Awkward squad

An awkward squad is a group of individuals, normally within an existing organisation or structure, who resist or obstruct change, either through incompetence or by deliberate association.

CONANT(1898) p291 Awkward squad - Fenian raid, 1865
An artwork from Ontario, captioned "Awkward Squad. Fenian Raid, 1865."


It is commonly accepted that shortly before his death in 1796 Robert Burns uttered the words "Don't let the awkward squad fire over me".[1][2] At this time the phrase was in use in military slang for a group of recruits who seemed incapable of understanding discipline or not yet sufficiently trained or disciplined to properly carry out their duties.[3][4][5]

Literary use

John Clare, an English peasant poet, wrote with his own spelling and no punctuation. He complained in the 1820s to his editors that people could understand him, and he refused to use "that awkward squad of colon, semi-colon, comma, and full stop", according to the display in the John Clare Cottage, in Helpston.

In Canto 7, stanza 52 of Byron's Don Juan, the Russian general Suvorov (or "Suwarrow" as Byron anglicizes it) is described training the 'awkward squad' prior to the battle of Ismail.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, in his 1842 essay on Frederic the Great, used the phrase to describe the army of Frederic's father.

In her 1853 novel Villette, Charlotte Brontë writes of M. Paul Emanuel: "Irritable he was; one heard that, as he apostrophized with vehemence the awkward squad under his orders." Brontë had also used the phrase four years earlier, in Shirley.

In Chapter 16 of Our Mutual Friend (1864–65), Charles Dickens described the character Sloppy as a "Full-Private Number One in the Awkward Squad of the rank and file of life".

Norman Cameron used the words to end his 1950 poem Forgive me, sire.

Trade unionism

The tag of 'awkward squad' has been applied to a group of left-wing trade unionists in the United Kingdom, marked out by their opposition to the Labour Party's economic policies. The group includes Bob Crow, Mark Serwotka, and Tony Woodley. In a Parliamentary sense, however, it can also apply to the left-wing of the Labour Party, which perennially occupies a bench of the House of Commons which allows its members to heckle and unnerve the Prime Minister regularly.


  1. ^ "Quotation: Robert Burns on Last Words". MSN Encarta. Archived from the original on 2009-10-31.
  2. ^ NYT staff (13 October 1852). "Dying words and Thoughts". New York Times. Retrieved March 2015. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  3. ^ "Brewer, E. Cobham. Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. Awkward Squad". Retrieved March 2015. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  4. ^ "Indian Wars Slang: Part 1". Retrieved March 2015. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  5. ^ Curling, Henry (1858). Frank Beresford: or, Life in the Army. Google eBook. p. 338.

External links

Alice Harriman

Mary Alice Harriman (March 12, 1861 – December 24, 1925) was a poet, author (of poetry, novels, short stories and non-fiction) and publisher. She was called the "only woman publisher in the world" in the 1911 Who's Who in the Northwest. She published books in Seattle between 1907 and 1910, and in New York after that, closing her publishing business in 1913.She wrote A Man of Two Countries, Chaperoning Adrienne; a tale of the Yellowstone national park (illustrated by Charles M. Russell) and Will Thou Not Sing.

Anna Soubry

Anna Mary Soubry (; born 7 December 1956) is a British politician, barrister and journalist. She has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire since the 2010 general election, and was first elected as a Conservative before leaving the party to join Change UK in 2019.

Soubry was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health (2012–2013), Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans (2013–2014), Minister of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans (2014–2015) and Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise from the 2015 general election, also attending meetings of the Cabinet, but she returned to the backbenches in July 2016. In February 2019, she resigned from the Conservative Party and joined The Independent Group. She was appointed Leader of Change UK in June 2019.

Awkward squad (trade unionists)

The awkward squad was an informal grouping of socialist trade unionists in the United Kingdom.

The group arose in the early 2000s when seven leaders of smaller trade unions who held membership of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress began meeting to discuss common positions with respect to larger unions. The group shared left-wing views and began co-operating on broader political and industrial matters, opposing what they regarded as the economically liberal policies of the ruling New Labour faction of the Labour Party. It included such figures as Bob Crow of the RMT, Mark Serwotka of the PCS and Jeremy Dear of the NUJ. The term was coined by journalist Kevin Maguire in an article in The Guardian in 2001.The awkward squad was split between those who wish to "reclaim" the Labour Party for socialism, and those who want to break with Labour and try to build a new socialist movement. Some of the latter supported other parties, including the Scottish Socialist Party and the Respect Party. The group soon became less closely knit, with two members losing their union posts: in July 2003, Mick Rix of ASLEF was ousted by the moderate Shaun Brady, while two years later, Andy Gilchrist, a member of the "reclaim Labour" grouping, was ousted by Matt Wrack, who is more inclined towards building a new party.

In an article published in the British Journal of Industrial Relations, Andy Charlwood noted that the "awkward squad" represented a generational change of leadership in the union movement, with the union leaders who had guided the movement through the era of Thatcherism and the building of New Labour stepping down at the start of the 21st century and being replaced by a new cohort who were dissatisfied with New Labour due to a variety of factors: what they saw as New Labour's lack of guiding political principles, absence of a vision for the role of trade unions in civil society, privileging of employers and employers' organisations in policy making, adoption of a political economy which was hostile to organised labour, concerns regarding restricting public spending growth whilst investing in public services, and the failure of Labour Party leaders to provide more than rhetorical support for the strategy of industrial partnership advocated by the previous moderate generation of leaders such as John Monks, Ken Jackson and John Edmonds.Gilchrist has said that "It's a well known secret that many of us meet up to discuss. We'll support each other on specific issues and follow each other's lead."However, several of leaders characterised as members of the "awkward squad" rejected the label, such as Derek Simpson, Kevin Curran (who described his views as "sensible left"), and Billy Hayes, who described the phrase as "condescending, inaccurate and unhelpful".

Bob Crow

Robert Crow (13 June 1961 – 11 March 2014) was an English trade union leader who served as the General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) from 2002 until his death. He was also a member of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). A self-described "communist/socialist", he was a leading figure in the No to EU – Yes to Democracy campaign.

Crow joined London Transport in 1977 and soon became involved in trade unionism. He was regarded as part of the Awkward Squad, a loose grouping of left-wing union leaders who came to power in a series of electoral victories beginning in 2002. After he became leader, the RMT's membership increased from around 57,000 in 2002 to more than 80,000 in 2008, making it one of Britain's fastest-growing trade unions.Crow was a polarising figure in British politics. Supporters praised him as a champion of the working class and a successful trade unionist; critics argued that he held London to ransom with strikes and placed union members above other working people.

Charlie Hardwick

Claire Elizabeth Hardwick (born 3 November 1960) is an English actress, known for portraying the role of Val Pollard in the ITV soap opera Emmerdale, who she portrayed from 2004 to 2015 and again in 2017. In 2019, Hardwick will portray the role of Sue Carp in the Channel 4 drama Ackley Bridge.

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The group's co chairmen are David Campbell Bannerman, a Conservative member of the European Parliament who had previously served as deputy leader of the UK Independence Party, and Steve Baker, a backbench Conservative member of parliament at Westminster. Other leaders include Nigel Lawson, the group's president, and Norman Lamont, both former cabinet ministers now in the House of Lords.

Derek Simpson (trade unionist)

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Eric Forth

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Heidi Allen

Heidi Suzanne Allen (née Bancroft; born 18 January 1975) is a British politician serving as Member of Parliament (MP) for South Cambridgeshire since 2015. She served as Leader of Change UK from March 2019 to June 2019.

Allen succeeded Andrew Lansley, the former Conservative Secretary of State for Health who had held the seat since its creation in 1997, following his retirement from the House of Commons in 2015.Previously a Conservative, Allen resigned from the party and joined The Independent Group on 20 February 2019. In a joint letter with fellow defectors Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston, she described how the leadership had allowed a "hard-line anti-EU awkward squad" to take over the party. She was announced as interim leader of the group, now styled as Change UK, on 29 March 2019. In June 2019, she left Change UK to sit as an independent MP.

Jeremy Dear

Jeremy Dear (born 6 December 1966) is a British trade unionist.

Dear graduated from Coventry Polytechnic before completing a diploma in journalism at University College Cardiff. From 1989, he worked for the Essex Chronicle and the Big Issue, joining the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). He led an eleven-month strike at the Chronicle against de-recognition of the NUJ. Between 1994 and 1997, he was the editor of the Big Issue in the Midlands, then in 1997 became the National Organiser of the NUJ.In 2001, Dear was elected as the General Secretary of the NUJ, its youngest ever leader, and only the second to serve two terms. He also spent time as a member of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress.

As leader, Dear became known as a member of the "Awkward Squad" of left-wing trade unionists. He is married to Paula Dear, who is a journalist with the BBC. Jeremy Dear is a supporter of the Marxist newspaper Socialist Appeal.

Kevin Maguire (journalist)

Kevin John Maguire (born 20 September 1960 in South Shields, Tyne and Wear) is a British political journalist and is currently associate editor at the Daily Mirror newspaper. Earlier in his career Maguire was chief reporter for The Guardian.

Mick Rix

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Paul Mackney

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Sheila McKechnie

Dame Sheila Marshall McKechnie, DBE (3 May 1948 – 2 January 2004) was a Scottish trade unionist, housing campaigner and consumer activist.

Sheila McKechnie was born in Camelon, Falkirk, in 1948. She read Politics and History at the University of Edinburgh, where she was a friend of future UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. She was a member of the Students' Representative Council, holding the posts of Secretary and 2nd Junior President. After graduation, she took an MA in Industrial Relations from University of Warwick.

After working as a trade union official in the 1970s, during which she was active in the Women's Movement, she became director of the housing and homelessness charity Shelter in 1985.After ten years in charge, she left to become head of the Consumers' Association, campaigning on a wide range of issues, often using headline-grabbing stunts. In 2001 McKechnie said: "I am a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad and will remain so for the rest of my life. No government would ever feel entirely comfortable with me or the association because we are both fiercely, fiercely independent."She was made an OBE in 1994 for her work with Shelter, and DBE in 2001 for her work on behalf of consumers. She was chosen as the University of Edinburgh alumnus of the year in 1991. She has been on the Board of Trustees of The Architecture Foundation.

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Tony Woodley

Anthony Woodley (born 2 January 1948) is a British trade unionist who was the Joint-General Secretary of Unite, a union formed through the merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers' Union, from 2007 to 2011. Despite stepping down as Joint-General Secretary, he remained as the Head of Organising for Unite until December 2013 and is still a consultant to the union. He was previously the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers union (T&G) from 2004 to 2007.

Watching the English

Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour is a 2004 international bestseller by Kate Fox, a leading social anthropologist. The book examines "typical" English behaviour.

The book was first published in 2004, and updated in 2014.

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