A post-imperial army

Commonwealth soldiers willing to die for Britain aren't rewarded with citizenship.

In the capital this year Armistice Day will be marked by the scarlet illumination of the London Eye, with laser beams marking 11am like the hands of a clock. Yet despite attempts to keep the anniversary modern and meaningful to younger generations, the actual conditions of militarywork remain obscured by this type of patriotic symbolism.

It is a little known fact that the British Army currently employs more than 8,000 personnel from Commonwealth countries, not including former Gurkhas from Nepal. In 1998 the New Labour government removed the residency requirement for Commonwealth citizens and individual regiments
began to recruit from countries as far away as Fiji and Jamaica. Numbers increased over the decade, and in 2009 a cap of 15 per cent was placed
on those trades where levels threatened to rise above a level deemed appropriate for a “British” army.
 
Today there are approximately 2200 from Fiji, 890 from South Africa, 800 from Ghana and hundreds from Jamaica and the eastern Caribbean.
Ostensibly recruited to meet shortfalls in voluntary recruitment through the 1990s, this ready source of “manpower” has meant that the armed forces
have been able to sustain adequate levels of recruitment throughout wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The numbers of non UK nationals has also had a
significant impact on levels of ethnic minorities in the army, currently hovering around 9.9 per cent. Ten years ago this figure was likely to be
near 2 per cent, although statistics were not comprehensively collected at that time.
 
In November 2009 I interviewed four young recruits from the Caribbean who had flown over that week to complete the final selection process.
They had passed the basic tests in their home countries of Belize and St Lucia the previous year when the army’s “overseas pre-selection team”
was in residence. They had then waited many months before receiving the invitation to fly to London. We had watched the remembrance service in
Westminster Abbey on a large TV screen and discussed the impact of Britain’s imperial history on their countries and their families.
 
We observed the most celebrated Commonwealth soldier to date, then Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry, VC, handing the wreath of poppies to the
Queen to place on the tomb of the unknown soldier. Originally a citizen of Grenada, Beharry would have passed through the same selection centre
in 2001 shortly before being sent to the infantry training centre in Yorkshire where these young recruits were bound as well. While on deployment in Al-Amarah, Iraq, in 2004 he distinguished himself by driving members of his unit to safety on two occasions when they came under heavy fire. He was awarded the Victoria Cross the following year, becoming the first living person to receive it since 1965 and certainly one of the youngest. He was 24 at the time.
 
Soldiers such as Beharry and the recruits I interviewed, who might otherwise be cast as ineligible skilled and unskilled migrants from outside the EU, are not automatically rewarded with citizenship as a condition of employment in the armed forces. Nor is their path to citizenship, should they wish to apply, significantly expedited by their readiness to kill and to die for Britain.
 
This past year has been an escalation in the number of cases where Commonwealth soldiers have been refused UK citizenship. The UK Borders
Authority maintain that criminal convictions and sentences imposed under military law affect immigration and nationality decisions, regardless of
the severity (or not) of the alleged offences. The Home Office is currently reviewing the criteria as a result of publicity gathered by the organisation Veterans’ Aid which deals with veterans in crisis.
 
As the Royal British Legion asks people to "stand shoulder to shoulder with those who serve”, it is worth recalling that the soldiers who are not UK citizens would, out of uniform, be regarded as unwelcome immigrants. However, this is not to argue the case that military work should be considered exceptional and that soldiers’ claims for settlement should be expedited.
 
The employment of migrant-soldiers with strong postcolonial ties to Britain challenges the “common sense” racism that delineates the boundaries of our political community by colour and concepts of indigeneity. The ratcheting up of anti-migrant policies by successive governments in order to earn the approval of the electorate reveals the hypocrisy, double standards and racism that are inherent in framing the war these military migrants are sent off to fight.
 
Vron Ware is a research fellow in the centre for citizenship, identities and governance (CCIG) and the centre for research in socio- cultural change (CReSC) at the Open University. Her book “Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR country” has just been published by Palgrave.
Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry meets the Queen in November 2010 (Photo: Getty Images)
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses