industrialisation opened the way for ‘all gentlemen’ to gain fame and fortune. James Mill described the colonies as being ‘a vast system of outdoor relief for the upper classes’ and, armed with a comprehensive view of their superiority and right to dominance, ‘old boys’ spread out into positions of power and influence both at home and abroad.

This included, within Britain’s Armed Forces, an officer-class that became a crucial part of the old-boy ruling network. In 1878, G. A. Denison, the son of a Nottinghamshire landowner, gave us a good insight into this set-up, when he wrote ‘Notes of My Life’, in which he told of his brothers and sisters:

“Six of us were at Eton, one at Harrow … My eldest brother John, Viscount Ossington … after 30 years of Parliamentary life, became Speaker of the House of Commons … William went from Eton to Woolwich, then into the Engineers … After employment at home and abroad, he became in 1846 Governor of Van Diemen’s Land; Governor-General of Australia, KCB, 1855; Governor of Madras, 1861. Stephen … was for many years Deputy Judge Advocate. Alfred, after some 20 years of laborious, honourable, and successful life in Australia, returned finally to England, and became Private Secretary to the Speaker. Charles was in the 52nd Regiment, and became Colonel in it. He had sundry Staff employments in India; and afterwards … was Chief Commissioner of Civil Service at Madras.

My sister Charlotte … married Charles Manners Sutton, then Judge Advocate General; afterwards, for seventeen years Speaker of the House of Commons.”

In order to perpetuate their rule and counteract critical voices the establishment had developed the Public [actually private] School system. Westminster parliaments were also dominated by old-boys, who used their position to continue the rule of the upper-classes, as indicated in ‘Pictures for Little Englanders’.

By the 19th century nearly all officers came to their regiments via Public Schools, which had become the training ground for all the ruling-class:

“Around 1800 – over 70 per-cent of all English peers received their education at just four public schools, Eton, Westminster, Winchester and Harrow. And in the first half of the nineteenth century, sons of the peerage and the landed gentry together made up 50 per cent of the pupils of all the major public schools … Removed from the private, introspective worlds of home and rural estates, they were brought into protracted contact with their social peers, were exposed to a uniform set of ideas and learnt how to speak the English language in a distinctive and characteristic way.”

[The British Empire, vol. 4, Orbis, 1979].

Boys, boarded at the Public School of choice from 7 or 8 years of age, were inducted into a system designed to break family connections and insert attachments to class, state and empire. The private school system was often cruel, full of emotional abuse and physical brutality, intended to harden the recipients for a life of service and rule. Every year the Public Schools would then release a caste of ‘old boy’ zealots, who set about establishing their place in the ruling structures both at home and across the Empire.

The first victims of the private school process, however, were often insiders – those boys who questioned, or rejected, this treatment. ‘If’ is a film about some non-conformist boys in a Public School, who are provoked into rebellion against the system:


The cadet forces in the private school system were steeped in patriotic traditions and these became the seedbeds for the officer-class. Schools like Eton conveyed to their pupils how a mask of etiquette and civility could obscure harsh and oppressive rule. This concentration of young aristocracy and gentry, in institutions which moulded their perceptions and formed their ideology, helped create a ruthless, cohesive and integrated ruling elite:

“Patriotic duty was stressed in practical ways, as when public-school masters encouraged boys to participate in national subscriptions and to celebrate British military and naval victories. And patriotism of a kind was embedded in the classical curriculum. The emphasis on Greek and Roman authors and ancient history meant a constant diet of stories of war, empire, bravery and sacrifice for the state … Classical literature was doubly congenial because the kind of patriotic achievement it celebrated was a highly specific one. The heroes of Homer, Cicero and Plutarch were emphatically men of rank and title. As such, they reminded Britain’s élite of its duty to serve and fight, but in addition, affirmed its superior qualifications to do so.”

[The British Empire, vol. 4, Orbis, 1979].

In 1864, a Royal Commission stated that Public Schools were: ‘The chief nurseries of our statesmen; in them, and in schools modelled after them, men … destined for every profession and career, have been brought up on a footing of social equality, and have contracted the most enduring friendships, and some of the ruling habits of their lives; and they have perhaps the largest share in moulding … the character of an English gentleman’.

Patriotism & Xenophobia  

Eton ‘old boy’, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was a leading representative of the Public School process, both as a soldier of Empire and as a Tory Prime Minister at Westminster. Throughout the empire in which he served there were frequent revolts against English rule. Even in Britain, despite the waves of pro-imperial propaganda, many people had misgivings about the morality of taking and holding the land of other people by armed force.

This often gave rise to contradictory feelings about Britain’s soldiers, which were expressed by Francis Adams in his poem ‘England in Egypt’:

From the dusty jaded sunlight of the careless Cairo streets,
Through the open bedroom window where the pale blue held the palms,
There came a sound of music, thrilling cries and rattling beats,
That startled me from slumber with a shock of sweet alarms.
For beneath this rainless heaven with this music in my ears
I was born, and all my boyhood with its joy was glorified,
And for me the ranging Red-coats hold a passion of bright tears,
And the glancing of the bayonets lights a hell of savage pride.

So I leapt and ran, and looked,
And I stood, and listened there,
Till I heard the fifes and drums,
The fifes and drums of England
Thrilling all the alien air!
And “England, England, England,”
I heard the wild fifes cry,
“We are here to rob for England,
And to throttle liberty!”
And “England, England, England,”
I heard the fierce drums roar,
“We are tools for pious swindlers
And brute bullies evermore!”

And the silent Arabs crowded, half-defiant, half-dismayed,
And the jaunty fifers fifing flung their challenge to the breeze,
And the drummers kneed their drums up as the reckless drumsticks played,
And the Tommies all came trooping, tripping, slouching at their ease.
Ah Christ, the love I bore them for their brave hearts and strong hands,
Ah Christ, the hate that smote me for their stupid, dull conceits –
I know not which was greater, as I watched their conquering bands
In the dusty jaded sunlight of the sullen Cairo streets.
And my dreams of love and hate
Surged, and broke, and gathered there,
As I heard the fifes and drums,
The fifes and drums of England
Thrilling all the alien air! –
And “Tommy, Tommy, Tommy,”
I heard the wild fifes cry,
“Will you never know the England
For which men, not fools, should die?”
And “Tommy, Tommy, Tommy,”
I hear the fierce drums roar,
“Will you always be a cut-throat
And a slave for evermore?”

Unfortunately, in Britain there were louder establishment-supported patriotic voices promoting xenophobia and claiming empire-subjugation as a civilising mission. Many of those who became ‘old boys’ would have read books as children about Great Britain and its Empire. Writers like G. A. Henty, once editor of ‘The Union Jack’ – a ‘One Penny Weekly Boy’s Paper’, wrote adventure books for boys which glamorised colonial warfare.

His fictional ‘old-boy’ characters were put into real life actions and were always ‘honourable’ and ‘manly’ and exuded ‘character’, ‘self-discipline’ and ‘authority’. Yorke Harberton, a ‘typical hero’ who went ‘With Roberts to Pretoria’ was claimed to be:

“A good specimen of the class by which Britain has been built up, her colonies formed, and her battle-fields won – a class in point of energy, fearlessness, and the spirit of adventure, and a readiness to face and overcome all difficulties unmatched in the world.”

[The British Empire, vol. 4, Orbis, 1979].

Henty, who was the eldest son of a stockbroker mine-owner, hated trade unions and was openly racist. He wrote his books to foster ‘the imperial spirit’, stating that ‘the Negro is an inferior animal and a lower grade in creation than the white man’. For many British youngsters, indoctrination started even earlier, with pro-imperial themes appearing in nursery books like the ABC for Baby Patriots:

A is the Army
that dies for the Queen;
It’s the very best Army
That ever was seen.

I is for India,
Our land in the East
Where everyone goes
To shoot tigers and feast.

N is the Navy
We keep at Spithead,
It’s a sight that makes foreigners
Wish they were dead.


While the rank-and-file soldiers came from the poor and colonised, the officer-corps, produced by the private school system, ensured the perpetuation of the status quo. The history of the army can be traced back to Oliver Cromwell’s time, but its enduring character was forged, and the hierarchy strengthened, during the Victorian colonial wars. It was then that the British Army acquired its contemporary reputation among the armies of the major powers of the world as a ‘counter-insurgency’ force.

‘Pictures for Little Englanders’ was a Victorian book for young children. Under a sketch of Kitchener the soldier and Kipling the writer, the following lines were written:

Men of different trades and sizes
Here you see before your eyses;
Lanky sword and stumpy pen,
Doing useful things for men;
When the Empire wants a stitch in her
Send for Kipling and for Kitchener.

In the last years of Victoria’s reign England did send for Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the ‘great warrior hero’ of Khartoum and the battle of Omdurman, who was dispatched to South Africa to deal with the Boers who were waging guerrilla warfare against the British forces. He ordered that Boer homesteads be burnt and the women and children herded into guarded camps ‘to concentrate them’. Over 100,000 ended up in the British concentration camps, in conditions that an Australian reporter called the ‘criminal neglect of the simple laws of sanitation’. By the end of the war 28,000 Boer detainees had died – 22,000 of them were children.

Later, Kitchener became a well-known recruitment icon for WW1, helping to build a mass army for the brutal trench warfare.

 The Rule of the ‘Box-Wallah’

In 1942, in a review of ‘A Choice of Kipling’s Verse’ by T. S. Eliot, George Orwell wrote that Kipling: ‘Was the prophet of British imperialism in its expansionist phase … and also the unofficial historian of the British Army’. Orwell continued:

“It is notable that Kipling does not seem to realise, any more than the average soldier or colonial administrator, that an empire is primarily a money-making concern. Imperialism as he sees it is a sort of forcible evangelising. You turn a Gatling gun on a mob of unarmed ‘natives’, and then you establish ‘the law’, which includes roads, railways and a court house … His outlook, allowing for the fact that after all he was an artist, was that of the salaried bureaucrat who despises the ‘box-wallah’ [business-man] and often lives a lifetime without realising that the ‘box-wallah’ calls the tune.”

[Horizon, Feb. 1942]. 

India, Kipling’s birth place and where he spent his early life, was exploited ruthlessly by the East India Company. Making vast profits for English ‘box-wallahs’ like Sir Josiah Child, Robert Clive and Warren Hastings. Who was educated at Westminster public school during the same time as two future Prime Ministers, Lord Shelburne and the Duke of Portland.

Given its first charter and monopoly privileges under Queen Elizabeth I, the East India Company was first set up in 1600 when 125 London merchants launched the company ‘for the honour of this our realm’. The company’s stock rose nine-fold in the period of Oliver Cromwell, who protected it from competition, allowing the company to set itself up for future expansion:

“The Charter of 1661 recognised the company’s right to tax, and gave it power to wage war against non-Christian peoples. By 1684 Sir Josiah Child was advocating ‘absolute sovereign power in India for the Company’. In the mid-eighteenth century Clive, began to execute this policy, to his own and the company’s great financial advantage.”

[Reformation to Industrial Revolution, by Christopher Hill, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967].

Bengal was brought under East India Company rule after Clive’s victory at the battle of Plassey in 1757 and the land tax was tripled. Countless of ‘the soft Bengalese’ died during the subsequent famine, while the company continued to extract wealth from the country. Many more Indians were to die from war, pestilence and famine in the years to come, including many millions in the last three decades of Victoria’s rule alone:


Others Indians were forced to move to different areas of the Empire, as semi-slave labour. As it expanded, the East India Company manipulated and moulded the indigenous order and rulers to accept company domination and swiftly moved to extinguish any opposition. Divide-and-rule tactics gradually allowed a tiny group of colonial administrators and soldiers to dominate the vast continent and impose their strict central control over the areas occupied.

To enforce its exploitation, the company also formed its own navy and army and built a network of forts, taxing the Indian population to pay for their upkeep. Clive served as a military officer and then governor of East India and he, with other ‘box-wallahs’ like Warren Hastings, used the money they extorted to gain fame and influence back home:

“The great wealth won by the plunder of India enabled the plunderers to buy their way into English politics. Clive himself acquired first a Parliamentary seat, then a peerage. It was alleged that between 1757 and 1766 the company and its employees received £6 million from India as gifts. Warren Hastings prided himself on never defrauding the company: before accepting money, he asked himself only ‘this, whether it would go into a black man’s pocket or my own’. In thirteen years he remitted to England over £218,000 which he had saved from black men. There had been nothing like it in history since the Spanish conquistadors looted the Aztec and Inca civilisations of America in the early sixteenth century.”

[Reformation to Industrial Revolution, by Christopher Hill, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967]. 

Back in London in 1773, Clive and others were criticised by a parliamentary inquiry for enriching themselves while ‘oppression in every shape has ground the faces of the poor defenceless natives’. Clive, whose military victories had paved the way for company expansionism and made him a great British hero, replied that he was ‘astonished at his own moderation’ for taking so little.

Exonerating him, the House of Commons ruled that while Clive had pocketed £234,000 he had performed ‘great services to the state’. However, Clive found it difficult to refute his detractors and suffering from depression committed suicide the following year. Samuel Johnson wrote that Clive: ‘Had acquired his fortune by such crimes that his consciousness of them impelled him to cut his own throat’.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was posted to India in 1797 as an army officer and during the next eight years he took part in numerous battles to expand the rule of the East India Company. When he returned to Britain in 1805, he’d amassed a then fortune of £42,000, mostly made up of ‘prize money’ from his campaigns. At home he took a period of extended leave from the army and by the start of the next year was elected as a Tory member of the British parliament.

Great Britain: the World’s Biggest Drug Trafficker

In India, the East India Company extended its operations into China to trade opium for tea. With the company forcing Indian peasants to grow the poppies and harvest the opium crop. By 1830 nearly 450 tons of opium reached China and the next year a House of Commons report stated that: ‘The monopoly of Opium in Bengal supplies the Govt. with a revenue amounting to £981,293 per annum; and the duty amounts to 302% on the cost of the article … It does not appear advisable to abandon so important a source of revenue’.

The Chinese, seeing so many of their people fall victim to opium addiction, desperately tried to stop this drug trade. Britain then resorted to warships and soldiers to crush any resistance in the Opium Wars of 1839-42. The defeated Chinese were forced to hand £2,000,000 and Hong Kong over to Britain and four ‘treaty ports’ opened up China to foreign (mainly British) trade.

The East India Company had lost most of its autonomy under the India act of 1833 and in 1857 its demise was ensured when many native soldiers rebelled. The Indian ‘mutiny’, which rocked British rule in India, was ruthlessly suppressed by British and loyal native troops. Many rebels were executed and some were hanged out of hand, but others were dispatched by a new method:

“Hanging … was usually thought too good for mutineers. When the facilities were available, it was usual to blow them from guns. It was claimed that this method contained ‘two valuable elements of capital punishment; it was painless to the criminal and terrible to the beholder’. The ritual was certainly hideous. With great ceremony the victim was escorted to the parade ground while the band played some lively air. The victim’s back was ranged against the muzzle of one of the big guns and he was strapped into position. Then the band would fall silent and the only sound would be the faint crackle of the portfire, as it was lowered to the touch-hole. With a flash and a roar, an obscene shower of blood and entrails would cover both the gunners and observers.”

[The British Empire, vol. 2, Orbis, 1979].

State drug trafficking expanded after the East India Company was abolished in 1858 and the crown took over direct control of India. While 2,000 tons of opium was exported to China in 1843, this had soared to 5,000 tons by 1866. In 1875 alone £6,500,000 was made from the trade in opium. By then, Britain had become the biggest drug trafficker in the history of the world:

On the 1st of January 1887 Queen Victoria was formally proclaimed Queen-Empress of India, meanwhile Indian peasants continued to die of starvation and in China millions were dying from the effects of opium addiction. 

East India House, in the City of London, was one of the nerve centres from which this system had operated. Situated a short distance from the Bank of England, this grand building, with its elaborate facade, stood as a striking monument to ‘imperial achievements’. It was demolished after the company’s demise and it is fitting that the Lloyds building now stands in its place, because, in its own time, the East India Company was an integral part of a global economy:

  • Opium from India bought tea from China, which was sent to Britain with Indian raw materials like cotton.
  • Imported raw materials were processed into textiles and other manufactured goods in British factories, which were then exchanged for slaves in west Africa.
  • African slaves were worked to death on plantations, or traded for sugar and tobacco and/or sold for gold and silver in the West Indies and America.
  • The profits, plus the gold and silver, helped fund the industrial revolution and the subsequent monopoly of manufactured goods, combined with cheap labour at home, ensured British dominance of world trade.
  • The sugar, produced by slave labour, was combined with the tea, obtained from opium trading, to produce what became England’s national drink.

An equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington is now located at the Royal Exchange in London, a short distance from the site of East India House. That old system, which made great fortunes for the upper-classes, was protected by the army and navy, controlled by the officer-class, with its rank-and-file drawn mainly from the Celtic fringe and the urban and rural underclass. With mercenary units of militias and colonial police, recruited from the previously conquered and commanded by old boys, often playing a crucial role.

Pro-imperialist historians often brag that, at its height, the British Empire covered a quarter of the world’s land surface and contained a population of over 400 million. They neglect to tell us, however, that it was drug trafficking and the slave trade that helped put the ‘Great’ into Great Britain, or that the famines in Ireland and India, that caused millions of deaths, were the result of an unyielding market ideology – backed-up by official callousness. In our own age of the US-led new imperialism we should remember that, while profits multiplied in the City of London during the heyday of the British Empire, at home and abroad the poor faced oppression, slavery, misery and death.

Keeping ‘The Scum of the Earth’ In Line

In 1947 the Royal Military Academy of today was set up at Sandhurst, it was built on the site of the former Royal Military College that was founded in 1801 for training army officers. Officers’ commissions could then be achieved by purchase, with the prices ranging from around £400 to £1,000 for a junior officer and £4,000 to £10,000 for a lieutenant-colonel. These were amounts that only the wealthy could afford.

Around the world all armies are hierarchies to some degree, but the British officer-class became super elitist. A tradition of service developed among the younger sons of the well-off, especially among landowning families and often within the same regiments. With the officer corps only open to ‘gentlemen’, the army system was totally undemocratic, full of nepotism and corruption flourished.

The Duke of Wellington, who had once called his men ‘the scum of the earth’, also said of his soldiers: ‘I don’t know what they do to the enemy, but by God they frighten me’. The rank-and-file soldiers were subject to autocratic rule, suffered arbitrary punishment for any perceived misdemeanour. And often money for their equipment and provisions was purloined for officer benefit.

In 1831, Alexander Somerville, a soldier in the Scots Greys, wrote a letter to the press because he was concerned about his regiment’s riot training. It was just over a decade after the Peterloo Massacre and Somerville was apprehensive: ‘That while the Scots Greys could be relied upon to put down disorderly conduct, they should never be ordered to lift up arms against the liberties of the country and peaceful demonstrations of the people’.

Charged with writing a ‘seditious letter’ to a paper, Somerville was sentenced to be flogged with 150 lashes. Flogging was barbaric, as even a few lashes could rip a man’s flesh to the bone. Later, Somerville described his ordeal:

“The regimental sergeant-major, who stood behind, with a book and pencil to count each lash, and write its number, gave the command, ‘Farrier Simpson, you will do your duty’. The manner of doing that duty is to swing the ‘cat’ twice round the head, give a stroke, draw the tails of the ‘cat’ through the fingers of the left hand, to rid them of skin, or flesh, or blood; again to swing the instrument twice round the head slowly, and come on, and so forth. Simpson took the ‘cat’ as ordered; at least I believe so; I did not see him, but I felt an astounding sensation between the shoulders, under my neck, which went to my toe nails in one direction, my finger nails in another, and stung me to the heart, as if a knife had gone through my body. The sergeant-major called in a loud voice, ‘one’. I felt as if it would be kind of Simpson not to strike me on the same place again. He came a second time a few inches lower, and then I thought the former stroke was sweet and agreeable compared with that one. The sergeant-major counted ‘two’. The ‘cat’ was swung twice round the farrier’s head again, and he came on somewhere about the right shoulder blade, and the loud voice of the reckoner said ‘three’. The shoulder blade was as sensitive as any other part of the body, and when he came again on the left shoulder, and the voice cried ‘four’, I felt my flesh quiver in every nerve, from the scalp of my head to my toe nails. The time between each stroke seemed so long as to be agonising, and yet the next came too soon …”

[The Rambling Soldier, by Roy Palmer, Penguin Books Ltd 1977].

Throughout the history of the British Army and Navy, officers were often as frightened of their own soldiers and sailors as they were by any enemy. Requiring instant obedience, they therefore enforced stern discipline to maintain their control. In the army the Mutiny Act had stipulated that soldiers committing ‘crimes’ like mutiny, desertion or sedition should be tried under military, not civil law. Crown forces were then empowered to set up courts-martial to deal with these offences.

Over the following centuries British soldiers were punished in a variety of ways. The ‘wooden horse’, which often caused rupture; the ‘log’, which was an iron weight chained to the leg; ‘pack and porcupine drill’ for hours on end, spread out over days and sometimes weeks. In both the army and navy, of all the punishments after execution, flogging with a cat-o’-nine-tails whip was the most dreaded. ‘Calling out the Militia for Duty’ was a soldier’s song in the Victorian era. In one of the verses the colonel tells his men:

You are her Majesty’s soldiers now,
And if you dare to wrangle,
The cat-o’-nine-tails is your doom,
Tied up to the triangle.

Other rank and file soldiers were often ordered to administer such punishments. They were usually revolted by their participation, like this ex-drummer: ‘At the lowest calculation, it was my disgusting duty to flog men at least three times a week. From this painful task there was no possibility of shrinking, without the certainty of a rattan over my own shoulders from the Drum-Major, or of my being sent to the black hole’.

The ex-drummer then described his flogging of other soldiers:

“After a poor fellow had received about one hundred lashes, the blood would pour down his back in streams … so that by the time he had received three hundred, I have found my clothes all blood from the knees to the crown of my head. Horrified by my disgusting appearance, I have, immediately after the parade, run into the barrack-room, to escape from the observations of the soldiers, and rid my clothes and person of my comrade’s blood.”

[The British Soldier, by J. M. Brereton, Bodley Head 1986].

An anti-recruitment broadsheet from the time showed an illustration of a flogging and ended with the message: ‘YOUNG MEN OF ENGLAND! As you value your own self-respect, don’t let yourselves be bribed by a contemptible bounty of £5 or £6, into voluntarily submitting to this gross degradation. If you do, you must not complain if the punishment of your folly is scored in stripes on your bloody and lacerated back’.

Most of the public gradually became opposed to the corporal punishment of soldiers and sailors. And military recruitment squads were often subjected to a variety of taunts, including: ‘Question – Why is a soldier like a mouse? Answer – Because he lives in constant terror of the cat!’ In Perth, in Scotland, local washer-women carrying stones in their skirts attacked a public military flogging, forcing the officers to flee and administered a ‘handsome flogging’ to the bare posterior of the unfortunate adjutant, whom the women managed to catch.

In 1834, in the face of growing public opposition to the flogging of soldiers, a Royal Commission, headed by Lord Wharncliffe, was appointed to examine ‘Military punishments in the Army’. Anyone with any experience of government reports, will not be surprised to learn that the Royal Commission came down on the side of the establishment consensus and argued in favour of flogging: ‘The opinion of almost every witness whom we have examined, is that the substitution of other punishments for corporal punishment in Your Majesty’s Army, upon actual service, and in the field, is impracticable, and if practicable, would be insufficient for the maintenance of proper discipline’.

The House of Commons was stuffed with members supporting various vested interests, so, when a motion to reform corporal punishment in the armed forces was debated in the House of Commons, unsurprisingly, it was defeated, with 227 votes against and only 94 votes in favour. At Westminster, Eton ‘old boy’ Arthur Wellesley – the Duke of Wellington and the ‘great hero of Waterloo’ – who was a former Army Commander-in-Chief and now a Cabinet member, vigorously supported flogging saying:

“British soldiers are taken entirely from the lowest order of society … I do not see how you can have an Army at all unless you preserve it in a state of discipline, nor how you can have a state of discipline, unless you have some punishment … There is no punishment which makes an impression upon anybody except corporal punishment … I have no idea of any great effect being produced by anything but the fear of immediate corporal punishment.”

[Report from His Majesty’s Commissioners for Inquiring into the System of Military Punishments].

It was Napoleon, Wellington’s great enemy, who described his English opponents as ‘la perfide Albion!’ (Perfidious Albion). The French, whom Wellington’s army often faced in battle, claimed they could distinguish the British dead after a battle by the scars on their backs inflicted by floggings. And British soldiers were flogged so often that they became known throughout Europe as the ‘Bloodybacks’.

During the middle years of the 19th century, soldiers in the British Army were subject to poor living conditions and harsh punishments. While flogging was the most feared punishment for soldiers, the ultimate penalty was execution; usually after a court-martial and by a firing-squad. Both floggings and firing-squads were meant to frighten and intimidate other soldiers and these punishments took place surrounded by elaborate ceremonies with the other soldiers ordered to parade and witness the scene.

In a few instances the wrongdoer was handed over to the civil courts. One such case was that of Patrick McCaffery, an 18-year-old Irish recruit to the Cornwall Light Infantry, in 1860. His story gave rise to the most sung, and perhaps the most subversive, song ever written about a soldier in the British Army. The soldier’s name appeared in a variety of spellings and more recent versions of the song were called McCafferty:


When I was 18 years of age,
Into the British Army I did engage;
I left my home with the good intent
To join the forty-second regiment.

To Fullwood Barracks then I did go,
To serve my time in that depot.
From troubles then I was never free;
My captain took a great dislike to me.

When posted out on guard one day,
Some soldiers’ children came along to play;
From the officers’ mess my captain came
And ordered me to take their names.

I took one name instead of three.
On neglect of duty, they then charged me;
Ten days’ CB with loss of pay,
For doing my duty - the opposite way.

With a loaded rifle I did prepare,
To shoot my captain on the barrack square;
It was my captain I meant to kill,
But I shot my colonel against my will.

At Liverpool Assizes then I stood,
I held my courage as best I could;
But the judge he says McCafferty,
Go prepare yourself for eternity.

Well I had no father to take my part,
Nor loving mother to break her heart;
I had but one friend, and a girl was she;
Who’d have laid down her life for McCafferty.

So come all you officers and NCO’s,
Take some advice from one who knows,
It was only lies and a tyranny,
That made a martyr of poor McCafferty.


While containing slight inaccuracies, like naming the regiment as the 42nd rather than the actual 32nd, the song tells the basic story. McCaffery must have been a remarkably good shot; his one bullet fired at Captain Hanham killed both him and Colonel Crofton, who was walking alongside Hanham on the barrack square. On Saturday, 11 January 1862 in front of a crowd estimated at 30,000 to 40,000 McCaffery was hanged outside of Kirkdale Gaol, in Liverpool.

The crowd were clearly on McCaffery’s side and yelled and hissed at Calcraft, the public executioner. Reports from the time depicted the two officers as bullies, like this article in the ‘Preston Mercury’: ‘We are assured on good authority that (and as impartial journalists we must state the truth, however painful it may be) both Colonel Crofton and Adjutant Hanham have been guilty of great tyranny in the government of the men, to such an extent indeed that the soldiers express sympathy with the murderer. Many instances in proof of this have been related to us’.

Fellow squaddies were certainly sympathetic to McCaffery, because they too had suffered under the harsh discipline and petty harassment that had led to the soldier’s actions and tragic-end. The song has been sung ever since, in various versions, by soldiers in the army – even though it is thought to be a chargeable offence to be caught singing it.

I remember learning the words to this song in 1966-8 on late night buses back to the Tidworth Garrison, after drinking sessions in nearby Salisbury. I was told the song could only be sung when there was nobody [in authority] around. The authorities’ dislike for ‘McCaffery’ was probably compounded by the song being set to the same tune as ‘The Croppy Boy’, an Irish rebel ballad that commemorated the crop-haired United Irish supporters of the French Revolution.

While mainly used in national wars and the conquest of empire, British soldiers were required from time to time to ensure that the rulers’ order was preserved back home. In this task they were helped when Harrow Public School educated Sir Robert Peel set up a professional centrally controlled police force for London in 1829. Peel, who was a political ally of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, had first set up a colonial style armed police force in Ireland, which forged a reputation as a brutal paramilitary body that saw his ‘peelers’ being hated ever since.

The Officer-Class After WW1

The 100 years from Wellington’s victory at Waterloo, to the start of WW1, was an era when around 10,000,000 square miles of territory and about 400 million people were added to the British Empire. Britain became the global hegemonic power and saw itself as the world’s police force. In pro-establishment circles the period became known as ‘Pax Britannica’ (Latin for ‘British Peace’). In fact, during this time, there were only 15 years when Britain’s armed forces were not engaged in bloody conflict in some part of the world.

In the early years of the 20th century, the British establishment had still believed they were ruling the most powerful nation and empire in the world. But they were also aware that threats to their power existed both at home and abroad. Across the Atlantic, the US was out producing Britain in manufactured goods. Closer to home, Germany was doing the same – but also threatening to dominate Europe and even menace parts of the British Empire – and this clash of interests was to end up with a conflict that became known as the ‘Great War’.

Countries in the west had long dominated poorer nations, by using superior modern weapons. Now, in WW1, they were to use this firepower against each other and the trenches became an abyss of artillery bombardments, machine-guns, mustard-gas and barbed-wire. Compared to the General Staff, wallowing in the comparative luxury of safe base areas, junior officers had to share the hell of the front line – and the casualty rate – with the rank-and-file.

These ‘old boy’ low-ranking officers were typical products of their class; highly educated, articulate and confident. But some started to take issue with aspects of the war and a few developed kindred feelings for the soldiers they commanded. Sometimes, short ceasefires were agreed by the opposing front lines engaged in the brutal trench warfare, the most famous of which became known as the Christmas Truce:


Incidents like the Christmas Truce showed that the opponents in the front lines could make friends with each other. That in the right circumstances fraternal actions could take place – both within armies between junior officers, NCOs and the rank-and-file and without between sections of contesting armies. While this brought hope to those who sought peace, it was hated by the war-makers who believed that such actions threatened their objectives.

So, the Generals on all sides quickly made sure that truces, or any such local agreements, were promptly brought to a halt and they tried to ensure they did not happen again. But even in an organisation like the British Army, which was adhering rigidly to a class system, evidence of the junior officer disillusionment and fraternisation with the ‘lower orders’ continued. This often found expression in verse, producing much of the famous WW1 poetry.

Educated at Marlborough College and Cambridge, Siegfried Sassoon, a young infantry officer, was incensed by the jingoistic support for the war back home and he attacked this attitude, especially as expressed in the Music Halls, in his poem ‘Blighters’:

The House is crammed: tier upon tier they grin
And crackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, sweet Home’,
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

Sassoon was called ‘Mad Jack’ or ‘Kangers’ by his men in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He was a model front-line officer, leading with such bravado that he had won a Military Cross. In 1917, recovering from war wounds after a spell in a British hospital, Sassoon, who was strongly opposed to aspects of the war wrote: ‘Finished with the WAR: A Soldier’s Declaration’:

“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible for them to be changed without our knowledge, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation. I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging those sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the military conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them. Also I believe that it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.”

A sympathetic Labour MP read out the declaration in the House of Commons and it was printed in the London Times the next day. Sassoon fully expected to be court martialled, but he hoped to use that process to focus attention on securing a quick end to the war. Instead, a friend and fellow officer, Robert Graves, organised for him to appear before a medical board.

The authorities were happy to go along with this and the board immediately sent him to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh as a shell-shock case. This successfully curtailed Sassoon’s protest, as suggestions were then made that his anti-war views came from someone suffering mental problems. After WW1 Sassoon took part in anti-war activity and he joined the Peace Pledge Union.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), a German playwright, served as a medical orderly during WW1. Appalled by the effects of the war, as witnessed by him, he decided to pursue a career in the theatre. Before fleeing Nazis Germany in 1933, Brecht wrote a series of poems and satires about the German Army – which could just as easily have been written about the British Army:

Reigns in the army.
The truth of this is seen
In the cookhouse.
In their hearts should be
The selfsame courage. But
On their plates
Are two kinds of rations.
That their enemy is marching at their head.
The voice which gives them their orders
Is their enemy’s voice and
The man who speaks of the enemy
Is the enemy himself. 

After both World Wars there were protests by soldiers about the time it was taking to be discharged and get home. The British Army, however, now required troops for Empire duty again and did not want to release all the men back to Civvy Street. Post WW1, in India and Ireland, who both had provided men and provisions for Britain’s war effort, protests were made and self-rule sought, which were brutally repressed by British troops.

For the rank-and-file soldiers, over a century after Patrick McCaffrey had been executed, troops in the British Army were still being treated in a similar way, with those running Britain’s modern Armed Forces having retained their ability to force service men and women into a state of blind obedience. The control became more psychological than physical, but ordinary soldiers could still be punished for ‘crimes’ like whistleblowing, going absent without leave (AWOL), dissidence, or even questioning actions they are ordered to perform. Starting, within regiments, with ‘punishment fatigues’, or ‘jankers’, that can lead to detention in the guardhouse, or, for more ‘serious crimes’, end up in a military prison.

Soldiers, who cost the taxpayer a lot of money to recruit and train, were often used as servants and treated in a feudal-type way by their officers. Frank Gilchrist, who joined the Scots Guards and then left the army after fighting in the Falklands, said about his service life:

“I enjoyed the barrack-room camaraderie but couldn’t stomach the officers with their public-school accents and their elitist mentality. After a couple of punishment duties, serving in the officers’ mess, I really saw how the other half lives. They have waiters, and each officer has his own batman, who is an ordinary soldier that has to look after him like a valet. If an officer, at inspection, has dirty boots or his bearskin hat is not quite right, he doesn’t get punished, his batman does. In the Guards, an officer can’t really be punished.”

[Morning Star, 14th Feb. 1989].

The conflict in Northern Ireland was often called the ‘corporals’ war’ because most of the ‘doing and dying’ was done by NCOs and the rank-and-file soldiers. All of the ‘reasoning why’, however, was done by the MoD and the senior officers. In 1990, ‘Gumboots and Pearls’, a guide to coping with being an Army officer’s wife, was published. Written by two wives of serving officers the publication, though light-hearted, did give some insights into the lives of some officers at that time.

A review of the book in the ‘Independent’ paper said: ‘The 120-page book warns prospective recruits – brides marrying into the army – that their husbands are likely to find their wedding night a time of great discovery’. Army officers, the book said, have: ‘On the whole lived from the age of six solely in the company of boys, men and dogs. Indeed, dogs form an enduring part of life in the army’. The Independent’s review went on to state:

“There are more dangers after the men-only parties in the officers’ mess. ‘They all get absolutely ratted and come back waking you up at three o’clock in the morning offering a present like a Mars Bar. Don’t ignore them but help them into bed. Otherwise, they’ll get in with their spurs on and the bedroom will look like a scene of a Bernard Matthews massacre in the morning’. When women are invited to functions, they should avoid ‘bingo’ dresses, those which invite ‘eyes down, look in’ because they raise senior officers’ blood pressure. Politics, religion and sex are taboo subjects at these functions, which means ‘the men talk about the fourth most interesting subject, themselves’. Politics are best avoided anyway because ‘they all support the Tories and their only concern is that the Tories are getting too soft and left-wing’. ‘Don’t even watch a Liberal Party political broadcast, or you’ll be branded a communist forever’.”

[Independent, 20th Sept. 1990].

In the post-WW2 era more of those commissioned as officers were receiving an ordinary education at state schools, but many quickly emulated the elitist attitudes of their mentors – the senior officers from Public School backgrounds. An officer serving in Northern Ireland in 1977, who was opposed to this, stated: ‘More State-educated boys than ever before are being commissioned – though still not into the smartest of regiments, of course. What is so disturbing however, is the way in which all this new blood is so quickly tainted with the social mores and opinions of the past … most of the new entry take to the rigid distinctions that are left like a duck to water’.

Army Barracks, where the ordinary troops live in cramped and spartan blocks, keeps the squaddies isolated from the outside population. The officers keep their hierarchy firmly in place, with the distinctions in the pecking-order being strictly upheld. Army officers, who live in much better and separate accommodation, still come predominantly from public-school (private education) backgrounds and from the upper and middle classes:

“Although only 5% of school-age children attend public schools, half the army’s officer corps still come from the private education sector. Fewer than 6% of officers are working-class men and women who have worked their way up through the ranks. This class division is reinforced by the existence of separate messes and barracks and sometimes even separate entrances to buildings – the lower ranks being required to use the ‘tradesmen’s entrance’ at the rear.”

[Tribune, 17th July 1987, by Peter Tatchell].

Simon Raven wrote the book, Perish by the Sword, about his time as a young officer in the Army. In the 1950s he was at the School of Infantry at Warminster and met a fellow officer, Captain C: ‘C was always very concerned with his men’s welfare, to which he gave genuine consideration (on the face of it, just the kind of competent, thoughtful and public-spirited young officer which a Labour Government would wish to perpetuate in ‘a democratic Army’)’. Raven continued:

“But C’s was scarcely a democratic nature. ‘They are rather like pet animals’, he said to me of his men one day. ‘One must keep them clean and properly fed, so they do not get diseased and are in good working order. One must teach them to react swiftly and without thought to certain external stimuli or signals. Just as you whistle for a dog, so there must be certain simple and easily recognisable forms of words for the men. They must be given a certain amount of genuine affection, so that they feel loved and secure. They must expect, and on the whole receive, justice – a lump of sugar when they have done well, a whipping when they have been disobedient. But they must also realise that there are too many of them for justice always to work dead correctly in individual cases, and that occasional lumps of sugar will go to the idle and mischievous, occasional whippings to the industrious and innocent … And they should be made to recognise the signs one sometimes gives when one simply does not want to be bothered with them’.”

[Perish by the Sword, by Simon Raven].

More officers, however, were disagreeing with the ‘officer-class’ status-quo and some tried to rebel against it. This is not an easy thing to do, however, because to buck the system in such a hierarchical organisation as the British Army is difficult. One such dissenting officer stated that:

“You simply can’t afford, not if you’re career-minded, to be in the slightest way non-conformist or even be suspected of being that way. You have to accept all their values without exception. In the mess there’s a fresh supply of newspapers every day: but it’s the unusual or exceptional mess which will take even such a paper as the Guardian. That’s considered radical and left wing. Similarly with magazines, I’ve never seen a mess in which you’d find the New Statesman. The point I’m making is that officers are mostly the kind of unthinking Tories who consider themselves non-political. That means they’re fundamentally extreme right-wing Conservative … The Army perpetuates the British class system, and it couldn’t exist in its present form without that class system. It has to have the acceptance, without thinking or questioning let alone challenging it, by some men that they’re only fit to be inferiors: with the corollary, the assumption by others that they’re in some way chosen by God as superiors …”

[Soldier, Soldier, ex-officer Malcolm Grant interviewed by Tony Parker, William Heinemann Ltd 1985].

Bourgeois Democracy & the Old-Boy Elite

As an 18-year-old, John Lees had been one of the ‘British Army heroes’ who had fought at Waterloo under the Duke of Wellington, but he then left the army and returned to Oldham in Lancashire and his old job as a cotton spinner. The industrial revolution was transforming manufacturing, but also producing a slum living environment and inhumane working conditions in the new mills and factories. Fewer than 4% of the population had the vote and, up and down the country, there was occurring mass popular meeting calling for parliamentary reform.

In 1819, four years after the battle that defeated Napoleon, Lees joined a crowd of 60,000 people who gathered at St Peter’s Field in Manchester to hear reforming speeches from Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and other speakers. Three local magistrates, two of whom were Clerics, ordered the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry to arrest the speakers. These civilian troopers, backed by the regular army 15th Hussars, drew their sabres and charged the crowd, leaving 11 dead and some 500 injured:

Samuel Bamford, the weaver-poet, had taken part in the protest and stated what he had seen: ‘Sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion’.

[Chronicle of Britain, Chronicle Communications Ltd 1992].

Waterloo veteran John Lees died three weeks later from the injuries he sustained at St Peter’s Field. Ironically, it is probable that his mortal wounds had been inflicted by his former comrades in arms, the 15th Hussars, who were proudly wearing their Waterloo medals as they charged the crowd:

“Before he died John Lees said he was never in such danger at Waterloo as he was at the meeting, for at Waterloo it was man to man but at Manchester it was downright murder. He was not alone in that assessment. Other people seized upon the presence of Waterloo veterans such as himself in the unarmed crowds, and upon the actions of the 15th Hussars … [and] the savage sobriquet ‘Peterloo’ was bestowed.”

[The Peterloo Massacre, by Joyce Marlow, Panther Books Ltd 1971].

Back in Oliver Cromwell’s time the Digger, Gerrard Winstanley, had likened government to ‘a gang of thieves’. Almost two centuries later, in 1835, John Wade produced ‘The Extraordinary Black Book, an Exposition of Abuses in Church and State’. In it, he produced an ‘Analysis of the House of Commons elected in 1830’:

  • Relations of peers, 256.
  • Placemen and pensioners, 217.
  • Officers in the Army, 89.
  • Officers in the Navy, 24.
  • Lawyers, 54.
  • East India interests, 62.
  • West India interests, 35.
  • Bankers, 33.
  • Agricultural interests, 356.
  • Miscellaneous, 51.

It was clear that little had changed since Winstanley’s time, except perhaps the presentation of a more sophisticated deception of democracy, and Wade went on to state about the MPs: ‘Many of the members belonged to several classes or interests, and have been enumerated in each, which swells the nominal number of individuals. It is apparent that the vast majority were connected with the Peerage, the Army, Navy, Courts of Law, Public Offices, and Colonies; and, in lieu of representing the People, only represented those interests over which it is the constitutional object of a real House of Commons to exercise a watchful and efficient control’.

In 1848 the Chartists organised a mass peaceful protest meeting in London calling for universal manhood suffrage, after which the crowd planned to march to Parliament and deliver a petition signed by millions. The alarmed Government called on Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, to organise a defence of the status quo, and he stationed Cavalry and infantry units about the city, cannons at Buckingham Palace, armed guards at the Bank of England and steamboats in position on the Thames to move reinforcements around. It then proved impossible to deliver the petition and the protest petered out in heavy rain.

Seven years before in 1841, six years after Wade had produced his ‘Extraordinary Black Book’, the writer, Charles Dickens, wrote a satirical ‘new version’ of ‘The Fine Old English Gentleman’, about the power and corruption of his time:

I’ll sing you a new ballad, and I’ll warrant it first-rate,
Of the days of that old gentleman who had that old estate;
When they spent the public money at a bountiful old rate
On ev’ry mistress, pimp, and scamp, at ev’ry noble gate,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!
The good old laws were garnished well with gibbets, whips & chains,

With fine old English penalties, and fine old English pains,
With rebel heads, and seas of blood once hot in rebel veins;
For all these things were requisite to guard the rich old gains
Of the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!


The good old times for cutting throats that cried out in their need,
The good old times for hunting men who held their father’s creed,
The good old times when William Pitt, as all good men agreed,
Came down direct from Paradise at more than railroad speed,
Oh the fine old English Tory times;
When will they come again!
In those rare days, the press was seldom known to snarl or bark,
But sweetly sang of men in pow’r, like any tuneful lark;
Grave judges, too, to all their evil deeds were in the dark;
And not a man in twenty score knew how to make his mark,
Oh the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!
The bright old day now dawns again; the cry runs through the land,
In England there shall be dear bread - in Ireland, sword and brand;
And poverty, and ignorance, shall swell the rich and grand,
So, rally round the rulers with the gentle iron hand,
Of the fine old English Tory days;
Hail to the coming time!

Dickens wrote the lyrics after Sir Robert Peel became the new prime minister, but they are still relevant to us today and this shows how little things have changed over the centuries. On the surface it would appear that we live in a much more democratic society today, with most of the political gains bought with the blood, sweat and tears of past democrats and militants. But even now, some of the democratic demands made by the Levellers and Diggers in the mid-17th century have still to be achieved.

We still have a long way to go before we can claim that we live in a true democracy and the media, predominately controlled by the state or owned by moguls, has become key to ensuring that only those who are friendly to the interests of big business will get near to the seat of power. In the 1980s I visited both the European Parliament in Strasbourg and the UK one at Westminster to lobby MEPs and MPs on issues I was campaigning on. I was somewhat surprised to see that in both parliaments there were a considerable number of other lobbyists; a few, like me, were raising issues of concern for ordinary people, but the vast majority were lobbying on behalf of big-business, financial institutions and the arms trade.

I was told that this was normal, that the corporate lobbyists were professionals with large budgets, who would take MEPs / MPs out for expensive meals and whisper in their ears about the money they could earn and the jobs they might get if they helped certain ventures. While I knew there were a number of honest and independent minded members in all the parties, I could see the systems being operated in both parliaments was one that facilitated and even rewarded corruption of the highest order.

Just as there were dissenting officers in the armed forces, some MPs at Westminster took a stand against the status-quo, like veteran Tony Benn (1925-2014), who had joined the Home Guard aged 16 during WW2 and later enlisted in the RAF on an emergency commission to train as a pilot officer. After the war he was part of the large ex-services Labour contingent who worked to produce the NHS and the welfare-state to help create ‘the land fit for heroes’ that was promised – but never appeared – after WW1. Benn knew that vested interests still prevailed and, when a Labour MP, he explained how the system still controls us today:

“The British Constitution works in a very subtle way to keep us in our place … And guarantee that the privileges of the powerful are protected from any challenge … The Crown, the Lords, the Honours List and all the paraphernalia of state power play an important part in preserving the status quo … We are not citizens, but subjects, for everyone in authority must, by law, swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch before taking up a position. MPs, Cabinet Ministers, peers, judges, police chiefs, and even arch-bishops and bishops, have to swear their homage to the Crown before they can be enthroned. All those in high office got there by an elaborate system of patronage, all done in the name of the Queen. The actual decision in every case is made by the Prime Minister or other Ministers, giving them immense and unaccountable political power. The power to go to war is a Royal prerogative and Parliament does not even have to be consulted … Compare a British subject with an American, French, German or Irish citizen and you will find they elect their head of state and both houses of their own parliaments. We are only allowed to elect one house of our Parliament while the Throne and the Lords are occupied by hereditary right of patronage.”

[Sunday Mail (Scotland), 21st April 1996].

Before the English Civil War, the church and monarchy had determined most peoples’ lives and afterwards the state gradually assumed the pre-eminent role. The ruling class survived the revolutionary period at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries by utilising all the means at their disposal. To maintain their dominance and control, they unleashed a wave of repression, augmented with draconian laws, spies, informers and agent provocateurs. Police forces in Ireland and Britain were initiated and the army and navy reorganised, with establishment control over all the state forces strengthened.

From the early days of empire the ruling class had introduced the ‘old-boy’ system to help perpetuate their power and control – it is still alive and well today. In 1970-71, as Brigadier Frank Kitson, who was educated at Stowe Public School, organised counter-insurgency operations in Belfast and just before Bloody Sunday in Derry, a survey of the establishment elite in the UK found that the following percentages had attended public (i.e. private) schools:

  • Army – 86% of officers of the rank of major-general and above.
  • City – 79.9% of directors of clearing banks.
  • Church of England – 67.4% of assistant bishops and above.
  • Judiciary – 80.2% of high court judges and above.
  • Ambassadors – 82.5% of heads of embassies and legations.
  • Civil Service – 61.7% of under-secretary level and above.

[Life in Public Schools, by Geoffrey Walford, Methuen 1986].

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher – who at the time, while hailing ‘her friend’ General Pinochet, was still calling Nelson Mandela ‘a terrorist’ – formed a Tory government and became Prime Minister. Almost all her Government were from public school and Oxbridge backgrounds:

“The Conservative Cabinet of Margaret Thatcher formed in May 1979 contained sixteen Oxbridge graduates out of twenty-one ministerial appointments; six of them had been educated at Eton before going to university, nineteen at public schools of one kind or another. In all respects these figures showed no real change from a typical Conservative Cabinet fifty years ago. Much the same observation could be made about the background characteristics of the several hundred Conservative MPs in the House of Commons.”

[Rule Britannia, by James Bellini, Jonathan Cape, 1986].

Behind a facade of bourgeois democracy, which gives the illusion of social equality but little of its substance, the ruling-class still maintain their dominance by controlling the state apparatus, including both parliaments at the Palace of Westminster – as well as the security-forces, police, army, navy and airforce. Today, our lives are increasingly dominated by multinational companies as well as the US led ‘New World Order’ and the ‘War Against Terror’, with Westminster Governments subserviently backing this new imperialism and passing acts and laws to placate the corporations’ requirements. While the ‘old boy’ system remains in place in the UK the status-quo will carry on and wars will continue – with members of the armed forces still being sent to foreign lands to kill and die.



VFP UK is a voluntary and politically independent ex-services organisation of men and women who have served in conflicts from WW2 through to Afghanistan. As a result of our collective experiences we firmly believe that: ‘War is not the solution to the problems we face in the 21st century’. We are not a pacifist organisation, however, as we accept the inherent right of self-defence in response to an armed attack.

VFP members have served as officers, NCOs and rank-and-file in the armed forces, but rank, unit, combat experience, age, gender, race, wealth, education, class, religion and nationality carry no status within VFP. We work to influence the foreign and defence policy of the UK, for the larger purpose of world peace – and to restrain our government from intervening, overtly and covertly, in the internal affairs of other nations.

In order to achieve this goal, we are seeking support, across the political spectrum, for the UK to become a permanently neutral country. In this video you can hear the voices of VFP members:


Information compiled and written by VFP member, Aly Renwick, who joined-up aged 16 and served for 8 years in the British Army from 1960-8. His books are available from the VFP Shop:


Aly’s latest novel ‘Gangrene’ depicts the enemies without and within for the ruling-class in the decades after the WW2, when Keynesian style capitalism, with its Welfare State and the NHS, had started to create a more equal society in the UK. This was then overthrown by ‘free market’ neoliberalism with the coming of the ‘Iron Lady’ (Thatcher), which saw individualism lauded, while communities and unions were denigrated. This new, more virulent, form of capitalism then affected – and with its accompanying austerity still affects – everywhere and everyone. ‘Gangrene’ depicts covert operations like Clockwork Orange, Kincora, collusion and others in the undercover ‘dirty war’ in Northern Ireland. And how it, and the Falkland’s War, dovetailed with events in Britain – like the removal of the ‘wets’ and ‘reds’ (Heath and Wilson) and the coming of Thatcher – to culminate with the Miner’s Strike, as modified forms of the security forces’ repressive techniques in Northern Ireland were used against the miners. Read a review of ‘Gangrene’ by Dave Douglass, who was one of the militant miners during the strike:



See the trailer for the film ‘Peterloo’ by Mike Leigh:


The film ‘War School’ reveals the ways in which the British government and armed forces are using a series of coherent and targeted strategies to promote military values to the British public and entice its children into joining the forces. See the trailer:



The film ‘Home Soldier Home’ (1978, 40 mins 16mm) is a film in which ex-soldiers speak about their experiences of the policing of the North of Ireland, in British colonies and back in Britain, intercut with extensive footage of the army in action in Belfast, Aden, Kenya and Aden. It argues the case that the ‘professional’ military is open to right wing political manipulation:


‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ is a documentary film by Michael Oswald about Colin Wallace, a former Senior Information Officer at the Ministry of Defence, UK. As part of his work Colin Wallace spread fake news, created a witchcraft scare, smeared politicians and attempted to divide and create conflict amongst communities, organisations and individuals. Colin Wallace fell out with sections of the British intelligence community, he was framed for a murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison. See the trailer:




  1. Alan Chick says:

    Another awesome article by Aly Renwick. It links things together that you might not know or might not have thought of.

  2. Adrian Walker says:

    A real eye opener. Thank you.

  3. David Marchesi says:

    With Mr Gove and other powerful people urging us to learn more about the glories of empire and the wonders of “King and Country” , this excellent article comes as a corrective. The essential explanation of how so many get duped into unquestioning [“theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die”] is class. I feel that people are not created to kill their brothers, and that all men are brothers [those designated as “foes” by the UK elite, of any nationality, as the times change- French yesterday, German today, North Korean !! tomorrow; “terrorists”, like Mandela !!! even Fred West !!!] all men are brothers. No man has the right to tell another to kill, and only the defence of one’s own soil or family can possibly justify the risk of killing another [an invader, say ] The best of British since long ago, the Diggers, the Chartists and their heirs, have ,as Mr Renwick reminds us , resisted the hysterical call by the Hentys and Kiplings and their current media counterparts to “Join the Armed Forces ! Go to exotic countries! Meet interesting people! Kill them !” as the 1960’s parody put it.
    We face possibly the most sustained and powerful campaign of militarisation ever in peace-time Britain, with civilians inceasingly encouraged to see any war-mongering by the Blairs etc and all war-games arranged by the Toffee High Command, working seamlessly with our NATO allies,as automatically justified. As if war-mongering propaganda were not a key ingredient in engineering real ,bloody war [“conflict” ] inevitably entailing vast killing of babies, children, women and the old as “collateral damage”. Then, of course, the PTSD among service people and the toll it takes on their loved ones.
    Incidentally, the real patriot defends his own soil, and logically, sees the gooks, ragheads he is asked to kill as patriots defending their own land ?? Imperialism is quite different surely ?? It encourages a quite extreme kind of racism /xenophobia .
    I hope readers of this article circulate it widely, and support the neutralcountry.uk campaign which is under the auspices of VfP.

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