26 February 2024

Virtue signalling is failing to solve our military’s problems


Defence has been long associated with bad PR. Whether it’s bombing a Nazi city, burning a disturbed Frenchwoman at the stake, or designing a plane whose radar instruments melt at your fingertips, the negative press sticks with you for years.

These days, the reputational issues are of a different order. Sometimes the complaints are a bit unfair. The Navy’s problems with its aircraft carriers are nothing new in the history of large and innovative ships, and pale into comparison with France’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier’s own attempt to shake its propellor shaft apart, let alone the curse that has been laid on Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov.

A far stickier reputational problem, however, lingers with the Minister of Defence’s handling of staffing. A steady stream of headlines suggests that political correctness has leached into the corner of Whitehall normally least tainted by such controversies.

The RAF was particularly prominent here, after thirty one applicants received compensation after leaked emails showed they had been barred on diversity quota grounds, with the added insult thrown in that they were ‘useless white male pilots’. Another review revealed that this wasn’t a one off and hundreds of others had been discriminated against. In 2020, the army’s own recruitment programme faced criticism as it went through a phase of alternative focus, with posters reading ‘Snow flakes, your army needs you and your compassion’ and ‘Me me me millennials, the army needs you and your self-belief’. Recruitment videos veered away from core military activity to make soldiers look more like emergency workers dealing with floods and earthquakes. Lately, the Telegraph has obtained leaked material suggesting an intent to relax security checks for overseas recruits specifically in order to ‘enhance diversity and inclusion’ – as opposed to simply getting the best recruits for the roles. 

Taken on its own terms, the above might suggest that the problem lies simply with HR people getting absurdly overzealous with their pursuit of statistical diversity. However, from Parliamentary questions we also now hear the three services have more than 40 staff working full-time on equality issues, with the intent to recruit more. The Army’s ‘Policy, Guidance and Instructions on Inclusive Behaviours’ have also come under the spotlight, revealing that commanders have been told to agnosticise Remembrance events. This revelation triggered an angry letter from very senior retired military personnel, and a blast in turn from the Secretary of State for Defence himself. One can only guess what the padres thought of it all.

Further reporting suggests a wider trend, since the Royal Navy is looking at introducing ‘compulsory climate change courses’ for staff. We have yet to see what that means in practice. It may mean reviewing the practical operational impacts and geo-strategic effects of changes that are happening today just as they have for millennia (as the shifting sands of the Sahara testify, and the Black Death bore fatal witness to). That would be practical planning rather than woke commissar work. But it may very well not. 

The unfortunate reality is that the MoD is showing signs of becoming just like many other departments in Whitehall, distracted not just by HR tick-boxery but also, in some instances, embracing virtue signalling and the Overton Window messaging pushed by lobbies inside and out. Let’s cite one less familiar example. The Rainbow flag can at certain times be found on Government flagpoles. But on a couple of occasions, a handful of departments (such as the MoJ and the MoD) have unilaterally chosen on a separate day to also fly the Transgender flag, notwithstanding already featuring in the LGBT flag’s acronym. What does this precedent mean for any activist who asserts their future right to fly a fresh flag? That’s before we go into far wider problems also now caused by anyone wanting to fly say an NHS flag, a Palestinian flag, or a religious one, because of any single staff member who demands equal recognition and status. 

Press coverage suggests the Secretary of State for Defence concurs that a serious problem exists, talking of a ‘poisonous politics and agenda’. Although Security Minister Tom Tugendhat agrees, more of his colleagues need to be similarly plain speaking to their departments about what is expected of them, and what boundaries shouldn’t be crossed. But as one looks for a solution, less appreciated is the detail that an alternative framework is already to hand. 

The Services and the Civil Service already each have their own defined Values and Standards: the principles of how personnel are expected to behave towards one another. They are unambiguous, understandable, and straightforward, requiring common sense application, with little scope for gold plating to excess. The Royal Marines, for example, have as their values ‘excellence, integrity, self-discipline and humility’, and as qualities ‘courage, determination, unselfishness and cheerfulness’. The others vary in emphasis and phraseology, but ultimately, they all amount to doing the right thing. Applying these values should be a sufficient baseline. 

Pursuing these objectives very much does mean respecting individuals regardless of their background, and acknowledging the contribution they bring to the team – on the obvious assumption as with everyone else that they do deliver.

All the various aspects of political correctness are essentially a distraction from addressing major concerns. Defence’s core personnel problems are much more fundamental. There are the recruitment and retention factors around the likes of housing, workload, recruit processing time lags, and the wider Military Covenant – these are considerable, and have also been covered in the media. But in social terms, there are also serious and tangible issues around ‘old school’ discrimination and harassment. 

HR and staff education absolutely has a role to play here, if properly tailored to the audience – whether to a young recruit who’s never had a role model in their life, or the manager who needs to be reminded of professional boundaries. Those concerns are widely known and have been discussed across open military fora and amongst MPs. I recommend in particular looking at the output of Parliament’s Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces, which explores a number of significant concerns, and in some depth. 

This is where HR needs to focus its efforts – even if the workload might seem less trendy than designing a lanyard or waving the latest virtue signalling flag, and less casually deliverable than binning a group of capable recruits who don’t match your quota. 

Though perhaps prioritising the shortage in vehicles, manpower, artillery, aviation, armour, ships and ammunition might not also go amiss.

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Dr Lee Rotherham is Executive Director of Veterans for Britain. He is also author of 'Land of the Superwoke' - readers of CapX can get a special discount rate by going to https://junepress.com/product/corbyns-britain-by-lee-rotherham/

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.