Podium: The fight for equality within the armed forces

Krishnan Guru-Murthy

From a speech given by the journalist and broadcaster to the Ministry of Defence conference `Strength Through Diversity'

THE ARMED forces have declared war on discrimination. I hope we can all start agreeing that equality of opportunity is a fundamental aspiration of this country and a goal worth fighting for. But declaring war is not enough; the armed forces must go out there and take the fight to the people.

If Britain's ethnic minorities want equality, we have incumbent on us a moral duty to embrace all sections of life and work. We cannot enjoy the democratic freedoms and economic opportunities without contributing to everything that guarantees them.

The armed forces recognise that, if ethnic minorities are to join them, they must have the right to equality. And they recognise that they must convince the ethnic minorities that they are taking steps to guarantee it. Most important, they have recognised the need for leadership. It has been the key development of the last two years. The Chief of Defence Staff, all the service chiefs and senior officers have recognised that it is up to the leaders to make this happen. We are here to talk about equal opportunities and we must also talk about another key area that the armed forces are about to have thrust upon them - the question of gays in the military.

For decades now, the armed forces have used the justification of defending operational effectiveness and morale to keep homosexuals out. It was, incidentally, the same excuse the Americans used to give for keeping black and white soldiers segregated in the Second World War. Of course, the policy has not worked. There are homosexuals who currently serve in the armed forces, and there always have been. Statistically there must be hundreds, if not thousands.

But until now, when discovered gay soldiers have been expelled. The European Court of Human Rights has put a stop to that. It was, said the ruling, wrong to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. The Ministry of Defence has said it accepts the judgment of the court, and before long we can expect the Government to lift the ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces. It will, most likely, coincide with a strict code of sexual conduct affecting everyone in the military, heterosexual or homosexual. And Britain will go from having one of the most Draconian policies on gays in the military in Nato, to one of the most liberal. Much more liberal, for example, than that of the United States.

But a change in policy, which is now inescapable, will not be the end of the matter but the start. It will spawn a whole new round of equal opportunities debate for the armed forces. There will be many questions raised, because the armed forces have to decide whether they will welcome the change and pursue it with enthusiasm or whether they would rather be dragged into it kicking and screaming.

When the Army has to welcome homosexual soldiers on the same basis as heterosexuals, what happens if they are bullied or discriminated against? What happens if they are the victims of harassment in the unit, in the same way black and Asian soldiers have been? Will the leadership condemn it and root it out?

The forces will have to decide whether to set up the same kinds of support systems and complaints procedures as were devised for ethnic minorities. Will they target homosexual recruits in the same way they do with ethnic minorities? And if not, why not? If the Army really wants the best of Britain, can it go on ignoring a whole sector of the country, just hoping they won't want to use their new rights?

The future of this debate - its success or failure - really lies with the young black and Asian people here. The challenge now lies with you. It is for the armed forces to open the door. But if you find it open only so far, it is up to you and all of us to kick it wide open. If you decide to join, do so with your eyes open.

The armed forces have changed and they must change further, but they will do so only with your help. I can think of no better reasoning than that given by the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King. In a speech at St Louis in 1964 he said:

"We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools."