David McDowall interview: The class warrior

HANGING behind David McDowall's desk at army HQ 2nd Division, a board lists his many predecessors as commander of the army in Scotland, starting with the Covenanting general Alexander Leslie, 1639-1648, and terminating, several columns and four centuries later, with his own name.

As General Officer Commanding 2nd Division (Scotland and Northern England), he is following in the resonant footsteps of distinguished if disputatious figures as the Marquess of Montrose, the Duke of Argyll and King Charles II – all of whom met sticky ends, he agrees, laughing.

Currently Scotland's top soldier, Major General McDowall is not in the business of losing his head, figuratively or otherwise, but as he approaches retirement, he is now contemplating new challenges, having been recruited for a new government panel set up to encourage greater social mobility. It is a post to which he is peculiarly equipped, being the only general currently in the British Army to have started his career serving as a private. It is also much touted that, in contrast to common conceptions of Sandhurst graduates, he grew up in a council house in Stranraer and attended the local state school.

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As a member of the government panel, he is anxious to see encouraged the kind of social network and community commitment that enabled him to develop and progress the way he did in his army career.

At HQ at Craigiehall, outside Edinburgh, McDowall cuts a stocky figure in his camouflage-flecked combats. He is anxious to put things into context: "Actually a number of senior officers will have started from a very short period in the ranks, and there are certainly other major-generals serving today who went to state schools, from a working or middle-class background.

"What's slightly different with me, although it's happened before, is that I actually had six years in the ranks."

McDowall spent his time as an ordinary soldier in the Royal Signals, which he joined after leaving Stranraer High School with a couple of highers. He became a corporal, then entered Sandhurst, going on to command a squadron in Northern Ireland and a regiment in the Balkans. He became Major-General of the 2nd Division, which recently added Northern Ireland to its Scotland and North of England area, in 2007.

It is this experience he is bringing to Westminster's Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, which the government announced this month. The day before our interview, he had been on the phone to the panel's chairman, Alan Millburn MP, and will shortly go down to London, where he will represent all three armed forces in what he stresses should be a two-way process of learning and advising. He is unabashedly vocal about the "huge opportunities the armed forces can offer to youngsters, male and female, to develop as individuals and to develop leadership skills, but everything we give them, the values and standards, the trades skills, the leaderships skills and so on, are transferable back into society. So it's still about serving the community."

Now 54, McDowall speaks warmly about the Stranraer community in which he grew up. "I had a good solid education at Rephad Primary and Stranraer High – it became Stranraer Academy. I loved school but wasn't particularly academic but, crucially, I learned to read, write, communicate effectively; there were debating societies, clubs, sports opportunities. What I found interesting in the army, initially as a soldier then later at Sandhurst, was that much of the experience I had growing up in the state system in Stranraer, was not dissimilar to what people were getting in private schools. The difference was that it was the entire community I was getting the benefits from."

He emphasises that, in his view, "social mobility shouldn't be judged by saying, 'Somebody joined at the bottom and got to the top.' To me, social mobility is about progressing stage by stage to the maximum of your potential, without ever having unreasonable or unfair barriers placed on you. If your future today is to be trapped in a culture of unemployment, drugs, crime, (then] simply to help you to where you can work forward in society and have job, a house, a family, and to contribute to a community that's living within sensible moral and legal boundaries … that to me is social mobility."

Asked why he joined the army, he's not 100 per cent sure. His father had done his National Service with the King's Own Scottish Borderers and was Pipe Major of Stranraer and District Pipe Band. The general is also a time-served piper. "I think most of my inspiration came from my father as an individual, but actually, growing up in Stranraer, there were National Servicemen everywhere, and they were a clear example of what a youngster could benefit from by going through that process.

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"When I said that I was thinking of joining the army, people right across the community would say, 'It's a fine and honourable thing to be a soldier.' I feel that to this day, not because I'm a general but because I'm a soldier."

He frequently extols the army as a "meritocracy" that enabled him to progress the way he did. Did he never at Sandhurst, for instance, encounter any snobbery or at least a raised eyebrow at his grass-roots background? "I suppose I sort of thought it would (arise], to be honest," he replies. "But it was quite the opposite. I was reminded recently (of] a chap in the room beside me, whose father was a lord and who'd been to Eton, who was going into one of the top regiments in the army – he came into my room one night and said he envied me, because I'd been a soldier. "'You know what soldiers think and you already know you are an effective soldier,' he told me. 'You are so lucky.'"

"And not just at Sandhurst. I'm lucky enough now to be sharing committees and command groups with the so-called ten most senior officers in the British army, and I have never experienced anything other than absolute equal standing with anyone I've dealt with."

During his active service he has come under fire in various troublespots – "not always from the enemy , I suspect," he laughs – and had to confront fears not just for his own skin but for the many men under his command. He has also, however, had to deal with concerns within the army, not least about the decline in recruitment – particularly in Scotland, which traditionally has "punched above its weight" compared the UK as a whole. "My primary activity is in ensuring that we deliver regular and reserve soldiers to support ongoing operations. And we're doing that. Right behind that, in terms of priorities, is recruiting, where there has been an eight or nine-year decline. In Scotland historically we were providing about 12-14 per cent (of] those going into the UK armed forces, but that had declined to about 9 per cent." He attributes this to the past relative buoyancy of the Scottish economy while also acknowledging the widespread misgivings about the army's involvement in Iraq.

The decline in Scottish recruiting, he states, halted statistically towards the end of last year – before, he insists the current economic slump started making itself felt, although traditionally, he agrees, such a downturn inevitably prompts more people to consider joining the forces. Any ethical concerns about economic straits forcing people into the fighting forces, he counters with the argument that they are not being conscripted, and that, in an imperfect world, we still need "people who are prepared to stand up and defend every single value we have in our society".

A couple of weeks back, he was invited to speak at the local Rotary Club in Stranraer, where, he says, he met many of the people who had influenced and supported him when he was growing up. It is that kind of community-based commitment, he stresses, that is at the heart of what he wants to be doing.

In the meantime, perhaps his one remaining challenge as GOC 2nd Division, and Governor of Edinburgh Castle, will come during the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in August, when, having handed over his division to his successor, he hopes – approval of the director of the Army Piping School pending – to be the Tattoo's Lone Piper, for one night only: "I'm not so much nervous about being a good enough piper to do it. I think it will be my emotions that I need to be careful about. "

THE Government's Panel on Fair Access to the Professions was announced earlier this month, when Cabinet Minister Liam Byrne pointed out that, despite the current economic crisis, the world economy is expected to double in size over the next 20 years, offering opportunities for employment. "The government must invest now at every stage in life to ensure there are no barriers to people achieving their potential," he said. "This panel's work is fundamental in ensuring that a person's background or status will never be a factor in getting to the profession they want and reaching the top."

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Chaired by Alan Milburn MP, right, the panel includes Professor Madeleine Atkins, vice-chancellor of Coventry University, Lord John Browne, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Azeem Ibrahim of the European Commerce and Mercantile Bank, Michael Grade, executive chairman of ITV, Sara Thornton, chief constable, Thames Valley Police, and Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal.