Integration and anti-racism in the British Army

Despite attempts to improve inclusion in the UK military, obstacles remain.

Interview Published 18 May 2021 Updated 8 July 2021 4 minute READ

Dr Anthony King

Chair of War Studies, University of Warwick

In new research published in International Affairs, military sociologist Anthony King considers efforts made to improve diversity and inclusion in the British Army, an institution which to this day struggles to recruit personnel from ethnic minority backgrounds. In this interview King speaks to Ben Horton about his findings and whether a truly anti-racist military can be realized.  

Could you give us some background on the steps that the UK armed forces have already taken on questions of diversity and integration? 

For most of its history the modern British Army has been an overwhelmingly ‘Anglo-Saxon’ force, with limited representation of ethnic minorities beyond the much-lauded Gurkha brigade. This all began to change with the UK government’s publication of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, which included calls for greater integration and representation throughout the armed forces.

Since the Review we have seen sustained efforts to improve integration and, notwithstanding some egregious cases of racist discrimination, the Army has had some success. There is some evidence that they have substantially altered expectations and cultures within the ranks, in line with British civilian culture. Today, I think it does reflect quite accurately the multicultural ethos of contemporary British society, with all its admitted limitations.

Issues remain of course, but in the past five years the Army has attempted to address these, notably through the Wigston Review into inappropriate behaviour. This trend has accelerated since the murder of George Floyd last year. 

A large proportion of ethnic minority servicepeople are recruited from outside of the UK. How do you account for this? Is it a sign that the army still has an image problem among British-born minority communities?

I was initially very surprised by these figures, even though I have worked closely with the British Army for well over a decade. About 50 per cent of current ethnic minority personnel originate abroad, and in the past this was closer to 70 per cent. It is quite a striking figure.

At one level, you could say that the Army has been extremely successful and innovative in terms of drawing on historical connections of the Commonwealth and attracting exceptional talent from outside the UK. But I argue that when the bulk of ethnic minority recruits – who make up around 10 per cent of all personnel in the Army –are from foreign countries this does raise serious questions.

Admittedly, over the same period the Army has improved its recruitment of British minority citizens, but these communities are still quite underrepresented. Studies from the early 2000s suggested that ethnic minority individuals were reluctant to join up for fear of suffering discrimination by their fellow soldiers.

You outline a series of obstacles in your article that may prevent progress on diversity and integration. Could you explain these?

I should just say that these suggestions remain at that level of hypotheses. I think they are worth talking about and investigating systematically, but I do not want to claim definitively that they are true. The first challenge relates to our previous discussion about foreign recruits. As mentioned many of these soldiers have served with distinction, but the very fact that they are not British citizens domiciled in this country, I would suggest, generates increased possibilities for frictions and obstacles to integration, merely due to the fact that they’re not from the same vernacular culture as young British-born soldiers. These divisions may manifest as segregated subcultures within the ranks, creating an atmosphere more likely to be conducive to discrimination, harassment, and bullying.

The second, related, obstacle is the Army’s peculiar demographic profile. The youthfulness of personnel in the Army is extremely striking and gives the organization a very distinctive character. Extremely young men and women are recruited and then put in barracks which can often seem quite scary and intimidating environments. In this context it is very likely they are going to coalesce into densely united and cohesive small groups, most likely along ethnic lines, not because soldiers are necessarily intrinsically racist, but because social relations are most easily formed with other British nationals.

Third, the stereotypical ideal of the British soldier is rooted in an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ conception of history. Despite the critical contribution of Commonwealth troops in the two world wars, the image of a young, white, male soldier is the pervasive assumption in mainstream culture and within the Army itself.

In previous work I have documented the difficulties facing female recruits as they attempt to break down these assumptions. I would argue that ethnic minority personnel face the same challenge.

We have spoken a lot so far about recruitment, but in your article you use the term decolonization. Should we also be sort of considering decolonizing other aspects of the Army’s activity? Is this this purely a matter of reducing discrimination among personnel? Or do you think that there is space for a more ambitious, holistic approach to decolonization?

The push for heightened professionalism can allow military leaders to accentuate a military culture which defines people by the role they perform, not their racial background.

In the UK, debates surrounding race and the Black Lives Matter movement are fundamentally related to our colonial past. By contrast, I use the concept not to refer to academic attempts to revise our understanding of history, but to develop a programme of modern policy reforms which aim not just at multiculturalism but at a genuinely anti-racist society.

Others may want to expand this project into an honest assessment of the British Army’s involvement in empire, but in my article, I am concerned with ways to reduce discrimination and improve integration with the military. Although I accept that the term really has potential for provocation, I did not select it for incendiary purposes. It was meant more as a way of thinking about improving the Army’s multicultural agenda which has characterized the last 20 years.

When thinking about how identity functions in institutions like army regiments, it is hard to avoid the history of previous campaigns. In the British Army’s case so much of that history relates to colonial-era action, and I’m just wondering whether, from that point of view, regiments can continue to meaningfully engage with their history and base their identity on it, while at the same time saying that they want to decolonise and produce a more anti-racist environment?

Firstly, I would remind you that regimental histories are often rather invented traditions. While there is an emotional connection to these imagined pasts, they do not refer to a pristine, unchanging history. The idea that military personnel are culturally incarcerated by the memory of imperial actions 200 years ago – and predestined to perpetuate colonial harms today – is something that I totally reject. As the Scottish, Irish and Gurkha regiments have proven, it is entirely possible to incorporate individuals into the Army whose ancestors were subjected to the depredations of colonial violence.

Of course, military personnel should be aware of outrages such as the Amritsar Massacre or Bloody Sunday, but this history does not, in itself, prevent ethnic minority British citizens from joining up. I think their reluctance is far more driven by racist acts in the here and now – rather than the sometimes very distant past. A deeper understanding of British military history is always useful, and always interesting, but I don’t think organizations are defined by history, still less entrapped. For me this is a simplistic understanding of the character of historical memory.

Whose responsibility is it to take this forward? Does the British Army have a responsibility to change its structures to be more inclusive of difference? Or do they just need to find ways to encourage minorities to integrate into the existing institution more gladly?

For this to be successful it must be acted upon by the very highest levels, including the Office of Chief General Staff. If you think back to 1997, the British Army was a completely different place culturally. So, the pace of cultural change has been quite rapid. For these shifts to properly embed themselves we will need to give them more time.

The 2021 Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper laid out pretty clearly that the Army is to reduce in size significantly, to just 72,000 personnel. If the Army is to do this successfully while maintaining its capabilities it will need to be far more organized and professional. Integration in this context is a vital concern, but perhaps the push for heightened professionalism can allow military leaders to accentuate a military culture which defines people by the role they perform, not their racial background.

Now, I am not so naive to think that unbalanced ethnic and gender relations will no longer distort the pure professionalism the leadership seeks. But by focusing on professionalism I think the space is there for an acceleration of the integration and multiculturalism that has emerged in the 21st century British Army. 

Anthony Kings article, Decolonizing the British Army: a preliminary response is published in the March 2021 issue of International Affairs.