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.