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.

Keeping up Numbers

In my last column for openDemocracy I asked how the recent history of war has altered the social and cultural mechanisms that propel young people towards a military career. This question relates not just to the future representation of military work – whether in video games or new ads on TV and the internet – but also to the issue of whether the armed forces should broadly represent the society which they are supposed to defend.

It’s strange to think that when I started researching Military Migrants in 2008, there was a British Army recruiting office on the Strand, a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square. This was the main port of call for Commonwealth applicants and therefore one of the first destinations for my research. I carried out one of my earliest interviews there, meeting some of the officers who had been leading the overseas pre-selection teams to the Caribbean and Fiji.

That office closed a while ago, but I often think about it as a place where so many potential migrant-recruits would have visited, unnoticed by all the tourists and commuters scurrying past as they made their momentous decision to open the door and begin the process.

Today one of the latest developments in the UK is that the recruitment of Britain’s military workforce, employed on a volunteer basis since 1960, has been outsourced to Capita. For the next ten years the business of attracting new soldiers to the profession will be managed by a private corporation. This is supposed to save money and resources although it will inevitably change local patterns of recruiting as more offices are closed.

In a recent interview Phillip Hammond, the defence secretary, revealed some of the ways the MoD have been planning for the future. Hammond said: ‘Many people in Britain will regard the end of combat in Afghanistan as a very good news story, but for many young men and women joining the Armed Forces, the lure of operations is a big recruiting sergeant and we have to think how we are going to replace the excitement of operations for them with equally stimulating training and exercising.’

He was photographed in Norway as he chatted to marines carrying out one such exercise in an Arctic training camp. Dressed all in white, the men appeared to be demonstrating how they would fire rifles while simultaneously balancing on skis.

But while the MoD worry about how to make military work look more exciting – in this case, like extreme sports with guns – it’s important to hold the armed forces to account as a public institution at home.

As Military Migrants has documented, the political and legal pressure to enforce equality and diversity in the British Army over the past fifteen years has had predictably uneven results. In the concluding section I confirmed the fact that after more than a decade of attempts to diversify the workforce, the level of UK born minority ethnic personnel was still only one third of the total figure for all ethnic minorities in the army.

There’s lots more to say here, but in the meantime I’ve been looking at the figures for different nationalities across all services in 2011 and 2012. Here’s a brief tally of increased  and reduced numbers among those nationalities currently well represented in the army  – which has the highest proportion of Irish and Commonwealth citizens:

Trained soldiers                        2011                        2012

Total FCs                                    7150                        7120

Bangladeshi                                     0                            10

Citizens of Fiji                              2100                        2060

Cameroonian                                 60                            70

Gambian                                       240                          280

Ghanaian                                      800                          790

Irish                                               280                          330

Jamaican                                      440                          410

Kenyan                                         190                           210

Malawian                                      220                          230

Nigerian                                       170                          180

South African                               790                          770

St Lucian                                      270                          260

Vincentian                                    330                          320

Zimbabwean                               360                          320

Nepalese                                     460                          520*

Unknown                                       20                            10

*Nepalese soldiers (Gurkhas) who have served more than four years are now entitled to apply for UK citizenship. When they become UK citizens they must transfer to the British Army as they are no longer permitted to serve as Gurkhas.

As the redundancies start to take effect in terms of overall numbers we will monitor the statistics – available through the Defence Analytical Service Agency (DASA) – to test the MoD’s commitment to representing multicultural Britain. It is evident that attention is currently focused more on gender than ethnicity, but in demographic terms, young minority ethnic citizens constitute a valuable pool of potential recruits.

Britain’s rainbow warriors?

On Sunday October 21st 2012 the Observer Review ran a double-page photo-spread feature entitled, ‘Ethnic minorities in the armed services – in pictures’. It showed ten pictures of individuals, each with a brief caption giving biographical details, motives for joining or memories of particular experiences. Three were in the air force, four in the navy and four in the army.

Here’s a quick recap of numbers of ethnic minorities in all three services, according to latest figures from the Defence Analytical Services Agency.

In total, in 2012 the three services had 6.9%. This breaks down as follows: Royal Navy (3.5%)   British Army (9.9%)    RAF (2.0%).

Several aspects of this Observer feature are significant.

1. The timing of this news story is intriguing. The feature was introduced as a ‘minority report from the armed services’. The Observer reporter, Killian Fox, explained what had led 25 year-old photographer Kit Oates to seek permission from the MoD to take the portraits. Oates apparently told him:

“I wanted to highlight another facet of our multicultural society.”

At first, the MoD refused Oates access, but then in April there was a change of heart. Oates was allowed to spend four days in bases in the south of England photographing and ’interviewing’ recruits.

A comment by defence secretary Phillip Hammond that the armed services faced a challenge in recruiting minorities was cited as proof that the government was concerned. But there was no other mention of negative reports that might have prompted such concern.

By coincidence, Military Migrants, which documents the history of minority recruitment and institutional reform in some detail, was published on October 19.

2. None of the individuals represented in the gallery of pictures could possibly be described as recruits, a term normally used to refer to those in training. For a start, their ages ranged from 24 to 52. The three RAF representatives were all involved in recruiting and outreach. By no stretch of the imagination can a soldier who has been deployed in Afghanistan, or a navy chef who joined in 2001 and once served on the front line near Uzbekistan, be counted as trainees.

So why did the Observer report that Oates visited bases to record the views of recruits when the examples presented have clocked up years of service? The feature appears in an arts and media section probably unused to fine distinctions between a recruit and a recruiting commander. But then Oates himself places great emphasis on his subjects’ ethnic heritage as a factor in their decision to join the UK military.

3. One explanation for the army’s greater diversity is that it has recruited far more Commonwealth personnel. This is not made explicit, although Oates is quoted as saying, ‘I was interested in recruits who might not have been born here, or whose parents weren’t, but who have decided to serve in the armed forces in this country.’

Each caption gives information about country of birth, or cultural heritage of each person. Mention of the Commonwealth is conspicuous by its absence.

For example, Navy Logistics Manager Kerwin Romeo was born in St Vincent, which is described as ‘a former British colony in the Caribbean’. This seems an odd way to refer to a country that has been independent for more than 30 years.

4. Read together, the gallery of military minorities presents a coherent, united front. None of them reported having faced any problems, and only one mentioned the word racism.

Nicole Dunkley, RAF outreach officer who was born in Jamaica, commented, ‘About 5% of the force at RAF Northolt are ethnic minorities. After nine years in the RAF, I’ve never encountered any abuse. As far I’ve known it’s zero-tolerance.’

Priyum Patel, an army medic, was equally forthright. ‘For me, being an ethnic minority in the army has not been an issue. People are more concerned with your ability to do your job, look after your troops and deliver the mission at hand. In this regard, the army is more inclusive than any other working environment I’ve previously experienced.’

Another soldier, an infantryman aged 26, declared that, ‘Being mixed race and going into the army, racism did cross my mind a little bit. As I’ve always lived in London I’ve never thought about it too much. There’s a lot of diversity in the army, but we all gel quite well.’

5. One more thing: the piece also illustrates one of the final themes of Military Migrants: the emergence of militarized multiculture. This is the term I use to argue that diversity now has a value to the armed forces, and not just in the context of domestic politics. More recently, UK military leaders have accepted that diversity – whether cultural, religious or linguistic – is valuable in operations as well. Hence the inclusion of this view, articulated by RAF recruiting officer Andy Rahaman:

‘it (diversity) can positively affect the way the military is perceived, particularly in countries such as Afghanistan. “We’ve got guys who speak Urdu and Farsi as their first tongue and that’s certainly an advantage. You can break down barriers a lot faster than a white guy who only speaks English. It makes life far easier.”’


I make these points to underline why this article is significant, in this form, in this location and at this time. Readers will surmise that there is no reason why ethnic minorities should be reluctant to join the armed services. As Rahaman says of racism: ‘It’s a thing of the past’.

A text-book example of how a well-placed, carefully-scripted narrative can supply enormously positive advertising for an extremely powerful institution.

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.