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A close up of the Union Jack flag on the shoulder of a British Army soldier, fading out into an army green background to illustrate the blog post "The British Army: how is the Army meeting changing societal priorities?" by Ian F. W. Beckett on the OUP blog

The British Army: how is the Army meeting changing societal priorities?

It was commonplace among the pioneers of the study of civil-military relations in the 1950s to stress that armies reflected in very sharp focus the social structure, degree of technological progress, and creative vigour of the societies they sought to defend. In short, armies were a mirror of their parent society. But these early proponents of civil-military relations theory struggled to explain why Britain did not fit their proffered models. 

To a degree Britain fitted into the wider Western relationship of war to the development of the modern state but also stood outside European practices by virtue of an army primarily raised by voluntary enlistment other than in the twentieth century. An island, maritime, and imperial mind-set was fundamentally different from that of Continental powers with open land frontiers. Ambiguities in public responses to the army in Britain were shaped by continuities in environment and culture that marked its exceptionalism. Voluntary enlistment ensured that the army was unrepresentative of society and even wartime conscription and national service was selective rather than universal. In the past what might be termed the “amateur military tradition” represented by militia, yeomanry, volunteers, and territorials provided a better link between army and society. In the twenty-first century, however, the “footprint” of the amateur soldier in the wider community has contracted even further than that of the regular. The “Army Reserve Centres”—the modern version of the old drill halls – have been banished to the peripheries of communities.

Despite wider popular sympathy for the army than previously as a result of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is more disconnect between army and society than before. Public sympathy does not fill the ranks nor does it equate to understanding, not least when public perception of the circumstances in which the use of military force is justifiable changed dramatically as a result of the deceit visited upon the public by Blair’s government prior to the Iraq War. In any case, an ever-smaller army has faced increasing challenges from changing strategic priorities, changing military environments, continuing and unrelenting financial pressures, and often dysfunctional political and military decision-making.

A survey undertaken for the British Forces Broadcasting Service’s Remembrance Campaign in 2017 revealed that 85% of those asked were unaware of more than half the conflicts or military deployments in which the British armed forces had participated since 1945. Notwithstanding financial reductions, the army has confronted a change in the age profile of the UK population, those aged 18-22 declining by a quarter between 1987 and 2000. Familiarity with the army also decreased. In 1997, 20% of those aged 35-41 had a direct link to individuals with a military background broadly defined. That was true of only 7% of those aged 16-24.

Society is less deferential and more individualistic in ways testing traditional military culture. The army felt obliged to advertise its “right to be different” in a doctrinal publication, Soldiering: The Military Covenant, in 2000. It has had to come to terms with recruits from more unstructured backgrounds as well as coming to terms with issues of gender and sexuality. From 1991, pregnancy no longer resulted in dismissal whilst the prohibition on homosexual acts was lifted in 2016 and HIV-positive recruits permitted to enlist from 2022. An earlier zero tolerance on drug use was lifted in 2019. Bizarrely, recruitment was outsourced in 2012 and the army’s cause has not been helped by cases of “beasting” of recruits; excessive shouting and swearing of recruits was prohibited in 2016. Cases of racial discrimination have also arisen, non-white soldiers including overseas recruits representing 13% of army strength in 2020.   

“Society is less deferential and more individualistic in ways testing traditional military culture.”

Military wives are increasingly better educated and more likely to pursue their own careers than in the past and the army has struggled to improve family life. In 2021, the National Audit Office reported critically on the state of army housing, its privatised maintenance remaining a disgrace. Treatment of veterans remains an underlying and unresolved problem that has not been adequately addressed. The 2011 Armed Forces Covenant has certainly assisted in drawing in central and local government, business, communities, and charities to support serving personnel, service leavers, veterans, and families. It contrasts with the extended indemnities handed out to terrorists in Northern Ireland by Blair’s government amid the continued vexatious persecution of veterans.       

Smaller than at any time since the eighteenth century, the army is simply unable to match politicians’ continuing aspirations for a “global Britain” in a world of increasing tensions. Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, admitted that the army was “hollowed out and under-funded” in January 2023. The promises by Liz Truss during the Conservative leadership contest to increase defence expenditure to 3% of GDP by 2030 have fallen away under the Sunak government to a mere 2.25% at some point in the future. Understandably, considerable assistance has been given to the Ukraine in terms of training, equipment, and munitions but, as Andrew Roberts pointed out recently, Britain’s own stock of munitions has been woefully depleted based on consumption rates in the present war. Too many ministers of defence have been less than distinguished and some truly pitiful. With two exceptions all had some military experience until 1992, the trend being reversed with Ben Wallace’s appointment in 2019. The last prime minister with any service experience was James Callaghan.

It must be said that Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated the army’s inability to embrace institutional learning to the extent required, and of its leadership to accept accountability for military failure. The tri-service Permanent Joint Headquarters established in 1966 failed to recognise the reality of the insurgency being faced both in Iraq and Afghanistan. History suggests the unexpected is always likely to occur and the army will always do its best but, as the Chilcot enquiry concluded in 2016, an ingrained “can do attitude” prevented “ground truth from reaching senior ears.” Britain has been fortunate in its army—indeed, more fortunate than it has often deserved—but institutional limitations remain.

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