Interviews with newsmakers and personalities from across the globe. Stephen Sackur speaks to Johnny Mercer - a British MP who was a soldier and served three tours in Afghanistan.
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beast from the East. That is all
from me, stay with us on BBC News.
Just after half past midnight here
on BBC News, it is time for
Welcome to HARDtalk,
I'm Stephen Sackur.
Professional politics is a hothouse
world where the inhabitants can seem
far removed from the rough edges
of modern life.
So maybe it's no surprise
that there is a disconnect
between our governors
and the governed.
My guest today is a rarity,
a British MP who was
a front-line soldier.
Johnny Mercer served three
tours in Afghanistan.
He entered politics to make
a difference on issues
he cared about, defence,
and mental health.
But in a Britain preoccupied
with Brexit, is anyone listening?
Johnny Mercer, welcome to HARDtalk.
It was quite a leap that you made
four or so years ago,
when you left the British Army
and decided that you
would enter politics.
Has that transition been
harder or actually easier
than you thought it would be?
Well, I didn't actually have any
going into politics because I knew
nothing about it.
I'd never voted, been
Never voted, and I know that's not
a great thing to have done.
But when you're going
through the process of war fighting,
you will go anyway, whoever
the Government is.
One reason or another,
you feel disconnected from that,
and I never got around to voting,
I never had an interest in politics.
So I didn't have any preconceptions
about what it would be like.
Aspects of it have certainly
been difficult, some
aspects, not so much.
But it is a journey,
and I learn something everyday.
We'll talk about the journey
and what you have experienced on it.
But I am interested to know why,
when you quite explicitly say that
you were pretty unimpressed
with the politicians that
you met as a soldier,
even Prime Ministers would come out
to Afghanistan on morale boosting
visits to the troops,
you say that frankly,
you did not think they knew much
about what was going on,
and you felt they were indulging
in pretty simple rhetoric.
So, what on earth attracted
you to that career?
Because actually, when I looked
at them, and you're right,
I felt like that when I looked
at these people, and there
is nothing bad about it,
there just wasn't that connection
between the military
and political systems.
We saw the symptoms of that
through Iraq and Afghanistan,
whether it was a good tactics,
leaving too early or so on.
But I thought if I wanted
to change something,
I have to get elected.
Whatever I say, they have the power
to make executive decisions,
because they're elected.
So if I want to make a decision
or change something,
I have to get elected,
whether that is the military,
And those coalesce in your mind.
Look, it was not a pleasant
realisation that I was going
to become a member of Parliament,
it is not something I thought about,
and there are certainly
aspects that are difficult
to get your head around.
Is that not disingenuous?
You can fall into politics,
you have to fight hard
to win your nomination
for your seat, a lot
of doorstep campaigning
to get elected, it's not something
happens by accident.
It is not about politics,
it's not about getting
a career in politics.
It's about using politics
as a vehicle to get things done.
And when you actually believe
in something and want to change it,
you genuinely think that you can
change it, that's why you do it.
So that commitment is huge.
You have written a powerful book
about your military experience.
It seems the Army meant so much
to you, it was almost a family?
I think it is a fair point.
When you join as a young person,
man or woman, I think a lot has been
said about the military over
the last few years,
lots of mistakes have been made,
but one thing that still gets me
is the journey you can go on.
You can join as a young man,
what it gets is a raw product
from society and what turns
into afterwards is a life
And it certainly was that for me.
I'm made great friends,
I had great expenses, and yes,
I turned from a boy into a man
in the military.
I'm not ashamed of that,
I was proud of it, something
I was proud to do at the time.
I used the word family advisedly,
because you have also been
surprisingly honest and frank
about a difficult
upbringing you had.
Your family was very large,
you are one of eight children,
very religious parents.
And it seems it was somewhat
chaotic, somewhat hot-tempered,
and you clearly had some mental
health issues as a child.
Because it seems you did not find it
a very stable family environment?
I think that is fair.
I don't want to get into too much,
but it was an unstable environment,
and that caused problems,
as it would for anyone.
Whether for myself or for my wider
family, I think we all cope
with that in its own way.
It was very clear that that part
of your life is very formative,
and it certainly was that for me.
But I left that behind and I joined
the Army, and the army was...
You are being terribly British
about it, because I can tell
you don't want to talk about it.
Although you have written about it,
which is why raised it.
But you say for example,
that religion dominated every
aspect of life at home,
your father, you felt was full
of guilt and expressed that
sometimes in very hot tempered,
difficult reactions to things.
And I am wondering whether the Army
was important to you because it
actually, in a funny way,
despite serving in war zones
on that it gave you a stability that
you hadn't had as a child that
you desperately missed?
And a child growing up,
you need your left and right,
your boundaries, your stability,
and that predictability
is really important.
Yes, the military provided me
with that in some ways.
This is maybe a difficult question
to answer, but when you reflect
on yourself as a teenager,
and I know you spent time
at boarding school, do you think
you were mentally unwell?
Without a doubt, I think
I struggled with aspects
of my own behaviour,
And that was an issue that
I recognised in myself,
and I received a bit of help for.
Look, it was part of my history,
absolutely, it was one of the coping
mechanisms that I had growing up.
It was something that
taught me a lot about myself,
about what makes me tick,
what motivates me,
what I struggle to cope with.
And I think I became stronger
for it, there's this perception
around mental health at the moment,
that you get a mental health
problem, and that's it.
There is an area of management
to it, it is an ongoing thing
you need to work on,
but you can get better
and go on to have a life
And that is certainly what the Army
did for me, and moving on from that.
It is very striking, a relatively
struggled -- troubled kid ends up
commanding men on a ferociously
difficult front line in Afghanistan
on three separate tours of duty.
Obviously facing fire numerous
times, and you actually had
experiences with, for example, one
of your best mates in the Army being
shot through the head in front of
you. Did you than reexperience some
of the mental issues you have had
before, or did you cope?
because I know people go through
these things, poster manic stress
has different effects on different
people. Jim Mattis in the state to
command a lot of soldiers going
through rack and Selma -- so long,
there is poster manic growth where
you don't like of these experience
can iron you out. But you realise
you can cope with expenses. I
realise I had a tough time growing
up, but I have to confess that
during my period on operations and
commanding up operations, there are
aspects of it that I found extremely
difficult to readjust to,
particularly when I came home. But I
did not suffer with these issues, in
a way, that they be stronger, and
they certainly made me who I am
today. In a way, I think they
provided a bit of a platform to go
to what I'm doing now. There are
certainly aspects of, things you
acquire around as is, resilience and
loyalty, looking after people, that
you employ now. So now I find that
those operations were a better rock,
informed me as a young man.
having looked at the book, we were
warriors, your memoir of conflict,
it is extort Barry. You said nothing
prepares you for the repeat expenses
of war. At the end, I felt
estimated, completely destroyed
And I did, but this was
after a prolonged period of
operation. Citizen born to remember
in Afghanistan, we were putting
British ships through cycles we had
not seen before. Back in World War
II, there were lots more units,
people cycling out of conflicts. In
Afghanistan, we were asking people
to go Amanda lines for six or seven
months at a time, their compact --
conducted two patrols a day. That is
a lot of conflict -- on that. I do
not think that is too much because
we are professional soldiers, we are
ready to do it. But I do think we
need to manage the stress, not only
in theatre, but when they come home.
And that is a duty for everyone, not
just the people who get a hard time,
but all through the chain of
command. We have to be cognizant of
some people's experiences, people
who are different to the map -- best
majority. One out of nine soldiers
who deployed did not leave the wire,
and not all those who left the wire
went into particularly difficult
patrols. So there was a broad
variety of experience, some of us
are addicted in and of the wedge on
that one, and I do think we have a
duty to those who struggle with that
to look after them, that is one of
the things that propelled me into
When you say leave the
wire, you mean leave the safety of
bases and get out in to the fire?
expenses you had, one where you
found yourself isolated and alone in
a firefight, with a bullet to tell
them firefight -- Taliban fighters
trying to kill you, and Dracula
sleeve described -- survived, but
you describe how utterly frightening
it was and how you shook and shook
when you emerged from it. The other
one was the death of your friend,
who as I said it was shot and died
in the battlefield. I get the
feeling that you do sometimes wonder
whether all of that was worth that,
given what we see today in
Yes, I in this
country, this is why I came into
politics, because I do feel we have
lost the ability to have the courage
and backbone to see these things
through to an end state where we are
happy with. If you look at our
withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is
like a rock. It was calendar based,
not conditions based, not like how
you should conduct an operation.
Largely what we have done has been
around the British electoral cycle,
and for those of us who fought, that
is very painful to take, because we
are totally committed to the mission
and try to achieve a conditions
Maybe the mission is
unachievable? May be going in with
the view that you can somehow
fundamentally change a society is
misplaced to begin with?
I do not
think it is misplaced, but you have
to commit fully to the task. Whilst
you are going to have to get the
security aspect of things right so
that law and order can take hold,
you have to go harder after
corruption. You cannot allow
officials to be elected who have no
credibility and cannot bring the
people with them. Counterinsurgency
warfare works, but it has to be done
properly, it must be resourced
properly, but ultimately
politically, it must be committed
to. And that is where we filled --
failed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
recent survey said that 70% of the
territory of the nation is out
operationally open to the Taliban --
Taliban, the American are ram the
presents, there is question over
whether the British should follow
and support in the revving of
operations. Would you think?
we should, we have been very
comfortable in this country, we have
almost become isolationist. You only
have to look at Syria to see how
badly wrong you can get it when you
don't intervene. Intervention is not
pretty, we have this idea and our
head that were in conflict is as
binary, and it is not. It is being
sold as I lie to the British people,
it is a messy business, but I do not
think standing on the sidelines and
letting these things happen like
they are in Afghanistan is the right
You say that, and a
corollary of that is that more men
go into the danger zone and face the
very real prospect of not coming
back. And yet you say it when you
clearly feel that today, there is
something deeply dysfunctional about
the way the United Kingdom treats
not just its active soldiers, but
its veterans as well? The so-called
military government seems to be
broken, in your view?
think there is a serious issue in
this country around its relationship
with the military. Veterans, let's
talk about them. There is a
completeness reception around
veterans, almost anybody who has had
anything to do with the military, it
is statistically impossible for
anyone who's says they have PTSD to
have PTSD, it has become a catchall
environment for any number of
problems that people will hit during
their life. And the problem with
that is that if we do not deal with
that problem, we will not get to
those who are genuinely ill that
need our helps -- held as a result
of those operations. And I think we
have lost an opportunity, through
this Afghanistan and Iraq period,
these great numbers of veterans are
coming out and really gripping this
debate and changing it fundamentally
like Americans after Vietnam.
There's no question that the
American mindset towards it's
veterans is very different than that
of Britain. But you seem to be
saying we in Britain are somewhat
hung up on, for example, exit --
investigating alleged abuses by the
military. We know what happened in a
rack and the years of UK
intervention after 2003. The
implication of what you're saying is
that you do not feel it is right to
invest -- investigate abuses by the
I have been very clear and
straightforward on this from the
start. Anyone in my position always
wants to see allegations and bad
apples investigated, because there's
no place for them.
With respect, you
said things like us, and this is a
direct quote. The unwarranted
pursuit of service personnel through
the courts is a stain on our
national character, the obsession
with historical allegations is
because these individuals are going
through an investigation in the
first place, but what is happening,
people who cannot or do I want to
accept the result of a fair and
impartial investigation, and some
will try to rewrite history, they
are possibly revisiting these
incidents to try and get some sort
of retribution, and is not fair on
For example, those
who have died in custody...
He is a
case of his own, and I have those
who... I understand the case of the
last week, that -- someone died, and
that is not lost on me. But the
reaction to that should not be
investigations over 15 years into
the same soldiers about the same
But it gets to the heart
of the difference between the United
States and UK. We in the UK hold our
military to the very highest of
standards. And the fact that there
are historical and Dutch
investigations into alleged abuses
into Iraq and Afghanistan, it is
something we should be proud of, not
I totally dispute the
fact that Americans do not hold
themselves to the highest standards,
that is not what this is about. We
do as well, you only have to look at
recent history as a how we have held
our servicemen to account. I agree
and encourage that, I do not know
anyone serving food does not
encourage that, because we go on
operations to work hard and up of
old rule of law. This is separate,
this is an attempt to continually
pursue these individuals, sometimes
years after they have left service,
and the Government has let this
industry spawned, and it has ruined
lives across this country.
thought, I do not know if you saw
the very end of last year, the chief
prosecutor of the international
criminal Court in The Hague said she
believes there is a reasonable basis
to continue to believe that UK
soldiers committed war crimes
against detainees are in Iraq
I would say we need to see
the evidence, because is has been
investigated numbers of times.
Nobody as far as I'm aware, they
have not done a single prosecution
from this. We want to see
prosecutions, if someone has done
something wrong, they must be
prosecuted, but that is not what
this is about.
Many senior military
officials, including senior serving
officers, have suggested in the
recent days and months that they
believe there is a fundamental
problem, that the British Armed
Forces are being hollowed out,
82,000 serving soldiers, concerns
about the Navy and Air Force as
well, and it is no longer a full
spectrum capable fighting force.
think it has been a long time
coming. We really struggled in Iraq,
we struggled at the beginning in
Afghanistan, the equipment a lot
better, and I am pleased these
people are speaking up, but there is
more fun little problems than just
money. If I was a Chancellor at the
moment, and I am one of the biggest
advocates of military spending, I
would find it difficult to get the
military more money at the moment
without serious reform. The waste
that goes on at the moment is still
I watering, and we have not had this
national conversation about what we
want the Armed Forces for, what we
expect them to do, what is the
vision of a modern UK military?
Until we have that, I can completely
understand the reticence to
endlessly pour money into the MOD
when you have all these other
priorities that are far more
important to some others, and I
Maybe there's not
much right now, Central focus on
these issues, because so much of the
political oxygen is being sucked up
by Brexit. You're a conservative MP,
you say you join the party not for
strong ideological reasons, but
because you had things to
accomplish. And we talked about
those. But you have to take a view
on Brexit now. Are you prepared to
break with your party on the issue
of a customs union, to say that
Britain needs to stay inside a
I am not, I'm afraid,
I'm one of those who voted to
remain, if I had my vote again, I
would vote again, I would go to
leave. I can completely see why
swathes of this country decided they
did not want to be part of the
European Union any more, and what
communities in this country have
felt about the EU and how
politicians tried to sell that to
them, that is our job as
politicians, to represent that, and
I can see that across the country. I
was in Munich two weeks ago, and
everyone -- every time I went to the
continent, I could see why this
country wants to leave the EU. We
need to get that done, if I got to
the doors in Plymouth, lots of
people think we have left already,
and we need to get that done. If
that requires leaving the customs
union, then I'm afraid we get on
with it, because people are asking
us to answer other fundamental
questions around the NHS and
economy, and we cannot get onto
those walls we continue to pick up
the bones of Brexit.
A former leader
of your country, John Major, says
this is so important that Parliament
ultimately must decide the fate of
the Brexit deal. He says it should
not be decided on party lines, every
MP should vote with their conscience
in a free vote. Do you agree with
Given the arithmetic of the
moment, it is pretty much a free
vote. I am a huge fan of John
Major... The numbers are very slim,
people are prepared to vote either
way. You will get a situation where
people will vote with their
consciences. But what I would say on
this is John Major, lots of respect
for him and Tony Blair, who has
spoken on this today, we have to
understand that they're selling of
this European Union contest project
contributed to where we are today.
And have people been given a view on
the Lisbon treaty, had we address
people's concerns on immigration, we
would not be here. Now we need a
fresh approach, and that strategic
vision about what Brexit means in
Britain going forward past next
Is interesting you say we need
a strategic vision, you're not
getting that from Theresa May. Is it
time for somebody else to lead your
Changing Prime Minister at
the moment is one of the worst
things we could possibly do, because
we have to form a resilient base
around her so she can go to the
European Union iMac you said this
government, very recently, it is
being too resident to meet the
challenges of the day.
We need leadership.
Every time Theresa May does
something, whether she says a
statement about leaving the Dutch
customs union or not leaving the
customs union, she gets a lesson for
my colleagues on one side of the
argument. And she is hemmed in by
this process. However you feel about
Brexit now, any division apart from
the premise or and away from the
Government, if you are a member of
this party, if you look at it from
Europe, you can only see that we are
going to get seen off, and we will
Isn't the truth of -- that
this is tearing her party apart?
do not accept that, I accept that
there are serious challenges around
this. I would not stick my hand in
the sand and pretend it isn't. But I
do not think this is a valid --
defining issue of the Conservative
Party. I know I can be alone in that
regard, but I think being part of
the modern Conservative Party is not
getting things right, like public
services, infrastructure, that is
what being in this party is about.
This is an issue we absolutely have
to tackle because it has been going
on for long before I turned up here.
But when we get to 2019, we have to
give people to vote for.
Mercer, we must end it there, but
thank you for being on Hardtalk.
Pleasure, thanks very much.
you very much indeed.
Professional politics is a hothouse world where the inhabitants can seem far removed from the rough edges of modern life. Maybe it's no surprise there is a disconnect between our governors and the governed.
Stephen Sackur speaks to a British MP who was a frontline soldier. Johnny Mercer served three tours in Afghanistan. He entered politics to make a difference on issues he cared about - defence, veteran welfare and mental health. But in a Britain preoccupied with Brexit, is anyone listening?