kenny hodgart

The Royal British Legion is on its knees

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This article appeared in The Herald

I’M sitting with a few of the younger members of the Paisley Comrades Club, the Royal British Legion Scotland premises near the town’s centre. It’s a quiet Monday night, although there are a few people in the snooker room, the hall has been set up for carpet bowls and there is a gathering in the lounge for a meeting about war pensions for territorials serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

John Heirs, 47, is telling me about the forthcoming “dug-out” night, an evening of Second World War nostalgia, when the drink will be even cheaper than usual, the bill of fare somewhat basic, and the sound of Vera Lynn will bring a far-away look to old soldiers’ eyes.

There are no corned beef sandwiches tonight – or Second World War veterans for that matter – but those waiting for the meeting have an unmistakable comradely spirit. “You come here to meet old mates, ” says 62-year-old Pat Gallacher, who served with the Royal Engineers in Germany, Northern Ireland and Cyprus from 1963 to 1974. “Folk are like-minded.”

With 900 or so members, the legion in Paisley remains fairly strong, although Pat and others admit numbers have fallen recently. One senior legionnaire, Bob Reid, died last week aged 95, and the average age is creeping ever upwards as younger members are slow in coming forward.

“When they come out, their first thought is to get a job, although we would like to think later on they would get an attachment to the legion,” says Gerry Mulholland, 59, ex-RAF and the club’s parade commander.

Matters have got to the stage, however, where the organisation in Scotland is seeking to change its rules to allow anyone who shares the legion’s values to join, regardless of whether they have served in the armed forces.

Mr Heirs, who spent 27 years in the TA, is not convinced of the benefits of going down that route. “I’d rather keep membership to ex-military people and their families,” he says. “Everyone who is a member has been governed by military rule. We understand the military hierarchy, if you like. People from outside don’t necessarily understand that.”

According to Neil Griffiths, national spokesman for the legion in Scotland, reality will force the movement to “marry or die”. He said: “We have a demographic problem plain and simple. We’re not at tipping point, but we are at a point where we’ve got to act.

“In 1994-95 the Royal British Legion Scotland had 75,000 members, which was our record. That was the peak moment for combining both the war-time generation and those who did national service. You had the maximum number of people at the right age to be in the legion.

“I would reckon the average age of members is between 55 and 60. Very few people join in their 20s and 30s – they never have done. We’ve fallen to 57,000 in the space of 12 years and know it can’t go on like that.

“Nowadays there’s only 1000 people leaving the Army every year, most of them under 30, and the numbers dropping off are too high at the other end. So if we’re going to survive into this new century, then we have to expand our potential membership.”

Some branches are already feeling the pinch. Clubs in Inverurie in Aberdeenshire and Macduff in Banffshire have had to move to smaller premises. Others, from Inverness to Glenrothes, are struggling due to crippling maintenance costs and dwindling memberships.

Meanwhile, the British Legion club in Forres, Moray, has warned it could close within two years unless ways can be found to cut costs and increase turnover. Eric Munro, club treasurer, says it lost £4000 in 2005 and £3000 in 2006, adding: “If we lose another £4000 this year, we only have a couple of years’ trading left.”

Given the charitable status clubs enjoy, it is left to the discretion of local authorities to set council tax rates on their premises. Most do not charge full rates, but Moray Council has refused to offer any relief, a decision against which local clubs are appealing. “Any reduction in the £8000 we pay in rates would be a huge benefit to us and others who are in the same position,” says Mr Munro.

Before veterans declare, like Private James Frazer – the gloomy Scot in Dad’s Army – that they’re all doomed it should be noted not only that funds raised through the Poppy Appeal are rising year on year, but that donations from 15 to 24-year-olds now outstrip those of any other age group.

The only reasonable conclusion, believes Neil Griffiths, is that young people are now better educated on the importance of remembrance. “You have to remember that, in the 1970s, people were fed up hearing dad go on about what he did in the war,” he says. “But now the grandchildren are fascinated. History itself is also much more popular now. There’s so much of it on television and on the internet. You even have millionaire historians.”

Perhaps in acknowledgement of the generosity of the young, the Royal British Legion in England – the organisations north and south of the border have always been, and remain, separate – now has a presence on the social networking website Facebook, aimed at recruiting younger poppy sellers.

In between discussing the untrustworthiness of politicians, the rights and wrongs of Iraq and Afghanistan, Scottish independence (“maybe not such a bad idea” is the consensus) and what they’d do with George Galloway (it cannot be printed here) , the men in Paisley are discussing Remembrance Sunday, which this year coincides with Armistice Day. A ritual of obeisance to the war dead, it is, for legionnaires, bound up with the ideas of duty and service the military instils.

“It is part of our constitution to make sure the public never forgets the debt of honour we owe,” says Mr Heirs. “It’s our duty to keep the flag flying.”

Members enjoy the benefits of any good social club – parties, bingo nights, away trips, company of friends, cheap alcohol. But the year-round charitable focus of the legion should not be ignored.

“Branches do a lot benevolent work, as well as being a social club,” says Mr Griffiths. “Every branch has a welfare officer who is trained to give advice to all ex-service folk. Many of our members are also trained to represent veterans at war pension tribunals.

“Clubs raise funds on an individual basis. I would say the legion in Scotland gives away in the region of £800,000 a year to various causes.”

Hand in hand with supporting the ex-service community financially, the charity also acts as a pressure group. Campaigns in recent years have seen Far-East prisoners of war paid £10,000 each in compensation (by the British Government, not the Japanese), and posthumous pardons finally obtained for deserters executed in the First World War.

“We’re campaigning for better housing and terms of service for servicemen, as well as better compensation for those who are injured. And we’re campaigning to have more receptions for soldiers returning from Afghanistan or Iraq,” Mr Griffiths says. “Right now, they’re being ignored.”

That feeling is echoed by Mr Mulholland: “People seem to forget we have people out there fighting in war zones. Whether or not you agree with where we’re sending them, the nation has a duty of care towards them.”

A report published in 2006 found ex-servicemen aged 16 to 44 were three times more likely than the general population to have long-term mental health problems. Earlier this month, the government announced a change in the rules to allow compensation for multiple injuries suffered in the line of duty up to £285,000. It was widely reported at the same time, as the Paisley legionnaires are vocally aware, that a civilian typist with the RAF received over £400,000 for a sore thumb.

“The mindset of the MoD is ‘how little can we give?’, ” says Mr Griffiths.” Okay, they have to look after taxpayers’ money, but sometimes it goes too far and that’s what we’re here for. Unfortunately it looks like the price of current wars is one we’ll be paying for many years to come.”

With much of the financial burden for the welfare of future veterans likely to fall on charities – as it always has in Britain – legion clubs may attempt to strengthen their hand through appealing to existing members to “use it or lose it”.

Yet with a vote due at next summer’s annual conference on changes to membership rules to allow anyone to apply to become an associate member, Mr Griffiths believes the way forward is a no brainer.

“Reaching out to a diminishing ex-service community is all very well,” he says, “but the only way to stop the slide is to expand our membership criteria to people who share our values. There is no other way.”

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