Front Page News: Racism in the Armed Forces

The question of racism in the armed forces is, for most of the time, a remote and largely untracked phenomenon. This is partly due to the remoteness of the institution itself, heavily fortified against prying eyes and protective of its reputation as a noble, unassailable force for good in the world. Aside from the ongoing recruitment crisis, the public only hears about problems inside the military world when they come to light in employment tribunals.

One recent example was in summer 2019 when a judgement ruled that paratroopers Nkululeko Zulu and Hani Gue had been the victims of racist graffiti written on a photo of them in their barracks at Colchester in January 2018. In their testimony, the pair described the levels of abuse and harassment that they had experienced over the years.

This case received a fair amount of publicity at the time, and it seems to have alerted a section of the media to the ongoing problem. However, if you are keeping an eye on the issue, there are many other indications that the army, in particular, is struggling to contain and conceal personnel problems that reveal the peculiar circumstances of military work and training.

In December 2019, the service complaints ombudsman for the armed forces, Nicola Williams, warned that “incidents of racism are occurring with increasing and depressing frequency” after her annual report highlighted the finding that the service complaints system was not “efficient, effective or fair”.

Three months earlier, in September 2019, the Guardian used the Freedom of Information Act to ascertain how many investigations by military police had been conducted in the army, navy and air force since 2015.

“Twenty two, including eight in 2018 and one this year, were launched by the Royal Military Police (RMP). Nine took place outside the UK. The Royal Air Force Police have launched nine investigations since 2015 and the Royal Navy Police carried out four.”

Human rights group Liberty have been monitoring the issue since their involvement in the Anne-Marie Ellement campaign. Emma Norton, head of legal casework commented: “We also know that many people don’t even report this kind of problem in the first place for fear that it may harm their career. So there are likely to be large numbers of affected people who are suffering in silence.”

In July 2019 a report commissioned by the Ministry of Defence to look into inappropriate behaviour in the Armed Forces in April 2019 was published. Air Chief Marshal Wigston led the review and made 36 recommendations on how to investigate and deal with inappropriate behaviour within the armed services. In the Telegraph this was reported as: “‘Middle-aged white chiefs’ a problem as Armed Forces battle culture of bullying and sexism, report warns.”

Everyday racism

In our own research in the Wiltshire area, where there is a large military community, we have heard testimonies from serving BME personnel about their experience of racist treatment by colleagues. One female soldier told us that she could not continue working alongside white men and women if she did not have the moral strength and courage to face the many challenges of harassment and intimidation.  “They treat us like animals,” she added.

Researchers also discovered that some felt that there was “a kind of unofficial segregation” within the forces, which was replicated in the newly built service accommodation as well.

Perhaps one of the most outrageous examples of commonplace institutional racism is provided by the report that, in December 2019, a soldier won a claim against the Ministry of Defence after being confused with the only other black sergeant in his unit.

Sergeant Randy Date, a veteran of conflicts in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, was given a poor report for his performance on a training course that he had not even attended. The event was actually led by another soldier of the same rank, who was also black.

The tribunal found although it might be a “sad reality” that black individuals from Caribbean Islands are wrongly perceived by some in the army to be in some way lazy, the assessment by Flight Lt Taylor was not based on these stereotypes.

It is also worth mentioning that the cadet force is not immune from instances of racism as well, despite the desperate attempts to woo young people into the armed forces. In August 2019 the Ministry of Defence apologised after an incident took place involving two young BME cadets.  The two brothers, Jabriel, 14, and Latif, 13, were attending an army cadet summer camp when they were arrested and detained in a cell, leading to accusations of institutional racism.

An investigation has been launched into the circumstances surrounding the treatment of the boys and the reasons why their mother was not initially informed of their arrest. Both boys said they had been subjected to racist abuse throughout the trip and that the incidents were not out of keeping with the general tenor of behaviour among the group. They were placed into isolation before being formally arrested and handcuffed and taken to a police station an hour from the camp in Otterburn. They were then kept in separate cells until their mother arrived and they were interviewed almost 10 hours later.

Far right convictions

In addition to the record of bullying and harassment directed against BME personnel, there is also evidence of activity by members of the far right inside the army. This is much harder to track.

In 2018 White supremacist and self-confessed racist Corporal Mikko Vehvilainen, 34, of the Royal Anglian Regiment, was convicted of being a member of neo-Nazi terrorist group National Action, and was jailed for eight years. It emerged that he believed in a coming “race war” and wanted to help establish an all-white stronghold in a Welsh village.

In recognition of the danger posed by individuals and groups proselytising inside the ranks, it was revealed in September 2019 that the armed forces were now taking part in the Government’s Prevent programme. Soldiers are now urged to report comrades with extremist far right tendencies. Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu confirmed that the far right was the fastest growing terrorist threat in the UK with a third of the 22 plots foiled since March 2017 associated with neo-Nazi ideologies.

It is not just the army that is implicated in this development. In August 2019 the Observer revealed that two members of the Royal Navy, including one who was due to start work on a Trident nuclear submarine, were members of a far-right group with links to a banned terrorist organisation. An informant working for Hope Not Hate, infiltrated the UK branch of the pan-European Identitarian Movement which gave him access to thousands of internal messages. He met a Royal Navy sailor who revealed that he was about to take up a posting on a submarine armed with Trident nuclear missiles.

 In June 2019  the Mail revealed that Royal Marines taking part in a multi-national exercise to prepare for any future conflict with Russia scrawled a Nazi swastika on the chest of a comrade during a humiliating initiation ceremony. Those involved were part of the Future Commando Force (FCF). According to the Mail, the scandal was judged so serious that officers told troops that the FCF could ‘kiss goodbye’ to involvement in important missions.

“Brexiteers” unbound

Finally, it is also worth thinking about the wider political context which includes the four year campaign to leave the EU, and the vilification of the leader of the opposition on the grounds that he has long been an anti-war campaigner. The Sun accused Jeremy Corbyn of conspiring to ban the army the moment he was elected as party leader in 2015. Jump forward a few years to now, when Corbyn can no longer be demonised as a menace to national security (although watch out Clive Lewis). Some contenders for party leadership are so fearful of being seen in the same light that they endorse the concept of “progressive patriotism”. It is hardly necessary to point out the danger: when political parties – or political campaigns – become over-identified with the interests of military institutions, then our democracy is really under threat.

On that note, let’s just review a couple of injudicious tweets made by ordinary soldiers over the past year or so:

Corporal Daniel Goshawk responded to a statement by Angela Rayner by tweeting: “Ohh f*** off you stupid bitch, c**** like you will perish when civil war comes and its coming. 17.4 million people are gunning for blood if we don’t leave.”

Another serving soldier, Jamie Bishop, wrote this before deleting his tweet: Let’s face it the majority of the army are Brexiteers so anyone who thinks we’re all a lot of old people will have a big shock if it came to a civil unrest!!




The Military in Our Midst


This website was founded in 2011 in order to track the recruitment and employment of Commonwealth citizens in the UK armed forces. After the publication of the book Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR Country in 2012 (re-published in pbk in 2015), the situation was monitored through regular posts which you will find below. Recruitment from Commonwealth countries stopped in 2013, but then started again on a limited basis in 2018 and continues to this day. We will continue to document these changes.

We have recently added a new project to the website: The Military in Our Midst. This project, funded by The Leverhulme Trust, investigates the complex dynamics of the military presence in Tidworth, a historic garrison town on the edge of Salisbury Plain. Targeted for expansion under government plans to restructure the Army by 2020, this site offers unique ethnographic opportunities to explore the impact of the military footprint in a locality shaped by decades of continuous war-preparation.

Britain’s new super-garrisons

An important opportunity to monitor the impact of political initiatives re-defining the relationship between military and society after a series of unpopular wars. (This article was first published by OpenDemocracy on 21 March 2019)

21 March 2019
Mixed-rank army housing estate, Tidworth, Wiltshire, 2018.
Mixed-rank army housing estate, Tidworth, Wiltshire, 2018. Vron Ware

Thirteen years of unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have seriously damaged the reputation of the British armed forces. Since 2006, a ‘militarisation offensive’ has sought to remedy this by encouraging public support for soldiers. This has had unseen effects on local authorities, already devastated by austerity, which have been asked to bear the material costs of this support.

Significant measures have also been introduced to streamline the armed forces – in line with other public sector cuts – and reduce costs.

This year sees the culmination of both processes as thousands of soldiers are relocated from overseas bases in Germany to newly expanded garrisons in rural England.

Restructuring armed forces

In 2010 the British government announced the intention to restructure the armed forces with its Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). Army 2020, the Army’s response to the SDSR, entailed closing overseas bases to concentrate the army in a number of super-garrisons across the UK, reducing the regular army and increasing the reserves.

The MoD claims that this will provide savings of £240 million per year because it will allow the forces to streamline their operations by keeping more troops and equipment in fewer locations. It is hoped that a more settled and concentrated military presence will both cut costs to the military and maintain the profile of the armed forces as a public body.

To what extent have any of these plans worked? We know that recruitment of regular and reservist personnel, outsourced to Capita, has failed to meet ‘trained strength’ targets despite the army redefining its definition of trained strength to help massage the statistics. A new recruitment campaign, aimed at the so-called millennial generation of ‘snowflakes’, is the latest ill-judged attempt to combat the army’s on-going recruitment and retention crisis. Meanwhile the government has dropped the five-year residency requirement for Commonwealth citizens and is once again recruiting from countries as far away as Fiji.

Rebasing from Germany

Far less attention has been paid to Army Basing, the radical plan to re-organise military bases in the UK and to accommodate troops brought back from Germany. What happens when the army takes up more space at home? The deadline for ‘rebasing’ from Germany to the UK is fast approaching, with most of the moves scheduled for the summer of 2019.

These measures are likely to have a significant impact on the relationship between military personnel and civilians in the areas affected. The Army’s desire to encourage greater military-civilian integration is central to the wider array of militarization initiatives that have been deployed since the early 2000s to try and increase public support for the armed forces. Since the 2008 Report of Inquiry into National Recognition of our Armed Forces, myriad changes have been introduced, including a national Armed Forces Day and an increase in Cadet Forces in comprehensive schools.

The Armed Forces Community Covenant was another outcome of this move to politicise military work. This asks local authorities and businesses to commit to providing specialised services and help for military personnel and their dependents, as well as veterans. This is not just about endorsing the activities that the military carry out across the world; it is also an important factor in attending to the welfare costs of the wider service community, particularly the army families.

In September 2018 we began a two-year project entitled ‘The Military in our Midst’, funded by The Leverhulme Trust. Over the last six months we have been monitoring the impact of these changes in and around the historic garrison of Tidworth, Wiltshire, one of the areas being transformed into a super-garrison.

Over the last six months we have been monitoring the impact of these changes in and around the historic garrison of Tidworth, Wiltshire, one of the areas being transformed into a super-garrison.

Salisbury Plain will see the largest influx with the bulk of new arrivals from Germany in summer 2019. The projection is for the population of Wiltshire to increase by 7000 in total, with 4000 service personnel being relocated there. The Plain has hosted a significant military presence since the end of the 1900s when the MOD commandeered land to provide a much-needed training area. It remains rural and isolated, with few train links and a limited bus service. The vast training area forms part of a militarized zone occupying a third of Wiltshire County.

Everyday sight in an army town.
Everyday sight in an army town. | Mitra Pariyar

Army basing and military-civilian integration

The quality and design of military housing is intimately related to the wider project of Army Basing and Military-Civilian Integration because it has a bearing on the question of who takes care of personnel and their families. It is well-known that housing for military personnel is a complex and fraught issue. A 2007 exposé revealed the terrible conditions of army family housing whilst soldiers were serving in Iraq. Regular scandals have erupted indicating endemic damp and hazardous materials such as asbestos. In January 2019, a leaked report said that single soldiers’ accommodation in Tidworth, Bulford, Larkhill and Aldershot, managed by Aspire Defence, was “not fit for animals”, highlighting “faulty equipment” and “broken or unserviceable infrastructure”.

The new estates being constructed to replace uninhabitable homes, as well as to house the additional troops returning from Germany, present opportunities to re-think how the social life of army families is organised. In the past, married soldiers were expected to live alongside colleagues of the same rank. Now, the dependents of personnel are expected to move into estates built for mixed ranks and, in some cases, even alongside civilians. The MOD is also trying to get more servicemen and women to live in privately rented accommodation or buy their own homes through their Future Accommodation Model. This will cut costs for the MOD while appearing to offer greater choice in terms of lifestyle. However, the rent for the new housing will be higher than it was for previous homes of the same size. This is designed to prepare personnel and their families for a future where the MOD takes less and less responsibility for their welfare.

But the question of whether service families should be integrated with civilians or have their own dedicated estates is highly contested amongst the families themselves. One woman we spoke to told us that she and the other wives didn’t want to move into the newer, much smaller houses on estates that will have mixed rank and civilian residents. She said it would destroy the social networks that they depend upon on in their ‘patch’ when their husbands are away.

Over the last year the Army Welfare Service has been travelling out to Germany to prepare the family members of troops who are being re-based in the UK. They have told us that many dependents are not happy about the impending move. The cost of life in the UK, particularly in areas like Wiltshire, is much higher and spouses have been advised that they will have to get jobs. Also people often feel quite settled in Germany and it is not uncommon for individuals to marry German citizens. They benefit from an overseas living allowance and enjoy good schools and childcare facilities. The prospect of life on windswept Salisbury Plain in post-Brexit Britain is understandably not so appealing.

The emerging local cost

The contribution of county councils has become indispensible to these changes. Several years before the Armed Forces Community Covenant campaign was dreamed up, a project called the Military-Civilian Initiative (MCI) was launched under New Labour with the purpose of rationalising the support that public bodies needed to provide to the military.

In 2009 Wiltshire County Council was the first local authority ever to audit the impact of the military presence. Today, making sure there is sufficient local housing for personnel and their families is one of the central pillars of military-civilian integration in the area.

These partnerships go beyond infrastructure. Dependents of personnel are often caught between their civilian status and the conditions of service life, which is marked by frequent moves and the soldier parent being absent for long periods. Schools with service children receive a pupil premium to help make up for this. Spouses can find it impossible to build a career. Post-service, veterans often settle in the last area where they were based. This creates further challenges for healthcare, education and the local job market. The creation of a more settled and concentrated armed forces population allows the military to offload some of its housing and welfare costs onto the public purse.

Army Basing in the area has involved a major building project, managed by Defence Infrastructure (DIO) and delivered by a local building contractor called Lovell. One thousand new Service Family Accommodation (SFA) homes are being built in the small towns of Ludgershall, Bulford and Larkhill, with the first estate due for habitation in March 2019. Some families have already started arriving. But the big influx will be between June and August when it is predicted that 50 families will be moving in every day. Even if we just consider the number of removal lorries that will circulate during this period, the scale of this operation is still hard to visualise

Construction work on Salisbury Plain.
Construction work on Salisbury Plain. | Vron Ware

Tidworth garrison has also been working with Wiltshire County Council to ensure that education, transport, leisure and healthcare provision is in place for the new arrivals. This entails building new, wider roads in this rural area and more facilities for car parks. As part of the rebasing agreement, 1125 new school places have been funded (90 nursery, 750 primary and 375 secondary). Two new schools are being built and existing schools have been expanded as much as possible to increase classroom sizes.

Needless to say, there are concerns about whether all this construction will be ready in time. Schools are a particular worry because, despite local media reports, there are rumours that some of the new builds are behind schedule, and they may not provide sufficient places.

We were told that the figures for relocation were calculated on the basis of national statistics about family size. But military families tend to be bigger than in the civilian population because families are younger, housing costs less and childcare costs are subsidized. There may have been less incentive to try and generate real statistics for Army Basing because of the impossibility of following up such a complex and long-term project. Staff in military admin roles are normally re-posted every couple of years and as a result there is little accountability and institutional memory built into the system.

The new forms of collaboration between public bodies and military organisations also highlight the problem of very different timescales. Local authorities need at least nine months’ notice in order to budget for extra school places, and they also need solid proof that those spaces are needed. Council governance is not well prepared to deal with a large population influx that only needs to give six months’ notice of its intention to move.

The task – even just at the administrative level – is harder given the extreme financial strain that local councils face currently. The army may be feeling the effects of austerity but so are all other public services. Even as the Army Basing plan reaches its climax, Wiltshire Council has faced a wave of redundancies and the community engagement managers for Amesbury and Tidworth, who were liaising with Tidworth Garrison on Army Basing matters, have lost their jobs.

The thin line.
The thin line. | Antonia Dawes

There have been remarkably few studies of the impact of the military footprint on surrounding areas in the UK. This dramatic expansion of a service community within a region of the country that is already habituated to tanks and the sound of explosions is taking place largely out of sight.

Yet it presents an important opportunity to monitor the impact of highly political initiatives that are attempting to re-define the relationship between military and society, measures that were put in place during a period of intense deployment in unpopular wars. At the very least, the rise of the super-garrison raises important questions about the costs and consequences of maintaining a professional standing army in the twenty-first century.

Residency Rules Lifted for 200 Military Migrants

May 2016 saw a new chapter in the recruitment of military migrants to the UK armed forces. As my column in openDemocracy explains, shortages in certain trades have forced the MoD to waive the residency requirement for 200 recruits from Commonwealth countries.

From 1998 to 2013 the armed forces were allowed to recruit heavily from Commonwealth countries until the government put a stop to it for various reasons. Now there has been barely any reaction to the recent news that they are once again offering jobs to non-UK citizens from Commonwealth countries due to ‘perilous shortages’ across the army, navy and RAF.

Just one article in the Mail reported that Defence Minister Penny Mordaunt had waived the five-year residency requirements to allow 200 Commonwealth citizens a year to fill vacancies. According to the army website, there are currently jobs to be found, not as infantry soldiers but in a wide variety of supporting roles from chefs to marine engineers, “petroleum operators” to medical technicians.

On one level this strategy is simply common sense for an organization struggling to meet its targets: they need strong, fit, trainable bodies and to some extent they are not interested where they come from. The fact that applicants are not UK citizens is not the modern army’s problem, as the experience of employing migrant soldiers over 15 years has proved. The ever-tightening, punitive regulations emanating from the Home Office now means that the onus is on individuals to sort out their own complicated and expensive immigration status issues. The army website makes this crystal clear. For example the section on families tells prospective applicants:

“Once you’ve joined, your family will still be subject (to) the UK immigration controls. They will need to meet the Home Office’s rules before they can move to join you. They’ll need to be aware of the rules around how much they should earn and the speaking/ understanding the English language.”

They then add, generously: “Your family can still visit you in the UK, but they’ll need to follow the rules of a standard visitor visa.”

There’s no guarantee that those who have served the requisite five years will get UK citizenship, the costs of which have to be borne by the individual. This is worth restating as there are still many people out there who assume that military service performed by non-citizens somehow brings the automatic reward of naturalisation, which it has never done in the past. That is a longer story.

Apart from the importance of keeping track of military recruitment policies, particularly when it comes to minorities, this latest development is significant for two other reasons. The first relates to the historical precedence of including and excluding postcolonial migrants in the UK armed forces, particularly in the post1960 era. An air-brushed version of this history is routinely summoned to justify whatever the latest policy might be: in her written statement announcing the latest news, for example, Mordaunt added that there had been a ‘long tradition of soldiers from Commonwealth nations serving in the British military’.

It is comments like this that compound the general ignorance about how Britain was able to maintain its military power for so long. Thanks partly to the funding of centennial heritage projects, younger generations now have more chances to learn about the ‘contribution’ of troops from all over the empire in WW1 and WW2. This is despite the fact that the information has been available for years through the patient work of historians such as Stephen BourneDavid KillingrayMarika Sherwood and others.  But there is surprisingly little attention paid to the servicewomen and men recruited from former colonies in the second half of the 20th century whether through the mechanism of the Commonwealth or not.

The artist Barbara Walker is a rare exception to this pattern of investigating the history of black soldiers from a safe historical distance. Her current exhibition of drawings, entitled ‘Shock and Awe’, makes direct connections between those who fought in regiments such as the British West Indies Regiment and the King’s African Rifles, and those black soldiers who have worked in the contemporary British Army. Her show, which can be seen at the MAC in Birmingham until 3rd July, is also unusual since it addresses the under-recognised role of servicewomen from the Caribbean and West India Regiments in World War II as well.

The decision to recruit 200 per year allows the Ministry of Defence to maintain control over numbers of non-UK nationals in the sector. It echoes a similar policy carried out in the early 1960s, following the end of conscription, when the government allowed recruiting officers to bring 200 men and 12 women from Fiji into the army. Many were consequently deployed in the ‘secret war’ in Oman, often as members of the special forces. At the time it was noted that there were plenty more willing recruits where they came from, but as much as the particular qualities of Fijian soldiers were appreciated, there were no further attempts to bring them in. The descendants of some of those individuals, many of whom had distinguished careers in the army, were among those who joined in the late 1990s, as I discovered when I wrote Military Migrants.

God help us: race, religion and recruitment

Zeeshan Hashmi is a former soldier in the British Army. In 2006 his brother, Jabron, became the first, and so far only, UK Muslim serviceman to die in Afghanistan. Writing in the Telegraph recently Hashmi explained what was wrong with the current obsession with targeting faith minorities to join the armed forces:

Joining the Armed Forces is not about religion. You join a unit as a soldier and when you deploy you trust your comrades with your life. You fight for the man next to you, not for anything else.

Speaking from the unique position afforded by not just by his own record of service but the intense symbolism of his brother’s death, Hashmi rejected the suggestion that young Muslims should be encouraged to join the forces as an antidote to radicalization. In his opinion, racism and segregation in Britain were far greater problems than the reluctance shown by ethnic minorities to volunteer for the armed forces.

Faith in numbers

Recent pronouncements by army leaders show the deep historical connections between contemporary racism and militarism. First there were the amplified headlines about the absence of Muslim soldiers in the army. Then there were the flickering embers of the martial race doctrine fanned by the Telegraph: “British Army examines plans to create a Sikh regiment”, swiftly followed by: “Sikhs make our Armed Forces even stronger”.

These headlines can be knitted together to tell their own crude story, but they are also easy to miss as they flash by. It would be a mistake to dismiss them though. The idea that military service constitutes the ultimate proof of “belonging” in and to Britain cannot be left unchallenged.

The first point to note, however, is that the army is most interested in bodies, especially those that are young, fit, pliable and resilient, in the literal sense of the word. Finding a reliable supply of volunteers is a constant headache for recruiters, today more than ever. After much-publicized mass redundancies and devastating verdicts on the Third Afghan War, the army is experiencing a profound crisis as it tries to attract a new generation of young men and women into its ranks. Having contracted out the recruitment process to Capita two years ago, it recently launched a rebranding campaign after a survey by OnePoll found that 25% of those aged between 18 and 34 believed the army was less relevant now than ever before.

Leaving aside any political factors, there are demographic reasons why the UK armed forces need to recruit from minority ethnic populations. Then there are the legal obligations to conform to equality and diversity standards, post-MacPherson. Besides, in this day and age it doesn’t look good for a national organization to appear uniformly white. Before getting to the more contentious issue of Muslim soldiers (not to mention the chilling fantasy of resurrecting a Sikh regiment), we might consider a longer view of the army’s record in race relations.

Systemic failures

Looking back over the history of British Army recruiting practices post-1961, the institution has only ever appealed for minorities to join when it is in trouble. One of the most notorious campaigns was the 1998 Saatchi-designed poster featuring the faces of black soldiers inserted into the First World War poster with the text: your Country needs YOU.

In the late 1990s, when the campaign was launched, the MoD had narrowly avoided legal action after a catalogue of racist incidents in the army and a systemic failure to admit or deal with the extent of discrimination and bullying, particularly in certain regiments. The drive to recruit more black and Asian soldiers was part of a five-year plan to improve equality and diversity in the organization – the idea being that more minorities would help change the internal culture thereby making it more attractive for minorities. At that time they barely made up one per cent.

After 2001, when the Race Relations Amendment Act was passed, the armed forces had a statutory obligation to represent the ethnic diversity of the population as a whole, which only increased the pressure. However, in the meantime, the New Labour government had agreed to lift the five-year residency requirement for Commonwealth citizens, with an explicit recognition that this would increase the proportion of ethnic minority soldiers. Given that there was also a shortfall in numbers, recruiters needed no encouragement to haul in as many migrants as they needed.

Less than a decade later, the MoD was in trouble again, although this time it was because they were trying to negotiate a limit on the number of non-UK entrants, a move that would contravene equality laws. The sheer success in recruiting applicants from outside the country – some units in the Royal Logistics had as many as 80% soldiers from Commonwealth countries – was prompting the army leadership to worry about the ‘Britishness’ of the organization. By 2009 the Equality and Human Rights Commission had allowed them to cap certain regiments at 15%.

Over the next five years, the proportion of black and minority ethnic soldiers in the regular army stabilized at 10-11% – although the figure was much lower in the officer corps, and there were fewer minorities in the other two services. In the meantime, there were other issues relating to military culture that were attracting attention, such as the high levels of sexual abuse endured by female soldiers. The question of institutional racism had dropped out of sight since the army was able to promote a reasonable image of diversity in terms of ethnicity and faith.

Front page news

In 2015 the situation already looks very different. The reinstatement of the residency requirement in 2013 virtually ended all recruitment from outside the UK and as a result, the numbers of minorities are beginning to fall. The successful employment of migrants had been masking the fact that at least two thirds of minority ethnic soldiers – including those who were from minority faiths – were in fact from Commonwealth backgrounds. In other words, the proportion of UK-born BMEs had risen from one to roughly three per cent in fifteen years – meaning that the crisis can no longer be disguised.

The corporate response from the army is twofold: to admit failure on their part and to single out a particular minority for attention. In early February, the head of the Army, General Sir Nick Carter, admitted that: “Our recruitment from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities have been improving over the years, but it is nowhere near it needs to be, we have to do more.”

Insisting that the organization was mostly concerned with the quality of the individual recruit, he reiterated the now standard outreach line that “The values and standards we espouse resonate closely with these communities and there is much common ground that we can build on to broaden our recruitment base.”

Figures were released to show that there were “only” 480 Muslims in the army, out of a total of 88,500. Whereas in the past this figure was used to prove that there were plenty of Muslim soldiers in the forces, this time it was made clear that a good proportion of these were Commonwealth citizens and therefore didn’t count.

The media amplified the message right away with headlines like: “The British Army launches drive to recruit more Muslims”. Press coverage revealed that the army had been “trying to engage with communities in places such as Bradford and Burnley, where Muslims account for about 25% and 10% of the population respectively” and that recruiting drives were planned in those towns . Anecdotes about discovering the happy overlap between military values and Muslim ones were wheeled out, demonstrating how that the security services were perfectly able to embrace the rubric of equality and diversity for their own strategic purposes.

The report in the Independent spelled it out: “The British Army is making a determined push to recruit Muslims in an attempt to counter the rise in radicalisation which has seen hundreds of young men from this country join violent extremist groups like Isis and al-Shabaab”. The Mail reiterated the stock line that there were more Muslims leaving the country than there were in the forces: “Army drive for more Muslims after Paris massacre and rise of Islamic State as it’s revealed just 480 are currently serving”.

Martial lore

Meanwhile the Telegraph reported that the army chiefs were seriously considering the feasibility of a Sikh unit, including the possibility of a reserve company. Nicholas Soames, one of the key supporters, raised the topic in the House of Commons in a suitably bonkers fashion:

“Would you not agree with me that it’s high time to do away with the political correctness which infects some of this thinking and actually raise a Sikh regiment to serve in the country and make up a very serious gap in our Armed Forces?”

Mark Francois, Minister for the Armed Forces, told him that he was not the first person to suggest a Sikh-only contingent, saying that it “may well have merit” and confirming that it was being looked into. The prospect was also welcomed as “an excellent idea” by Rory Stewart, chairman of the Defence Select Committee.

Picking up the ball and running with it, Tom Tugendhat, military assistant to the Chief of the Defence Staff and Tory candidate for Tonbridge and Malling, explained in the Telegraph why this time it would be different from the old days:

“This would not be the echo of a long-dead imperial past but an innovation worthy of a modern battle-ready army. Just as Irish, Scots, Welsh and English units attract men with regional affiliations, and sappers, signallers and logisticians draw men and women with specialist skills, a new Sikh unit would allow the common ethos essential to seeing strong fighting spirit develop.

While the fantasy of a Sikh regiment can be dismissed as a throwback to the ‘divide and rule’ tactics of the Indian Army, the suggestion that Muslims should be targeted in special recruitment drives evokes the same military history in ways that are ultimately counter-productive.

Zeeshan Hashmi was the only person to condemn the proposal. It was a “terrible idea”, he wrote shortly afterwards. “Likewise a Muslim regiment. It may look good on a PowerPoint slide but that is it. In reality, I fear it would only highlight differences, not promote unity”.

Hashmi is clearly right to state that singling minorities out on the basis of faith or ethnicity would be divisive and counterproductive. He spoke from his own experience that minority soldiers have to deal with racism and bigotry in the army, just as they do outside.

“Toxic brand”

But there is a more important point about the clumsiness of the military response to the recruitment crisis. When military institutions intervene in debates about integration, social cohesion and now, radicalization, they overstep their bounds. The fact that they are wedded to a wider security policy that has been shown to have been deeply flawed compounds the problem. The recent attack on the government’s Prevent strategy, made by a former police officer, proves yet again that the police too are both ignorant and uninformed when it comes to communicating with Muslim communities, with little “basic knowledge of race and faith issues”.

The reasons why so many young people are drawn to join groups like ISIS are both complex and little understood. But without acknowledging the racism, hostility and surveillance that Muslims face today, the army doesn’t have a hope in hell of increasing the proportion of minorities in its ranks, regardless of what faith they adhere to.







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 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?