by Teresa McCaffery
The last time I tried to use corporal punishment on a child was when my son was 4. He, being reluctant to accept the punishment ran away through the flower beds; I, being reluctant to trample my carefully planted flowers, stuck to the paths. He got away and I felt foolish enough to stay clear of that particular way of improving his behaviour. Why am I remembering this? Because on the world scale we have been remembering the time when large numbers of British soldiers set about chasing across the fields of northern France to give the Germans a good thrashing. The land was turned to mud, a million soldiers died in the first weeks and very little was gained. A hundred years later the land seems to have healed (although farmers can still be seriously injured if they disturb unexploded ordnance while ploughing), and we help our national psyche to heal by organising beautiful remembrance exercises; but are we learning the lessons?
The use of force may seem to be effective if there is enough discrepancy between the power of the enforcer and that of its victim, but when Britain goes to war it always seems to be a very near thing and the rejoicing at our survival is tempered by regret at the number of people who died in the process. Nowadays war seems to have come home to roost because terrorist bombs strike non-combatant civilians as they go about their daily business. But is the violence all due to foreign terrorists? In Scotland two children have been knifed to death by fellow pupils in school in the last six months; recently a twenty-five-year-old was knocked down and killed by a seventeen-year-old driving a car at 140 MPH; we read, and see TV coverage of, children grossly mistreated and killed by those who are supposed to look after them; our prisons are full and overcrowded and people die there too.
We are a nation of gentle folk, naturally disinclined to use force to attain our ends, but the temptation to use forceful means is always there and became clearly visible in the discussions about the EU referendum. As we move to implement that democratic decision what matters will not be how much money we gain or lose, or how many Europeans gain admittance to our (European) country. What matters will be whether or not the people living here understand what it means to be British, and I would like to put forward the idea that that is gentle inclusiveness. Our language is already a mixture of most European languages which includes vocabulary from the whole world. We absorb invaders, make visitors welcome and learn from them, and through our gentleness we teach others to be gentle. Refraining from violence will give us the authority to stop new or existing citizens from using such methods; using violent means leaves us helpless with nothing worth defending.
That four-year-old who escaped a beating is now a kind, honest and responsible adult. It’s not the means that determine what you teach; it’s what you want to teach.