August 23, 2022 - 11:52am

One of the factors driving support for Liz Truss in the current Conservative leadership contest is a sense of frustration among activists that, after 12 years in office in one form or another, the Tories have not done much to make this a more conservative country.

Few stories capture the essence of this frustration as much as the recent furore over diversity targets in the Royal Air Force. Sky News reported that the Force’s head of recruitment resigned rather than implement a potentially unlawful freeze on hiring white men. This would have been bad enough on its own, but sits especially badly alongside an apparent crisis in flying training, which persists despite Ben Wallace ordering the Air Chief Marshal to make fixing it his “only priority” more than two years ago.

For its part, the RAF seems unrepentant, with the Times reporting the Air Vice Marshal in charge of recruitment has defended the decision to “slow” recruitment of certain candidates in order to try and hit the service’s diversity targets. Naturally, Rishi Sunak’s leadership campaign weighed in to criticise the RAF’s decision, while Liz Truss has made earlier promises to crack down on an alleged “woke culture” in the Civil Service.

But driving institutional change doesn’t happen overnight. That not only means that any programme to change course will take time to deliver, but that two politicians who have spent several years at the top of government have tough questions to answer about why they haven’t taken action sooner. The single biggest thing driving this sort of attitude is the Equality Act 2010. Rushed through by Labour as it prepared to get booted out by the voters, it places legal requirements on private and especially public-sector bodies which push them towards the sort of policies we see in the RAF.

That doesn’t mean that every out-there policy to emerge from the nation’s human resources departments is drawn directly from the Act, of course. But if legislation lays down a compliance regime and mandates the hiring of people to police it, something quite predictable happens.

First, those diversity officers and so on will, in the manner of all bureaucrats, adopt an expansive interpretation of their responsibilities and strive continually to expand their role. Second, the posts will attract sincere believers in the objects of the legislation who are prepared, on their own initiative, to go above and beyond — up to the point of potentially unlawful orders, in the case of the RAF.

Politicians can rail against this all they like. But such talk is cheap without concrete action. If the next prime minister is serious about making operational readiness the military’s only priority, there is nothing stopping them exempting the Armed Forces from the public sector equality duty by removing them from the list of organisations subject to it in Schedule 19 of the Act.

Of course, perhaps the new prime minister won’t think this the right thing to do. That’s a perfectly honourable position. But if so, they should be honest about it, and not wail about woke recruitment practices they tacitly endorse.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.