A very British army?


The British Army currently* employs over 6,000 men and women from Commonwealth countries. Without the presence of these migrant soldiers, heavily recruited since a regulation change in 1998, it would not have been possible to maintain continuous deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

Opening the ranks to Commonwealth citizens in their own countries was a response to the chronic shortage of suitable volunteers in the UK. It was also intended to redress the army’s failure to attract minority ethnic youth into its ranks. The organisation’s reputation for racism and bullying came to a head in the 1990s when the Commission for Racial Equality threatened to take legal action against the Ministry of Defence.

How has the presence of so many cultural minorities changed the army? Military leaders can now assert that the army is multicultural, multi-faith and fully committed to equality and diversity policies. But how would members of the public know if this was true? And why should we care about what happens in our national military organisations, especially if and when we are opposed to the wars that they are instructed to fight?

*On July 11th 2013 the MoD announced that it had reinstated the five-year residency requirement for Commonwealth recruits. The ruling does not affect those who are currently serving although it will undoubtedly reduce the numbers of black and minority ethnic recruits. What will be the effects of this decision to stop recruiting non-UK citizens?

In conjunction with the bookMilitary Migrants: fighting for YOUR country, this website will provide a new space to explore these questions.


Britain’s imperial armies come to the rescue of its modern forces

This article was first published by The Conversation UK on June 27th 2014.


…The World War I centenary provides a new opportunity to promote Britain’s imperial past as a history of shared suffering and sacrifice. The job at hand is to persuade the British-born descendants of those soldiers drawn from the colonies and dominions that military service belongs to a venerable family tradition, and is therefore part of their heritage.

The phrase “all faiths, colours and races” is a safe way to do this, to assert an inclusive notion of citizenship in the context of a collective national project. It perfectly illustrates the concept of “militarised multiculture” – by which I mean the way that diversity acquires a particular value when dressed in military clothing.

Cultural and ethnic diversity within the armed forces is rarely talked about outside the realm of PR, and the question of institutional racism is kept well out of sight. Indeed, the story of the British Army’s modernisation is not widely known. But like all other public institutions subject to equality and diversity law, the armed forces have been forced to make substantial reforms since the late 1990s…

Read more here



War, public memory and the legacy of empire

Two recent articles that discuss the potential problems or contradictions entailed in compiling archival and documentary accounts of military labour performed by colonial and post colonial soldiers:

In Sikhs, War, MemoryKaty Sian explores potential problems and contradictions entailed in compiling archival and documentary accounts of military labour performed by colonial and post colonial soldiers. She asks why Sikhs are “so insistent on fighting and participating within imperial wars for western nations that continue to exclude, ill-treat, and treat them as inferior?” Is there any other form of belonging available to (post)colonial soldiers and subjects which does not endorse an imperial patriotism?

Elsewhere,  I discuss the figure of the British Muslim soldier in the context of the impending commemoration of WW1: Britain’s imperial armies come to the rescue of its modern forces






70 years on: the RAF acknowledges role of Caribbean pilots in 20th century

Exhibition at RAF Museum, Colindale.

It’s a tiny concentration of history in a huge space crammed with a forest of aircraft. But it’s a start. The museum has been working with Black Cultural Archives and historians to commemorate the men and women who joined the RAF from the Caribbean. This exhibition closed on April 22nd, but will form the basis of a permanent display in due course.

In preparation for the exhibition the RAF Museum appealed to veterans to come forward and tell their stories. Although there are numerous books on the subject, many of them autobiographical, the museum has not shown much interest in recording or recognising this extraordinary history until now. This is even more shocking considering the fact that so many of the men and women involved went on to enjoy illustrious careers. One of the most famous figures, Ulric Cross, died in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on October 4th 2013, at the age of 96.

Cross was the highest ranking West Indian World War II veteran still alive and one of the few officers left of the legendary 139 Pathfinder Squadron of RAF Bomber Command. He later became Attorney General of Cameroon, and an esteemed judge in Ghana and Tanzania. After his return to Trinidad he served as a High Court Judge and from 1979 as a member of the Court of Appeal. In 1990 he became High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago to the UK and Ambassador to Germany and France.

Information is widely available online. Here is one useful website, and here is some background behind that. There are numerous books on this history both autobiographical and documentary (most produced by amateur historians) so there is really no excuse for the MoD/RAF Museum to have left it so late in compiling a more fitting display.

I took some pictures of the display to give an idea of how the information was presented. Apologies for the lack of photoshop editing but hopefully they are still readable.

The panel on post-war migration showing that many of the Windrush passengers were in fact RAF veterans, serving members or recruits

In addition to the panels focusing on individuals, there were also sections that provided historical context as well, as the pictures above and below illustrate.

I happened to notice the museum’s existing section on ‘diversity’ as I passed by on my way out. This (below) is an example of the information provided in a different era.

One of the earlier panels on black history in the museum




Failing the good character test

This item was released by TheyWorkforYou.com courtesy of Forces Watch

On the 25th February 2014 MP Madeleine Moon asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many applications for British citizenship have been made by foreign and Commonwealth personnel (a) currently or (b) recently serving in the armed forces who have been refused citizenship on the grounds that the good character request is not met; and if she will make a statement.

James Brokenshire (Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration); Old Bexley and Sidcup, Conservative) replied that four serving members of HM armed forces have been refused British citizenship because they did not meet the criteria set for good character in the 12 months leading to their application.

Meanwhile, Poloko Hiri, a former soldier from Botswana, who was initially denied UK citizenship owing to a speeding conviction, is to have the decision reviewed. Hiri served with the army for four years and is now a reservist. He had an “exemplary” record during his full-time military career.

His application for citizenship was refused in 2012 but a High Court judge has now ruled the decision-making process was legally flawed and should be reconsidered by the home secretary.

UK authorities decided Sapper Hiri did not have the ‘good character’ required for British citizenship because of a speeding conviction which will not be spent until 2016. In November 2011, he had admitted exceeding a temporary 50mph speed limit on the M1, for which he received a £100 fine and five points on his licence.

Inevitably the case was made that Hiri’s readiness to fight for Britain qualified him for citizenship.  His commanding officer commented: ‘To see that Sapper Hiri has been denied British citizenship for what is deemed as ‘bad character’ directly contradicts his performance as a serving soldier.’

His solicitor Toufique Hossain said: ‘Our argument was simply that a man who gave his life to fight for this country, and in every other way but for one speeding offence, showed good character, should not be deprived of British citizenship.’

I wonder whether the four cases cited by James Brokenshire will be able to contest the decisions to block their citizenship as well. More importantly, is this reasoning possible when the individuals have been working as doctors, teachers, nurses and other professions which demand selfless commitment and forms of sacrifice?

Last barrier to citizenship?

Commonwealth soldiers serving in the UK armed forces are not often in the news these days, but when they are, the occasion is invariably prompted by immigration issues. Most recently it has been in connection with individuals who have served in the army for years but, after leaving, been refused settlement in the UK or even UK citizenship, for a variety of reasons. These situations routinely point to the contradictions inherent in their fraught position as soldiers (patriotic citizens!) and migrants (unwanted scroungers!).

The latest episode to attract media attention – although minimal by comparison – concerns a private members bill currently going through parliament. Its aim is to fix a clause in the 1981 Nationality Act that effectively disadvantages members of the armed forces applying for UK citizenship. The 1981 act ruled that those applying for citizenship must show that they were physically present in the country five years to the day before the application is made. For those Commonwealth citizens in the armed forces, either based outside the country or deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere, this presents an obstacle that was not officially recognized until 2010 when the coalition government was forced to consider the legal implications of the military covenant.

This private member’s bill, proposed by Woking Tory MP Jonathan Lord, Citizenship (Armed Forces) Bill has romped through the House of Commons with minimal objections from those who stayed in to debate it. Having established that it only affects around 200 service people in all, and won’t herald a new flood of migrants demanding to live in the UK, the bill has now begun the process through the House of Lords. A transcript of the Commons debates can be found here and gives a vivid, though utterly predictable, account of how these issues are treated by our leaders.

Commonwealth army recruits in 2010

Map showing home countries of Commonwealth recruits at the Infantry Training Centre, Catterick, in 2010.

Facing the Facts

The quarterly stats published by the Ministry of Defence in November 2013 have some interesting details in them. For anyone paying attention to the changing size and composition of the UK armed forces they contain some useful facts, figures and trends – not least about ethnicity and gender. But diversity in the armed forces is not exactly a front page topic, especially when they are under-recruiting and down-sizing all at the same time.

However, it’s important to track what’s happening in this hugely symbolic national institution. In July the MoD stopped the armed forces from recruiting Commonwealth citizens unless they have been living in the UK for five years continuously. This took effect in July 2013 so it is too soon to show the impact of the decision in the stats and considering how they might be affected in the long term.

One of the tables shows the intake to UK Regular Forces (including deployed reservists)  by Ethnic Origin and Nationality. It is worth pointing out again that the army has the highest proportion of BMEs (<10%) and the other services fall some way behind.

Number crunching

In the 12 months ending in 30 September 2013, 70.1% of new BME soldiers were non-UK citizens (290); 29.9% (120) were UK citizens. That means that well over two thirds of BMEs recruited are not holders of British passports and therefore, since July 2013, would no longer be eligible to apply for military work unless they can fulfill the residency requirement. The relatively high proportion in these figures must reflect a surge of applications/acceptances to beat the change in regulations.

Then there’s the actual ‘strength’ of the armed forces, as opposed to the ‘intake’. Another table shows that the number of UK-born BMEs has not changed very much over the past couple of years – the figures are 66.2% non-UK (6590) as opposed to 33.8% UK citizens (3380).

All about The War

In other words, the impact of recruiting Commonwealth soldiers – military migrants – has been to increase substantially the ethnic diversity of the British Army over the past decade. Bearing in mind that this category also includes minorities who would not self-identify as black (white South Africans, for example), the pattern of diversity in the next round of statistics will surely begin to show a decrease in the numbers of BMEs. This represents a problem for the MoD – but not because of any obligation to recognise equality issues.

Recruiting BMEs into the armed forces will continue to be a priority for demographic reasons alone. In a future post I will be arguing that the government’s WW1 commemorations aimed at recognising Commonwealth ‘contributions’ (under the heading Our Shared History, Our Common Future) are in part a giant recruitment exercise.

Calling attention to the global dimensions of military labour entailed in ‘The Great War’ means that there will be countless funded events and initiatives aimed at Britain’s minority communities. The project of reclaiming imperialist history as proof of shared suffering and sacrifice also entails the task of persuading the British-born descendants of those early Commonwealth soldiers that military work belongs to an honourable family tradition.

The end of an era?


On July 11th 2013 the MoD announced that it was all over. No more Commonwealth citizens would be recruited into the armed forces unless they had lived in the UK for five years. The practice of recruiting Commonwealth soldiers, often directly in their own countries, has been consigned to history. Who knows how this interlude from 1998 to 2013 will be narrated in future accounts of Britain’s disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The announcement by the MoD was brief: ‘Commonwealth recruits who wish to join the Armed Forces (Regulars) will need to demonstrate they have lived in the UK for the last 5 years’. Since no other information was provided, it is necessary to speculate on the reasons behind this decision.

There are two possible explanations. The first is that the ‘British jobs for British workers’ mantra, uttered memorably by Gordon Brown in 2009 but amplified over and over through the anti-immigration politics of the coalition government, finally won the day. We can only imagine that there were elements in the Home Office who insisted that it was unfeasible for the country’s national military institutions to employ migrants from outside the EU. It was well known that the UKBA were not keen on making concessions for military migrants and balked at having to do so in the face of logistical and ideological problems. The fact that hundreds of soldiers are being made redundant as part of the cuts to the regular army must have made it harder to defend the practice of recruiting from outside the country and therefore easier to argue for changing the rules.

A second explanation is that equality and diversity no longer means what it used to. The imperative to recruit a certain proportion of minority ethnic soldiers has given way to an emphasis on removing disadvantage for individuals based on their race, sex, sexuality, disability, religion or any other factor recognised in law. The recruitment of Commonwealth soldiers from 1998 on enabled the army to increase its proportion of ethnic minorities from almost zilch in the late 1990s to a respectable ten per cent a decade later. By 2011 only one third of these were born in the UK which suggests that strategies to persuade young British citizens from minority backgrounds to join the army were not going very well.

With the privatisation of army recruitment in March this year, and the disbandment of outreach work like the army’s Diversity Action Recruiting Group, it will be some time before we see the impact of this decision to reinstate the five-year residency rule. Meanwhile, for those like Henry from St Lucia who were encouraged to buy expensive one-way tickets to the UK to complete their qualifying process for the army, only to find out that they were no longer eligible, this was a devastating blow.


Institutional racism and the police in 1982

Considering the volume of words expended on Thatcher’s legacy following her death, it was shocking how few people addressed the question of racism in the period immediately following her election in 1979.
Daniel Trilling recalled the infamous ‘swamping speech’ from 1978 but there really hasn’t been much else. Reading some of the reflections on the 20th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s murder made me go back and root out this edition of Searchlight from 1982.
As the first paragraph in the article reveals, one response from the Met to the riots of 1981 was to insert a course on ‘multiculturalism’ in the curriculum for young police cadets.
John Fernandes, the instructor given this task, was so distressed by the cadets’ level of bigoted ignorance that he passed them on to us at Searchlight, as well as to Channel Four.
It might come as a shock to some people that the idea of institutional racism (or institutionalised racism as we used to call it) goes way back and was not invented by the Macpherson report in 1998.
I had actually forgotten this episode – and what it meant to publish this material – but went back to look at it when I was researching the army’s record of (not) dealing with racism throughout the 1990s.

British Muslim soldiers

The significance of Muslims serving in the UK military has been highlighted several times in the last few days, both times in relation to the killing of a soldier in Woolwich. The first was by Paul Goodman on the conservativehome website. In a longer piece on the implications of a terror attack committed by Islamists in the UK he said:

Islam is compatible with democracy, Islamism is not – but politicians have neither the knowledge nor the mandate to help shape “a British Islam”.  Perhaps all they can do is run an effective security strategy, and make limited political progress.  The latter would include recruiting more Muslims into the armed forces – there were about 600 in 2010: one of the biggest barriers to recruitment, according to Shiraz Maher’s Ties That Bind, is that young Muslims are unaware that the opportunity to join is there at all.  (Maher’s pamphlet for Policy Exchange tells the story of how hundreds of thousands of Muslims fought for Britain in two world wars.)

Here we note that offering young British Muslims the chance to join the armed forces would constitute ‘limited political progress’.

The second piece approached the subject of Muslims in the armed forces head on, and from the perspective of an ex-army officer and member of the Armed Forces Muslim Association. Afzal Amin’s article, published in the Guardian comment is free section, was entitled: ‘Extremists will not divide our armed forces’. Amongst other things he wrote:

As we witness this brutality in Woolwich, more than 600 Muslim personnel are deployed in Afghanistan, Mali, Somalia and elsewhere, contributing to our collective security. This attack is not connected to them, nor the armed forces, who have helped so many Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan – two theatres in which the principal beneficiaries of military intervention have been Muslim civilians and their governments. 

So in addition to contributing to a functioning diverse and cohesive military, he claimed, Muslim soldiers can also perform useful security functions while they are at it – symbolically as well as practically in terms of culture and language.

Amin’s pitch, overtly politicised by virtue of the fact that he is a Tory parliamentary candidate, was subsequently reiterated in an interview in the Independent. Under the headline: “Terror in Woolwich – a soldier’s tale: UK Muslims – your country needs you” he said:

The Prophet Mohamed said: ‘Love for one’s nation is part of faith’; ‘Who serves a people is the best of them’, and that ‘the Muslim is the one from whose hands and tongue others are safe’. The motto of Sandhurst is ‘Serve to Lead’. These are all British values and Islamic values,” he says.

Having left the army in April he is now free to claim that in his last deployment in Afghanistan in 2012 he acted as “a strategist advising US generals on conflict termination strategy through civil society engagement and empowerment”.

So how did that go? Clearly the mundane practice of “diversity” in this secretive and defensive institution entails something more than vague notions of inclusion and representativeness.

While there are indeed important things to say about this, there are underlying questions about how and why the military has come to dominate national public life, and why military service now carries such weight as a profession unlike any other.

This short piece below briefly outlines the significance of Muslims serving in the British military today. (However, it summarises a much longer discussion in the book which looks at racism inside the armed forces as well as the the concept of “militarised multiculture”.)

Muslims and Military Service

In 2006 Jabron Hashmi, 24, became the first British Muslim soldier to die in Afghanistan. His older brother, Zeeshan, who had also worked in the British Army, said at the time: ‘Jabron was a committed soldier and a committed Muslim. He was fiercely proud of his Islamic background and he was equally proud of being British and was very proud to live in Britain.’

The death in service of this avowedly Muslim patriot was acknowledged as a significant event at the highest levels. The following year members of Hashmi’s family, who lived in Birmingham and were originally from Pakistan, were asked to lay the foundation stone for the new National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. However, although Jabron’s death was commemorated as a form of sacrifice for the nation, it was also perceived as an act of betrayal by many other Muslims.

In a BBC report entitled ‘UK’s Muslim soldiers “fighting extremists not Muslims”’, Zeeshan Hashmi subsequently revealed that, following Jabron’s death, the family had received many letters from ‘well-wishers of all faith and backgrounds’, which had a great source of comfort. But they had also experienced hostility on the grounds that Jabron was considered a traitor.

These divergent responses help to illustrate why the figure of the Muslim performing military service is so significant. At one extreme, as a British soldier, Jabron Hashmi was hailed as a hero who gave his life for his country. For others, as a Muslim, he was accused of betraying his faith by fighting in a war that demonised Islam as the enemy of western civilisation. Yet it is not often that we hear about the experience of minorities, particularly those who are Muslims, who decide to work in the armed forces.

The most recent statistics published by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) indicate that there are 650 Muslims serving in the UK armed services.[ii] Of these, 550 are in the British Army, constituting 0.5% of the total. In common with other faith groups, Muslim servicemen and women maintain a network of mutual support known as the Armed Forces Muslim Association (AFMA). So what does this tell us about the conditions of diversity in the army?

A modern multicultural military?

Within the past decade the MoD has been able to claim that, in terms of numbers, the proportion of black and minority ethnic personnel in all three services has risen from just over one per cent to more than seven per cent. In the British Army, the figure currently hovers around ten per cent.

This rise can partly be explained by the fact that residency regulations for Commonwealth citizens were dropped in 1998, partly in response to a documented levels of racism and the virtual absence of diversity in the workforce. Today, two thirds of BME personnel are classified as ‘foreign and Commonwealth’, and this figure does not include Gurkhas who are recruited from Nepal.[iii] The employment of soldiers from outside the UK has had a significant impact on the institution’s progression towards becoming a multicultural  (and multi-faith) employer. But this process of modernisation has also been mandated by law.

In 2003 the religion and belief elements of the European Employment Framework Directive were incorporated into the UK Employment Equality Regulations. Two years later the appointment of Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu chaplains replaced a system whereby religious leaders were engaged simply as advisers. For Muslims, as for other faith groups, this reform meant the possibility of a support network for individuals scattered across the institution.

Diversity as a martial asset

When Imam Asim Hafiz took up the post of first Muslim chaplain in 2005, it was unclear how many Muslims were serving since comprehensive statistics were only collected from 2007. By 2009, there were 500 Muslims in the regular armed forces. Over four hundred of these were in the army, and a significant proportion were citizens of countries such as The Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria and Pakistan. It was at this point that AFMA was set up with the licence to explore the wider issue of Muslims serving in the military.

In the first newsletter, Imam Hafiz explained how the group hoped to persuade civilians about the significance of their work:

“Unfortunately there is a huge … ignorance in some parts of the Muslim community and I hope that AFMA will be able to bridge the gap between the Armed Forces and the Muslim community and be a reminder that HM Forces are as integral to British society as are other British institutions such as the Police Force, the fire service and the NHS that are here to serve this nation as whole including the Muslim community.”[iv]

The Imam was supported by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in his expressed aims to educate the Muslim community about the opportunities provided by military service. The MCB issued a report entitled Remembering the Brave: The Muslim Contribution to Britain’s Armed Forces in which they confront the issue, not just of ignorance about what it might mean to serve in the military, but also the depth of hostility towards the government’s foreign policy. The report asserts that ‘Loyalty does not mean the suspension of our critical faculties and failure to question our contested national engagements.’[v]

In an oblique reference to documented war crimes, such as the murder of civilian Baha Mousa in September 2003, committed by British soldiers in Iraq, the report ventures into more controversial territory: ‘We should ensure that the actions of a few does not diminish the overall expectations of our armed forces to abide by international laws of war and uphold fundamental human rights.’

While these arguments are addressed to UK citizens at home, the organization of Muslims inside the armed forces has been acknowledged by sections of the military leadership too. In 2009 the then Chief of the General Staff, General Sir David Richards, the first patron of the AFMA, commented publicly that Britain ‘had a commitment to … all those Muslims with whom we have a natural identity, given our own core values reflect very strongly to those of Muslim faith.[vi]

The raised profile of Muslim personnel – including the Imam – has also been utilised as a strategic asset in Afghanistan. This could be seen in news reports emphasising the participation of Muslims, whether joining forces with Afghan security personnel to celebrate Eid or acting as intermediaries with Afghan civilians.[vii] Seen in this light, the pragmatic tools of counter-insurgency warfare intersect with the symbolic aspects of soldiering on the domestic front.


[i] Armed Forces Muslim Association see http://www.afma.org.uk

[ii] UK Defence Statistics, April 2012. Chapter 2. Personnel. Table 2.12 Strength of UK Regular Forces by Service and religion, at 1 April each year. Defence Analytical Services Agency.

[iii] Ministry of Defence. Biannual Diversity Dashboard. 01 October 2012.

Section 2 – Ethnic origin and nationality representation of UK Regular Forces by Service.

[iv] Imam Asim Hafiz, ‘The love of your country is part of your faith’. AFMA Newsletter, July 2010, p. 7.

[v] ‘The Armed Forces reflecting Modern Britain: the Muslim contribution today’ in Remembering the Brave: The Muslim Contribution to Britain’s Armed Forces. A special report by the Muslim Council of Britain. (2009-2010 – Not dated), p. 9.

[vi] In the same interview Richards also said, ‘It is very important for the Muslim community to be exposed to an alternative view as it is for the rest of the nation. The Taliban kill many more Muslims than we do.’

[vii] See, for example: On November 16 2010 the Muslim chaplain gave a sermon to a multi-national congregation in the festival of Eid ul Adha in conjunction with the Imam of the local 205 Corps of the Afghan National Army (ANA). A lengthy report in the MoD’s Defence News site revealed that there were 600 Muslims present, including representatives from across ISAF military forces, defence contractors and civilian workers as well as ‘local Afghans’.  The occasion was hailed as a reflection of ‘the united relationship’ between ISAF and the Afghan National Army (MoD, Defence News, 2012).