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The British Army’s recruitment campaign: Of the People, by the people and for the people

Professor Keith McLay, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Education at the University of Derby, discusses the criticism surrounding the British Army’s new recruitment campaign, which promotes the emotional support given to troops.

By Professor Keith McLay - 10 January 2018

A media brouhaha has arisen today (January 10, 2018) on the release of the British Army’s latest recruitment campaign. Oriented around issues of sexuality, gender and religion, the campaign and its advertisements seek to press home the Army’s welcome of diversity and its exercise of emotional intelligence. A cadre of retired senior officers (mainly) have fulminated against the campaign’s ‘political correctness’ and its perceived appeal to the ‘snowflake’ generation. Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of the UK forces in Afghanistan, has warned that the Army was risking recruitment from its ‘main’ base (undefined), thereby diminishing its effectiveness; for Colonel Kemp, the Army as a reflection of society must always be a secondary consideration.

How does the history of the British Army play a part?

Those officers speaking against the new recruitment campaign are doubtless skilled commanders with much front line experience, but they are not terribly well-informed historians. The notion that the British Army should reflect society possesses a strong historical lineage. During the Revolution of 1688 when the reigning monarch James VII & II fled the country on the landing of William of Orange’s invasion force, the hastily convened Parliament offered William and his wife Mary the throne on the condition that they accepted the Bill of Rights. Prominent among its articles was the prohibition against maintaining a ‘Standing Army’ without the consent of Parliament while furthermore the levying of taxes (and thus paying for an army) was enshrined as the preserve of Parliament.

This double lock against a ‘Standing Army’ at the sole behest of the monarch (an instrument which James VI & II had aspired to exercise and which was a contributory cause of the 1688 Revolution) enshrined the constitutional principle of civilian control of the military through Parliament and, in addition, vouchsafed the representative standard that Parliamentary control meant that the Army should reflect society. Of course, in the late 17th century Parliament did not mirror society in full but, by the standards of the time, it was representative and across the ages the franchise periodically extended and Westminster broadened its electoral, social and societal base.

The constitutional convention of civil control of the Army through Parliament is thus self-evident and has, since 1689, variously been the safeguard against a ‘Standing Army’ solely controlled and commanded by a monarch or the executive government of the day. It has also provided a bulwark against the potential militarisation of British society even when periodically conscription has had to be imposed.

British Army is at its strongest when it reflects current society

The British Army’s military effectiveness was thus founded in evolving training and doctrine, not in recruitment. Respecting these traditions, the perspective and lesson from history is that the British Army is at its strongest and most effective when it adapts and reflects current society, its composition, values and more.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln’s peroration in the Gettysburg Address on the democratic foundations of government: the British Army in the modern era does and must remain ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’. The new recruitment campaign speaks to that principle which is a primary and not a secondary consideration.

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About the author

Keith McLay

Professor Keith McLay
Provost - Learning and Teaching

Professor Keith McLay is the Provost for Learning and Teaching.

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