Sascha Lavin reveals new data about the lack of black representation in top army positions, and considers what this shows about modern Britain

Only 0.4% of senior officers in the British Army are black, an investigation by the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal.

A Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Defence found that, in April 2021, Lieutenant Colonel ranks and above were overwhelmingly held by white people (97%). Just four of every 1,000 positions in these upper ranks were held by black army personnel. 

Black soldiers are over-represented in the army, but few are promoted to senior positions. Although black people make up 3.4% of the UK population, 6.7% of army personnel identify as black.

Yet a new investigation found that only 0.4% of black soldiers held top army jobs. Publicly available Ministry of Defence data from 2018 showed that across the armed forces, only 2.5% of officers were black and ethnic minority – an increase of just 0.1% in six years.

In a 2019 interview with the BBC, the first Service Complaints Ombudsman Nicola Williams accused the armed forces of being “institutionally racist” and noted that “incidents of racism are occurring with increasing and depressing frequency”.

Data from the Service Complaints Ombudsman shows that disproportionate numbers of non-white personnel have made complaints of abuse over the past five years. Last year, 15% of complaints were made by people of colour, even though they make up only 8% of the armed forces (including the Navy and the Air Force).

David Nkomo, a former soldier, suffered repeated racial discrimination throughout his four years of service. Speaking to the BBC for the documentary ‘Racism in the Ranks‘, Nkomo described how he was regularly referred to as “Black Dave” and was called a racist and derogatory slur by a senior colleague. 

Two former paratroopers also won a racial discrimination claim against the Ministry of Defence, after a judgment ruled that the army had created a “degrading, humiliating and offensive environment”. The tribunal heard that a colleague had drawn a swastika and a Hitler moustache on photographs of Nkululeko Zulu and Hani Gue. 

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, the most senior military officer wrote to members of the Army, Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, urging them to “refuse to allow intolerance”.

Head of the British Army General Sir Nick Carter said: “We owe it to our black, Asian and minority ethnic servicemen and women, who will be feeling concerned at the moment, to try and look at this from their perspective, to listen and to continue to make change happen”.

However, there are questions about whether the army is doing enough to both stamp out discrimination – and to encourage the promotion of non-white individuals to its higher ranks.

Given the association of the armed forces with the imperialism of the 19th and 20th centuries, it could be said that not enough has been done to signal to people of colour that they are a valued part of Britain’s modern military.

These racial inequalities are similarly witnessed throughout British society, politics and economics. In 2018, it was reported that more people called David and Steve lead FTSE 100 companies than women and ethnic minorities. At the time of the report, nine people called David and four people called Steve led FTSE 100 firms, compared to just five people from non-white backgrounds.

In October 2021, only 52 or 6.6% of members of the House of Lords were from ethnic minority groups, and only 12 of the 220 women elected at the 2019 General Election were black.

Figures also indicate that black Caribbean pupils have in recent years been nearly twice as likely to be excluded from schools than white pupils, as well as being three times more likely to be permanently excluded. Black people also serve prison sentences which are 50% longer than those of white people.

The British Army is perhaps one of the most egregious examples of how black people – and others from non-white backgrounds – are stifled, and discriminated against, within our country’s major institutions.


A Colourblind Ministry of Defence?

Despite committing to racial diversity, the Ministry of Defence seemed unable to provide the Byline Intelligence Team with a clear answer about how many top jobs are held by black personnel. 

In response to a Freedom of Information request regarding the number of black personnel in the army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel or above in April 2020, the the department counted eight high-ranking soldiers, accounting for 0.32% of all senior soldiers.

Yet, according to publicly available Ministry of Defence data, there were 10 soldiers holding the rank of Lieutenant Colonel or above who identified as black that year, making up 0.41% of the upper ranks.     

The department was also inconsistent when calculating the number of black personnel with the rank of Major. In response to another Freedom of Information request, the Byline Intelligence Team was initially told that 40 serving soldiers matched the criteria. However, the Ministry of Defence later revised its answer, claiming that there were only 29 black Majors. 

No reason was given for the corrections or disparities. 

The Freedom of Information response explained that the figure given of 29 had “not been rounded as requested”. This suggests that, when calculating the numbers of black high-ranking staff, the department ‘rounds up’ its figures, potentially creating an inflated impression of its diversity. 

The correspondence raises questions around how accurately the Ministry of Defence collects data on race. Without clear information, it is difficult to build up a picture about the lived experiences of people of colour in the armed forces and to create policies that address racial discrimination.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “The armed forces continues to work hard to broaden the diversity of our workforce through actively engaging with our employees to drive an inclusive culture at work, attract the best talent and better reflect the society we serve. 

“It can take a number of years for recruits to reach senior leadership positions, which is why we are working hard to increase the number of people from underrepresented groups including, those from ethnic minority backgrounds, women, and LGBT+ individuals.”

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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