My dad left school at 14 and was in the Navy at 16. Even though he’d left the military by the time I was born, growing up with dad was a constant source of stories, anecdotes and lessons from those days. Dad never hides the fact that the military made him, in fact he’s proud of it. It gave him discipline, boundaries, and probably most importantly knowing dad – it showed him the world.
So I’ve always had a very healthy respect for our Forces, primarily for what they do to keep us safe but also the opportunities they give people like my dad who came from a very poor background but used everything the military offered him to learn and get on in life during and after service.
When I became an MP – something dad still can’t quite believe has happened to his son – I grew more interested in trying to understand the military. Obviously as MPs we take discussions on every aspect of military life from funding to when we send our military personnel into conflict. I always knew I owed it to them to understand it as best I could.
A scheme was set up a few years ago to help MP’s who really want to see the military from the inside, its called the Armed Service Parliamentary Scheme. Each year a few MP’s get accepted, assigned one of our Forces, and commits almost all of their spare time for a whole year to that service.
I applied but was rejected, but as you know I never give up! I applied again and was accepted the Navy programme and started last year. Why the Navy? Well I think you can guess!
Dad said he was really proud that I’d done this…until I told him it was so I could get revenge by telling him loads of stories from my time in the Navy!!
Since last September I’ve given all my spare time to the Navy. I’ve spent time at Britain’s Military Academy in Shrivenham, learning. My time there began with being taught by a drill-sergeant how to wear the uniform properly and then suffer the embarrassment of standing with some other MPs being taught how to march in line. All of us desperately wanted to do well and not let the officers training us down, but I have to say those first few ‘right turn, forward march’ really didn’t look very pretty!!
For several days I sat in seminar rooms learning from Admirals and officers about how the military works, who makes decisions, strategic challenges, global dangers, and what the military can and cannot achieve. This was all interspersed with sessions on the gun rage or learning about hardware.
For the rest of my life I will remember sitting in an extremely cramped Challenger tank with the serviceman who’d gone into desert combat in that very same tank.
I asked him about the tank itself, how it works, and how you personally cope with the pressure of being in that cramped space. Sometimes it was 42 degree heat *inside the tank* because they diverted air conditioning towards keeping the weapons cool, often for two-days at a time without getting out.
It’s no exaggeration to say that I emerged from that tank with a different, visceral, appreciation of what it means to serve our country.
I’ve done other things too, like travelling to one of the secret training centres for the Royal Marines and spent the day on exercise with them. This was another visceral experience, fascinating, exciting and at times pretty scary! In the winter cold I took off into the sea on a high-speed inflatable boat (clinging on for dear life!) with five fully armed Marines wearing face masks. We approached a large ship and they fired a tiny ladder, scaled the ship and I saw from the sea as they blew open an entry door and set about commandeering control.
When I boarded (via stairs!) they set about explaining to me the techniques, strategy and equipment they used. Later on I was put into a room in the hold with a group of people, one of whom’s face had been shown to the squad.
The lights went out and everything went quiet. I could barely hear some squeaking doors elsewhere but no footsteps or anything. It was pitch black. Suddenly the door blew open, there was a very bright flash, a loud bang and loads of shouting about putting hands in the air.
I could feel a lot of movement and huge amounts of adrenaline, and then things calmed down and the lights went on. The person who’s photo was shown to the squad was lying facedown on the floor with his hands and feet bound, the observers were untouched but stunned…me? Well I was kneeling on the floor with my hands in the air!
This was the same team who recently boarded and commandeered the Iranian oil tanker. Their precision, effectiveness, and professionalism is actually hard to describe. After this exercise we sat in the basement of the ship, had a sandwich, and I got to talk with and ask questions for ages. Again, a day I have been reflecting on ever since.
Now, back to my dad. He served on the 1960’s aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. He grew up in Liverpool and tells me the first time he ever saw Brighton was from the deck of the Ark Royal as it sailed past! As you can imagine he’s followed the planning and construction of our new flag carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, very closely. There isn’t a nut or bolt on that ship he doesn’t know! I’ve been desperate to visit her.
Just before the pandemic struck I was invited to Portsmouth to tour HMS Queen Elizabeth. As you can imagine, nothing would have stopped me. I learned so much about its crew, its capabilities, and its purpose. I was able to meet the captain and senior officers, and also spend an hour with sailors in their communal area and listen to their experiences. I couldn’t help but think it must have been like talking to my dad when he was that age.
There were some standout moments of that visit.
First, the ship is breathtakingly impressive. Its capability is staggering. It’s Britain’s largest ever ship, still smaller than some of the American carriers but they have innovated like never before and can therefore perform many functions they can’t. For example they can have aircraft taking off and landing, with a helicopter doing so too, all simultaneously. Wow!
Another standout moment was when one of the sailors asked me where I was an MP. When I said it, one of them pipped up, ‘I grew up in Portslade and went to Hove Park School!’. I was so happy! To think that someone from our community is serving on our nation’s flag carrier is a source of real pride for me. I sent him the best wishes of all of us who live here.
And finally, there was something I just had to do. A small group of senior officers were showing me around and when we were in the hanger deck I just couldn’t resist doing something.
Most if dad’s stories are from his time on the deck and hanger deck of the Ark Royal because he was an engineer who worked on our fleet of naval jets. When I saw the sheer scale of Elizabeth’s hanger deck I just had to show him. So I hung back from the group as we walked along, snuck out my phone and FaceTimed dad! When he answered I was excitedly showing him around the hanger when I was busted by the Commander who took the photo I’ve posted here at the moment he called me out! Dad was very happy as he got to see the ship plus meet it’s vice captain – risking court marshal was worth it!
I’ve posted a few photos here. There are two of my dad, both from his days on the Ark Royal. In one he’s atop a jet that’s crash-landed onto the deck, the other was on a snow-covered deck when they were on exercise in the Arctic. Both are situations I can’t even imagine.
I’m very aware that my experiences are a millions miles from that of my dad’s and all the other people who have served in the past and who serve today. For the last generation relatively few veterans make it into parliament so there isn’t much experience from the inside when we make decisions that affect our Forces and the amazing men and women who serve in them. I hope the experience I’m getting from this scheme at least gives me a better understanding, as much as possible at least.
Last year’s election followed by the pandemic have meant many more trips and visits haven’t been possible. I’ve asked if I can be rolled over into next year too so I can complete the scheme and graduate. I never want to do this sort of thing half-heartedly, I feel like I owe it to people, not least my dad, to do this properly and respect those currently serving our country.
Yesterday marked Armed Forces Day so it felt appropriate to share this with you this weekend.