Every public organisation tells us that it must “look more like the country it serves”. This week these words were used to justify Theresa May’s reshuffle. They are also the thought behind the Army’s latest “refreshing” of its recruitment campaign – a series of computer-generated films, aimed at (separately) gay people, women, Muslims and people who want to be free to cry if they join up.
What does the phrase mean? The country, for example, is older than it has ever been. Should our armed services respond to this by employing more grey heads? Our country voted for Brexit: should this majority opinion be reflected in public-service recruitment? At present, exactly the opposite principle seems to prevail. The official idea of what the country “looks like” is somewhat selective.
Interviewed about the controversial ads, the head of the Army, General Sir Nick Carter, explains that it is really a matter of numbers. The traditional army recruiting pool of white males aged 16-25 has fallen by 25 per cent in 10 to 15 years, he says, so recruiters must look elsewhere. His figure is exaggerated, but even if it were correct, government policy has reduced Army numbers by a greater proportion in the period (110,000 in 2001; 78,000 today). In purely numerical terms, there are more young white males per place available in the Army now than there were then.
If I were a young white man, I might feel neglected. If I were one of the “diverse” people targeted, I might feel patronised. Muslim teaching is more hostile to homosexuals than is the average British citizen, and gays are correspondingly more anxious about Muslims. Women’s roles are much more constrained in mainstream Islam than in Christian or agnostic society, so if I were a woman thinking of joining the Army, I might worry about a strong Muslim presence. Each “diverse” group has no necessary affinity with another. Each “diverse” person may find it irritating to be so categorised.
Besides, if General Carter is expressing interest in Muslims, blacks, women etc because he can’t get enough young white males any more, he seems to be saying: “We can’t get the best, so we must settle for the rest.” That is not enticing.
On the home page of the Army recruitment website is a strange video called Unique and United. About 50 men and women are gathered in a hangar in casual clothes. They separate into groups and hold up whiteboards saying “LGBT+”, “BAME”, “Religion” and so on. They are then invited to step forward if they like karaoke, are a parent, love to dance, speak more than one language, or have “found the meaning of life”.
By these means, each discovers that he/she has something in common with another. Eventually, all step forward. Then they go marching out of the shed together. “When we start to celebrate our diversity we realise that any divisions are outweighed by our connections,” the film tells us.
A society with a wider mixture of race, faith and declared sexuality than in the past should be sensitive. When my grandfather joined the Navy before the First World War, the candidates queued up to be separated by religion. The man in front declared that he was a Plymouth Brother. “Ain’t no such religion in the Royal Navy,” bawled the chief petty officer. “Go over there with the Roman Catholics!”
That wouldn’t do today. Yet in an odd way, the modern obsession with “diversity” is a politically correct version of what happened then. It keeps talking about difference, often mis-categorising it.
In these current Army recruitment campaigns, two things are almost completely missing. One is what the Army is for. The other is why a suitable person would want to join it. At best, the ads help to reduce negatives. At worst, they accidentally reinforce them by harping on them, or raise false expectations (I bet, for example, that it is not always all right to cry in the Army).
The purpose of the Army is to defend Queen and country, and, where necessary, fight and kill their enemies. In the “What We Stand For” section of the Army’s official website, “courage”, “loyalty” and “professional behaviour” are rightly mentioned, but fighting, killing, the Queen and Britain are not. Even the words “defend” or “defence” do not appear. Except for a phrase about being a “disciplined force”, the mission statement could apply just as well to schoolteachers.
When I ask soldiers why they joined, they say things like: “I wanted to test myself”; “I wanted to fight for my country”; “I wanted the adventure and comradeship” – or (more often) jokey, self-deprecating versions of such thoughts. Their motivation was not about who they were, but about who they hoped they could become. About 15 years ago, the Royal Marines ran a famous video depicting an incredibly demanding assault course and adding “99.9 per cent need not apply”. The Marines are, admittedly, an extreme case (trading very successfully on another now-forbidden, but vital idea for armed services – being an elite). But recruiting drives that do not tap into such feelings will fail.
They will fail not only because they do not attract the right people, but because they say something damaging about the institution advertising itself. The most infectious thing is justified confidence. Manchester City and Manchester United currently hold the top two positions in the Premier League. Both have complete ethnic diversity among players. Neither has to shout how much they value it: their teams’ victories do the talking.
This week, by chance, a friend of mine took a distinguished general from the Far East to visit the National Army Museum in Chelsea. They found it perplexing. Instead of the key chronology that once took you, via Cromwell, Marlborough and Wellington, to the outbreak of the First World War, they were confronted with various “themes”. Instead of a clear narrative of the British Army being, on the whole, a force for good, they found a prevailing fog of uneasy moral ambiguity.
On its website, the museum uses the word “proud” only in relation to the 21st-century Army’s “proud legacy of diversity” – no pride in winning quite a lot of wars. “The National Army Museum is for everyone, no matter what they think about the British Army”, it announces. My friend and the oriental general admire the British Army, and they left in gloom: the museum was not for them. It is cheering news, reported in this paper, that its current civilian director is soon to depart and will be replaced by a former brigadier.
There are lots of reasons why people might not want to join the Army just now – full employment; government cuts; the fact that we are not fighting anyone; lack of fitness; online recruitment managed by Capita, which means that you cannot meet a real-live role-model soldier to introduce you to the service. All these probably matter more than diversity statistics. But the fundamental point is that an institution that constantly beats itself up about its own ethos is not one you want to join.
This is not only a military problem. It spreads right across society. The anxiety about inclusion stems from a proper concern that all our citizens should have a fair chance. But as a militant, politicised doctrine, it has become a way of undermining the pride of our institutions. This makes our country look much worse than it actually is.