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Last Updated: Monday, 11 September 2006, 10:01 GMT 11:01 UK
Colour barred?
Mark Smalley
Unknown Warriors, Radio 4

Richard Stokes on parade
Richard Stokes was the first black soldier at Changing the Guard

Forty years after the end of a "colour bar" in the Army, has anything changed for ethnic minority recruits?

"The first day I got to the camp in Northern Ireland I went into the Mess Hall. Of the three or four hundred guardsmen in there most of them just got up and walked out.

"The others threw bananas at me, stubbed their cigarettes out in my food, called me names - nigger, coon. Before I left the army I was receiving hate mail from guardsmen in two other battalions on a regular basis."

That is the testimony of Richard Stokes, the first black British guardsman to take part in Changing the Guard outside Buckingham Palace.

In 1988, he served in the guards for three years before leaving, at the sharp end of racist behaviour.

'Haven't moved on'

He returned to Buckingham Palace in July to watch the ceremony, 16 years after leaving. There was only one black guardsman on parade.

Richard was disappointed: "I don't feel bitter and twisted about my own experience, but about how society is today. I'm not being defeatist, but we haven't moved on as we should have done.

"I would like to see not just more black Guardsmen on parade here, but some Asian and Chinese guys, and ultimately some black and ethnic minority officers.

The reliability of coloured soldiers is not certain and therefore too great a dilution of British units would be dangerous
Army Council, 1961

"That's what counts, that's when I know things will have really changed in the army, when we see ethnic minorities represented among the higher echelons."

Until the late 1960s certain elite regiments - such as the Brigade of Guards and the Household Cavalry - would not accept any black or Asian recruits under a "colour bar".

But it wasn't until the 1980s that attitudes changed.

Probably against official government policy, it had a 2% quota system known as the 'D-Factor' List, restricting the number of black and Asian soldiers in regiments that did accept them.

A 1961 Army Council document 'Recruitment of Coloured Personnel' said: "The strength of the British Army has always depended on the reliability of the individual soldier. The reliability of coloured soldiers is not certain and therefore too great a dilution of British units would be dangerous."

As Defence Secretary in Harold Wilson's Labour government during the late 1960s, Denis Healey tried to increase the numbers of ethnic minority soldiers.

'Pure prejudice'

He met some stern resistance. His autobiography recalls a Brigade of Guards Colonel who "found the idea that black men should serve in a Guards fighting unit was so preposterous that his mind simply refused to encompass the idea. I had to give up in despair."

MoD documents in the National Archives, Kew, show that in 1969, Denis Healey's Under Secretary of State for the Army predicted a national outcry unless elite regiments addressed their "pure prejudice".

"I was very well received until I raised the matter of the absence of coloured Coldstream Guards. In the Sergeants' Mess I got a most violent reaction. Several of the senior NCO's said that if they had any coloured men in their Regiment they would walk out!

"Later on that day I raised the same subject in the Officers' Mess over lunch, and the Officers' reaction was just as violent, including the then General in Command."

Coldstream Guards at Buckingham Palace, London
On the surface, little has changed

In the mid 1980s, Prince Charles made it clear he wanted to see black and Asian soldiers among those on duty and change began. Soon afterwards, Richard Stokes was recruited, the only black man among 7,000 white soldiers.

Those who served in the 1970s and '80s complain of racial abuse, discrimination and a glass ceiling. Many had a positive experience, but left when they realised they would not rise up the ranks.

In the 1980s the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) backed cases brought by Black and Asian soldiers alleging racial abuse and discrimination.

In 1996 a CRE investigation found the Household Cavalry was discriminating on ethnic grounds, racism was rife in the Army, and black soldiers were too afraid to speak out.

In 1998, the Army and MoD made an agreement with the CRE to overhaul their policies and increase the number of black and ethnic minority soldiers.

Since then, numbers have increased eightfold from 1,015 soldiers to more than 7,500, nearly 9% of the total UK regular force. In 1998, by contrast, there were 1,015 ethnic minority soldiers in the army, only 1.1% of the total force.

But British-born ethnic minority soldiers are outnumbered 2:1 by those born abroad or in Commonwealth countries.

'Positive change'

Among the 390 ethnic minority officers in the army today is Major Glen Lindsay of the Royal Artillery.

The officer commanding the army's Diversity Action Recruiting Team, he said: "If it wasn't for the fact that the army had changed I wouldn't do this job, because it brings me far too close to the communities. I would never tell them lies.

"If I didn't believe things weren't constantly changing for the better, I would feel guilty inspiring people to join up knowing that they were not going to enjoy it. There is positive change in the military."

Now the Army has policies on openness to recruits regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexuality.

It topped the public sector performers list for the sixth consecutive year in the Race for Opportunity's report on race in the workplace. The Royal Air Force and Navy also finished in the top ten.

Any regrets?

Returning after 20 years to watch the Changing the Guard, Richard said: "I think I would go through the same again.

"I was unfortunate to experience what I did, but there's so much you can get out of the army, there's such a career you can make, travel the world, you can pick up skills, you can learn what it's like to live in a team, and that's what I miss.

"If I miss anything about the army it's the comradeship, being part of a team. Knowing what I know now about the ways in which the army has changed, definitely I'd do it again."

Unknown Warriors is on Radio 4 at 2000BST on Monday 11 September or afterwards at Radio 4's Listen again page.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

It's a shame such things happened and are still happening in the world's greatest Army. But thankfully such attitudes are being removed. Whether you are black or white, should never an issue when serving your country or in any other part of life.
Allan, Merseyside

In 1951, I was a gunner in the 33rd Parachute Field Regt, R.A. and served in Egypt. During my enlistment we had one Black member and he was well accepted and treated like any other member.
Pete Goswell, Westminster, Colorado, U.S.

The armed forces should mirror the society they defend. We need more non-white, non-christian servicemen and servicewomen to bring our armed forces up-to-date and make them truly representative.
D Robinson, Leeds

The regiment with the most VCs are the Ghurkas. Next are the Sikh regiments who fought in WW2. Private Beharry, who won the VC in Iraq, saving his section's life is black. Regular soldiers judge their comrades by their actions, not their skin colour. Using the views of a couple of guards officers to suggest otherwise is highly misleading. Regular troops call guardsmen "woodentops" for a reason!
Peter, Nottingham

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