It’s an unexpected and almost jolting statement when the top man in the British Army refers to himself quite bluntly as an “Oxbridge failure”.
General Sir Nick Carter is Chief of General Staff (CGS), to give him his official title, but to you and me, he’s the most powerful soldier in Britain who reports to the secretary of state for defence, Michael Fallon and the prime minister, Theresa May.
He’s at the very top and yet he tells Eastern Eye that not getting into Oxford or Cambridge University meant his dad wasn’t very keen on him going to university at all, and he had to do something else.
So, at 17, he joined the British Army and the expectation was that after three years, he would be mature and well-rounded enough to go and work for a firm of accountants his father was keen on him joining.
“I had to write to them and tell them, ‘no, sorry, I am going to stay in the Army’,” he tells Eastern Eye quite candidly.
“I didn’t feel I was missing out on university. Within six months of joining I got sent to Northern Ireland (at the height of the Troubles) and I commanded a platoon on operations by the border.”
What’s important and striking is that Sir Nick wasn’t necessarily marked out or destined for the top – and that tells you something.
He admits he was ready to leave the Army at another time, as he was raising a young family and his wife was keen he pursue another career path.
“I had a date to leave the Army,” he says matter of factly. “I was going to go off and be a lawyer but much to the chagrin of my wife, I stayed.”
He says he was offered “a very interesting job”, and then the first Gulf War started and since then he’s never really looked back.
The point is that Sir Nick was not driven or selected in the way we might imagine and like a lot of other things we might sometimes assume about the British Army, we need to look closer and listen more carefully at what it’s saying.
He has a very important message.
“Your Army needs you” – or your children or your grandchildren. It doesn’t matter whether you are south Asian by origin; a practising Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian – or none of these – or just an atheist, the Army would welcome you.
The British Army is on a mission – at one level, it’s about a lithe, flexible, adaptable, dynamic force made up of men and women from different minority groups, ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century and beyond.
Under former prime minister David Cameron, there was a full strategic defence review. The experts behind it made a number of recommendations which fed into a strategy called ‘2020’.
It basically said the full-time regular Army could be smaller, about 82,000, but numbers would be boosted by more reservists, about 30,000.
The authors said the Army should look a little bit more like the country it is tasked to protect, as well. It wants to have at least 10 per cent of its strength drawn from British ethnic minority groups by 2020 – currently it’s about 5.8 per cent across both regulars and reserves.
The number of ethnic minorities has remained relatively stable at seven per cent since 2015. The number in the reserves – 5.3 per cent – has gone up slightly between October 2015 and October 2016 from the latest figures compiled, and it’s part of an increasing modest, upward trend.
No one is being complacent and no one is predicting the 10 per cent or more will be achieved by 2020, but there is cautious optimism. Sir Nick is very keen to stress that the Army, for its part too, is listening and learning.
There are some who believe that beyond 2020, there should be as much as 20 per cent of the British Army drawn from ethnic minorities. But this is not a formal target at present, and don’t be fooled into imagining the Army isn’t thinking about it (strategically) and doesn’t have an idea of how it might be able to get to that point.
What’s clear is this is, in many ways, a complex task. At one level, the Army is actually shrinking over time, but importantly at another, it is expanding – there are going to be far more reserves and part-timers than at present. All this is contained within the vision of 2020 and sets the broad parameters for the Army’s structure and organisation for the next few years.
“The demography of our country is changing and in order to have the right talent to deal with this environment, we have got to reach out the widest recruitment base,” explains Sir Nick.
“It is a fact that about 20 per cent of the children in primary school at the moment come from a BAME (Black, Asian, minority ethnic) background . It’s also a fact that the traditional cohort from which the British Army is recruited – 16-24 year old Caucasian males – is 25 per cent less than it was even 15 years ago.
“And so for all those reasons, if we are going to continue to have an Army that our nation is proud of and one that is representative of our nation, it is really important that we broaden our recruitment base.”
Okay, so the Army needs you or your children or your grandchildren, but does it really matter if it is five, 10, 15 per cent ethnic minority or less? After all, defence of the realm is defence of the realm, and we just need brave men and women who will rise to the challenge of duty.
Sir Nick makes two important counterpoints.
“It’s obvious that there is talent to be had from all the communities. Many of the most talented people I meet come from a range of backgrounds and as head of this institution, I want to avail myself of the best talent possible.
“Second, I think from the point of view of our country, the Army has a huge influence on social integration and development. I think we represent one of the institutions that is important for all members of our nation to buy into,” he explained.
It’s a multi-pronged approach and one that goes all the way from Sir Nick himself downwards.
He likes going out into communities and making the connections. It’s important that everyone sees him as at a general level, approachable and accessible and equally, that they understand the Army is not a monolithic entity just about fighting and furthering the country’s interest abroad.
“We offer a huge range of possibilities for different skill-sets and trades, and provide a wide range of career opportunities, which we offer for free on the basis that we need their talent. We want to develop people to be the best that they can be but that is a message people do not instinctively get,” Sir Nick says.
“The risk is they see the Army through the prism of images that people like Ross Kemp (TV documentary series Ross Kemp: Extreme World) send back from Afghanistan. They don’t necessarily see it through this prism of an employer who offers some 16,000 apprenticeships a year.”
In some ways, the Army has to get beyond the media and make a physical connection with communities, he believes.
“I did three to four engagements last year. I went up to Manchester and spoke at a dinner with the Pakistani community there. I reached out to some 300 people – there were businessmen, opinion formers, journalists and teachers. I wanted them to understand that we are an institution that values talent from everywhere and we provide opportunity for everyone.”
Some get that, some don’t, some will just nod politely and ignore what he’s saying. Others will want a photograph and little else, and a few might still go home believing the west has an issue with Islam.
Sir Nick is not naïve or blind to this. Of course, getting a message across takes time. Ignorance and prejudice of a sort about what the Army does has built up over time (and the negative impressions created by military campaigns in the Middle East and to a lesser extent, perhaps, in Afghanistan too).
Partly it is about getting through to the elders or gatekeepers of a community.
“On the whole, the message (from them to me) is that we like what we hear you say. Then you say to them, ‘Well, does that mean you will encourage your son or daughter to join the Army?’ There is a pause, it takes time. I suspect that their children will encourage their children to go into the Army.”
He says the push to introduce more youngsters from all backgrounds to the Army was working.
“The Army Cadet Force is over 40,000 strong and provides a great opportunity for people from all backgrounds to come and get a taste of uniform in a very relaxed environment, where you’re not enlisted as such.”
It has enjoyed some notable successes – not least at one of the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ schools (described as such after there were allegations that a group of Islamist governors was trying to take control and impose their beliefs in local primary schools in an area of Birmingham where many children are from a Muslim background) now has a 70-strong Combined Cadets Force.
“It’s proving to be a really attractive opportunity for those kids to learn a bit of leadership, get a bit of adventure training and generally get out of the town,” Sir Nick says.
With the Muslim community, he does appreciate and understand the challenges and is sensitive to their anxieties.
“I always enjoy telling this story about a recruiter who wanted to reach out to the Asian Muslim community in Blackburn. He eventually made progress because he posted a pamphlet called Values and Standards of the British Army to a madrassa [religious school] and put his card on top of it.
“A few hours later the director called and said, ‘we share exactly the same standards and values as you’. So if you can major on the common ground and the opportunity, that I think will trump the politics,” he explains.
Sir Nick is refreshingly frank on this subject.
“I acknowledge that the British Army has been deployed on campaigns where not everyone has understood the objectives. I would be naïve if I didn’t recognise there are some who won’t understand that.”
He believes that understanding and communication play a vital role in fostering good relations – it was something he learnt a lot about in Afghanistan. Sir Nick describes the British Army imam, Asim Hafiz, as a good friend and someone who helped him when he needed the support of the Ulema Council in the Afghan city of Kandahar. This body made up of elders is largely very conservative and is responsible for the way imams are taught.
“I absolutely understand to achieve an effect you need to be understood by as broad a community as possible and if the Ulema trusted me (as they did) there was a reasonable chance the population would,” he says.
He also recognises the type of young person approaching the Army today has grown up in a different world to one he inhabited.
“I think we have to accept that they (millennials) often obtain information in a different way, often from the palm of their hand [on mobile devices]. For all those reasons, we have had to have a really good look at the way we teach leadership and develop leaders.”
To that end, some leadership doctrine has been rewritten and there is an emphasis on working together and being alive to anything that may disrupt harmony and the wellbeing of recruits.
“We encourage leaders to look at those they lead and live by the values and standards that the Army has. It is a leadership that encourages inclusivity rather than exclusivity, focuses on the potential of every individual in the team and seeks to maximise their ability. Therefore we are not prepared to tolerate bullying and harassment and discrimination.”
Finally, Sir Nick believes it is important to recognise that people have a shared history. Britain and its ethnic communities have been bound in struggle and sacrifice before and have benefitted from being united and fighting together.
“One of the things that been very helpful to us – and I never imagined three years ago that it would be – is the commemoration of 100th anniversary of the First World War.
“What we discovered is that these communities have a shared history and they all fought alongside each other.
“Field Marshal (William) Slim who commanded the Army in Burma in the Second World War had a remarkably multinational force. So we’ve done this before and fought together and that has resonated with a lot of the communities we’ve tried to reach out to,” Sir Nick reveals.
“We have reached out to Muslims who have won Victoria Crosses (the highest military honour) and their families. It makes you realise in this continuum of history we have been joined together pretty closely and we’ve worked well together.”
Sir Nick: The India and Pakistan connection
Sir Nick revealed to Eastern Eye he has a special interest in south Asia and has developed strong relationships with his counterparts in India and Pakistan.
He has significant experience of Afghanistan too, where he led the 6th Division in 2009-10, and was International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) regional commander for the south of the country.
He tells Eastern Eye that Afghanistan had taught him a lot.
“I learnt a huge amount about the importance of listening and understanding culture and politics at a local level. I have huge respect for those I had the privilege to work alongside.
“I learnt about a lot about patience and communicating. You have to spend time listening and have the patience to drink three cups of tea before you have a business conversation.
“It’s all about personal relationships,” Sir Nick says.
He declares that he has a “very strong affinity” for Afghanistan, India and Pakistan and this was partly historical, as well as being personal to him, through the relationships he has built up in his time as CGS (Chief of General Staff).
He was in New Delhi just after prime minister Theresa May’s visit in November last year and it’s obvious he has an interest and engagement with the region that goes beyond simply the professional or diplomatic.
He knows his opposite counterparts in India and Pakistan well (both have just recently retired) and he has developed genuine friendships and mutual respect with them.
Even with Pakistan, which has been accused of not always being straight about its strategy in Afghanistan, Sir Nick was unequivocal.
“In my dealings with the Pakistani CGS, he’s always welcomed as a critical friend, as well as being a best friend.
“When it’s time to sit down on a one-to-one discussion, we have always been able to do that. We have mutual respect and it is built on telling each other the truth.”
Some of the traditions of the Indian and Pakistani armies are tied up with the British Raj. The sacrifices of soldiers of all faiths in the First and Second World Wars remains a point of deep connection both for families and for both countries.
“I think the British Army has always had very good connections, particularly with India and Pakistan. There are very close connections between the Army and the India and Pakistan diasporas in this country.
“We have an awful lot in common. As armies we have much to learn from each other and it is absolutely not one way. I think that the more our army and India and Pakistan co-operate, then that’s better for everybody.
“I fundamentally believe we should be looking for mutual opportunities to improve our capability collectively,” says Sir Nick.
He says Indian and Pakistani officers come to Britain for training and both countries are good friends of Britain, despite being individually hostile towards each other at times.
Sir Nick is ever the diplomat as you would expect of someone in his position.
“In terms of bilateral relationships, I’ve never known a time in my career when we are as close as we are with each other.
“One of the reasons I’ve invested in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan is that I’ve had a chance to develop close personal relationships.
“I had a close relationship with General Dalbir Singh, who just retired as head of the Indian Army (2014-2016).
“I also had a very good relationship my Pakistani opposite number, General Raheel Sharif, who has also just retired (2013-2016).
“I am developing a relationship with General (Qamer Javed) Bajwa (who took up his post in November).
“I got to know them well over time and develop broad and positive relationships with them.”
Britain’s top young officer of 2016 ‘is a black kid from a tough Tottenham estate’
Do you know who was crowned Britain’s most promising young officer after passing through the Army’s top college at Sandhurst last year?
“A young black guy who appeared to have absolutely no opportunity at the age of 11,” says Sir Nick.
“It’s a rather inspiring story,” he tells Eastern Eye.
Last year, Kidane Cousland was awarded the Sword of Honour from Sandhurst – beating off others who came from privileged and far better-off backgrounds – there are cadets there from Britain’s top public schools and Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Sandhurst is the Army’s most prestigious training college and is marked out for high flyers and those who will serve at the very highest echelons.
The Sword of Honour is given to Sandhurst’s top student every year.
Cousland, who only came to Britain from Ghana when he was 11, was diagnosed as severely dyslexic. He grew up on a tough Tottenham housing estate with his single mother. Attending the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, Yorkshire, at 16, the troubled teenager began to find a sense of purpose and a vocation.
“The college identified his extraordinary leadership talent and then he was pushed through selection to get to Sandhurst, which he did. Then a year later, he passed out as the leading officer cadet with the Sword of Honour,” explains Sir Nick.
Cousland served in Afghanistan for six months with the Commando regiment of the Royal Artillery, before going onto Sandhurst.
Now 24, he is only the second ethnic minority officer to have been awarded the Sword of Honour in nine years.
Considering his background, few would have ever imagined he would make it to the top and have Britain’s most powerful soldier recognise his incredible achievement.
“It shows that we are a very egalitarian organisation that espouses opportunity for anybody,” concludes Sir Nick.