In many ways, the news that Britain’s armed forces are to significantly step up their recruitment drive among Commonwealth nations feels like the quintessential Brexit story.
It knits together the narratives of a country wrestling with its imperial past, while stumbling and blinking its way towards an uncertain future, one where new threats must be mitigated by old alliances. At its heart, lie perpetually confounding questions of Britishness and belonging.
The Ministry of Defence announcement, signalling an end to the five-year residency requirement for Commonwealth citizens looking to join the armed services, almost read like a celebration. It hailed the military’s “long-held links” with the Commonwealth and noted how its people have “bravely served in a variety of roles”.
This proud legacy, said Mark Lancaster, the armed forces minister, would be seized upon, bringing “key skills” and “dedicated service”. He added: “Their different perspectives will also help us to enhance our cultural understanding, giving us an operational advantage over our adversaries.”
It is hard to decide which subtext is the most absurd, but let us begin with the notion that Britain’s armed services are bastions of diversity and inclusion. This is a force where women account for just one in every ten regular forces personnel, and until last month, were ineligible to apply for swaths of roles. It is a force where black, asian and minority ethnic representation sits at 7.6 per cent.
No less laughable is the idea that new Commonwealth recruits will be a bonus to Britain’s military might. Be under no illusions, this measure is explicitly designed to plug a gap of 8,200 soldiers, sailors and air personnel – the largest such shortfall in eight years.
In the form of the Commonwealth, the UK Government – which has shown no shame over how it betrayed the contribution of the Windrush generation, veterans among them – has found a way to insult a new cohort under the guise of offering a gilded opportunity.
It is farcical that he service of these men and women is not deemed a sufficient sacrifice to earn them automatic UK citizenship, but then, there has always been an awkward, conflicting duality to the identity of the ranks of Britain’s Commonwealth personnel. On the one hand, they enjoy the heroic status afforded to all those prepared to kill – and die – for the realm; on the other, they remain ‘others’, a migrant force who serve with, but not in, our forces.
The earliest ranks of Fijians and Jamaicans, unable to apply for UK citizenship even after serving for more than five years, learned the hard way. The reason given was a risible as it was cruel – time served in German and Cypriot outposts nulled continuous residency. It took until 2006 before the Home Office changed the rules.
Until 2010, a child born to foreign nationals in the armed services during an overseas posting was not automatically eligible to become a UK citizen, an appalling oversight which meant the siblings in some families had different nationalities.
It is easy to characterise these incidents as anomalies, but the history of our Commonwealth service personnel is one of institutionalised disadvantage. You hear it still in the idle, ignorant chatter of ‘foreign legions’ and ‘mercenaries’, but it is built into the system too.
The cumulative impact of immigration issues, visas, travel and cultural differences leaves many Commonwealth recruits feeling subordinate, asked to shoulder every risk in return for few of the rewards.
Studies into this Commonwealth military contingent are thin on the ground, but their findings are striking. A 2016 London School of Economics report found they were often passed over for promotion or not drafted into roles they applied for due to racial prejudice and a lack of assimilation.
In March, meanwhile, Anglia Ruskin University researchers found that the most problematic issue facing the Commonwealth armed forces community was being able to remain in the UK because of costly visas and complex immigration rules. As one respondent put it, “all aspects of life unravel” when faced with the byzantine immigration system. The cost of settlement for an individual service member from the Commonwealth is £2,297. Should they wish to bring a partner and two children, the sum spirals to an eyewatering £9,188.
Indeed, figures from the Army Families Federation show visa costs increased by 580 per cent between 2010 and 2017, whilst the cost of family members remaining permanently in the UK rose by 173 per cent for adults and an astonishing 1,680 per cent for children over the same period.
As things stand, a Commonwealth Army private on basic pay does not meet the minimum immigration income threshold of £22,400 to bring a spouse and child to the UK.
Quite how the UK Government can allow this to continue, while hoping to recruit an additional 1,350 people from the Commonwealth each year, speaks either to its ignorance or its disdain.
Two of the central tenets of the armed forces covenant stipulate that no one should be disadvantaged by their service, and that in some cases, special treatment might be appropriate.
If we are so intent on fostering closer links between our military and the Commonwealth, how can we continue to turn a blind eye to the problems faced by those who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice?