The ‘Scouting Movement’ – as it likes to be known – is
in the news today, and for once it’s not because some nerdy, middle-aged troop
leader has been caught molesting boys in tents.
The Movement has announced that it’s “launching a
consultation” to decide whether to allow atheists to join. Such a formality is necessary because the Boy
Scout oath refers to a promise to “do my duty to God”, leading an eleven-year-old
applicant, ‘a declared atheist’, to object to taking it.
As it happens, the Queen is also a recipient of the
pledge, so perhaps the consultation ought to include republicanism as well,
though that may be a step too far for an organization – sorry, Movement –
founded by a pillar of Britain’s military establishment and a dedicated
I joined the Scouts when I was eleven, or thereabouts,
insistently prodded into it by my mother, who shared the mistaken belief prevalent
among the working class at the time that church-going and scouting were
essential character-building prerequisites for a successful career. The main plank of her theory was that vicars
and scoutmasters would one day provide excellent job references.
Back in 1952, my conscience was untroubled by the
scouting oath. What did an eleven-year
in those far-off innocent days know, or care, about atheism, or for that matter
republicanism? Times have obviously
In the event, my scouting days were brief, miserable
and often risible. I loathed camping, at
least when it rained, which seemed to be virtually all the time, and never quite
mastered the knot-making, tracking and other woodcraft skills required to acquire
the much-prized badges. What may have
been the worst holiday week of my childhood was spent under canvas at some
sodding – and sodden –Mecca-like scouting enclave
in Epping Forest called Gilwell
Park. The object was to acquire the kind of survival
techniques deployed at the Siege of Mafeking by the Movement’s founder, Lord Robert
Baden Powell, the general in command of that outpost during the Boer War.
Baden Powell’s defensive genius at Mafeking entered into imperial legend. The same can’t be said of his espousal in
later years of the Nazis – another damned Movement. We’re talking about a man who admired Mein
Kampf as “a wonderful book, with good ideas on education, health, propaganda,
organization, etc”. (I particularly like the inclusion of ‘propaganda’.)
Later, he actively campaigned to form a fellowship
nascent scouting equivalent, the Hitler Jugend.
“Pity about Kristallnacht and the impending fate of Europe,”
perhaps he thought. “But nobody’s
Scouting can be seen as a rather silly preoccupation. At the same time, it has always struck me as an
ineffably sinister one. And a
worldy-wise eleven-year-old insisting on removing references to God, while
objectively laudable, is also subjectively worrying.
The kid should have been around in 1939. Then he wouldn’t have had to worry about
pledging allegiance to God, or for that matter the Monarch, just to der Fuhrer.