Johnny Mercer MP - Conservative Party, UK HARDtalk


Johnny Mercer MP - Conservative Party, UK

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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Transcript


LineFromTo

beast from the East. That is all

from me, stay with us on BBC News.

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Just after half past midnight here

on BBC News, it is time for

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Hardtalk.

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Welcome to HARDtalk,

I'm Stephen Sackur.

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Professional politics is a hothouse

world where the inhabitants can seem

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far removed from the rough edges

of modern life.

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So maybe it's no surprise

that there is a disconnect

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between our governors

and the governed.

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My guest today is a rarity,

a British MP who was

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a front-line soldier.

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Johnny Mercer served three

tours in Afghanistan.

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He entered politics to make

a difference on issues

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he cared about, defence,

veteran's welfare,

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and mental health.

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But in a Britain preoccupied

with Brexit, is anyone listening?

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Johnny Mercer, welcome to HARDtalk.

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Thanks.

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It was quite a leap that you made

four or so years ago,

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when you left the British Army

and decided that you

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would enter politics.

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Has that transition been

harder or actually easier

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than you thought it would be?

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Well, I didn't actually have any

preconceptions around

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going into politics because I knew

nothing about it.

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I'd never voted, been

to Westminster...

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Never voted?

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Never voted, and I know that's not

a great thing to have done.

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But when you're going

through the process of war fighting,

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you will go anyway, whoever

the Government is.

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One reason or another,

you feel disconnected from that,

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and I never got around to voting,

I never had an interest in politics.

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So I didn't have any preconceptions

about what it would be like.

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Aspects of it have certainly

been difficult, some

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aspects, not so much.

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But it is a journey,

and I learn something everyday.

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We'll talk about the journey

and what you have experienced on it.

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But I am interested to know why,

when you quite explicitly say that

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you were pretty unimpressed

with the politicians that

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you met as a soldier,

foreign secretaries,

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even Prime Ministers would come out

to Afghanistan on morale boosting

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visits to the troops,

you say that frankly,

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you did not think they knew much

about what was going on,

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and you felt they were indulging

in pretty simple rhetoric.

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So, what on earth attracted

you to that career?

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Because actually, when I looked

at them, and you're right,

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I felt like that when I looked

at these people, and there

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is nothing bad about it,

there just wasn't that connection

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between the military

and political systems.

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We saw the symptoms of that

through Iraq and Afghanistan,

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whether it was a good tactics,

leaving too early or so on.

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But I thought if I wanted

to change something,

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I have to get elected.

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Whatever I say, they have the power

to make executive decisions,

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because they're elected.

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So if I want to make a decision

or change something,

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I have to get elected,

whether that is the military,

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mental health...

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And those coalesce in your mind.

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Look, it was not a pleasant

realisation that I was going

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to become a member of Parliament,

it is not something I thought about,

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and there are certainly

aspects that are difficult

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to get your head around.

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Is that not disingenuous?

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You can fall into politics,

you have to fight hard

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to win your nomination

for your seat, a lot

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of doorstep campaigning

to get elected, it's not something

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happens by accident.

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It is not about politics,

it's not about getting

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a career in politics.

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It's about using politics

as a vehicle to get things done.

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And when you actually believe

in something and want to change it,

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you genuinely think that you can

change it, that's why you do it.

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So that commitment is huge.

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You have written a powerful book

about your military experience.

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It seems the Army meant so much

to you, it was almost a family?

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I think it is a fair point.

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When you join as a young person,

man or woman, I think a lot has been

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said about the military over

the last few years,

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lots of mistakes have been made,

but one thing that still gets me

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is the journey you can go on.

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You can join as a young man,

what it gets is a raw product

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from society and what turns

into afterwards is a life

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enhancing experience.

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And it certainly was that for me.

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I'm made great friends,

I had great expenses, and yes,

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I turned from a boy into a man

in the military.

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I'm not ashamed of that,

I was proud of it, something

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I was proud to do at the time.

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I used the word family advisedly,

because you have also been

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surprisingly honest and frank

about a difficult

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upbringing you had.

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Your family was very large,

you are one of eight children,

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very religious parents.

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And it seems it was somewhat

chaotic, somewhat hot-tempered,

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and you clearly had some mental

health issues as a child.

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Because it seems you did not find it

a very stable family environment?

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I think that is fair.

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I don't want to get into too much,

but it was an unstable environment,

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and that caused problems,

as it would for anyone.

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Whether for myself or for my wider

family, I think we all cope

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with that in its own way.

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It was very clear that that part

of your life is very formative,

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and it certainly was that for me.

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But I left that behind and I joined

the Army, and the army was...

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You are being terribly British

about it, because I can tell

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you don't want to talk about it.

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Although you have written about it,

which is why raised it.

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But you say for example,

that religion dominated every

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aspect of life at home,

your father, you felt was full

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of guilt and expressed that

sometimes in very hot tempered,

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difficult reactions to things.

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And I am wondering whether the Army

was important to you because it

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actually, in a funny way,

despite serving in war zones

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on that it gave you a stability that

you hadn't had as a child that

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you desperately missed?

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Absolutely.

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And a child growing up,

you need your left and right,

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your boundaries, your stability,

and that predictability

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is really important.

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Yes, the military provided me

with that in some ways.

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This is maybe a difficult question

to answer, but when you reflect

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on yourself as a teenager,

and I know you spent time

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at boarding school, do you think

you were mentally unwell?

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Without a doubt, I think

I struggled with aspects

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of my own behaviour,

certainly around

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obsessive-compulsive disorder.

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And that was an issue that

I recognised in myself,

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and I received a bit of help for.

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Look, it was part of my history,

absolutely, it was one of the coping

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mechanisms that I had growing up.

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It was something that

taught me a lot about myself,

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about what makes me tick,

what motivates me,

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what I struggle to cope with.

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And I think I became stronger

for it, there's this perception

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around mental health at the moment,

that you get a mental health

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problem, and that's it.

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There is an area of management

to it, it is an ongoing thing

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you need to work on,

but you can get better

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and go on to have a life

completely uninhibited.

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And that is certainly what the Army

did for me, and moving on from that.

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It is very striking, a relatively

struggled -- troubled kid ends up

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commanding men on a ferociously

difficult front line in Afghanistan

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on three separate tours of duty.

Obviously facing fire numerous

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times, and you actually had

extraordinarily difficult

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experiences with, for example, one

of your best mates in the Army being

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shot through the head in front of

you. Did you than reexperience some

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of the mental issues you have had

before, or did you cope?

Is odd

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because I know people go through

these things, poster manic stress

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has different effects on different

people. Jim Mattis in the state to

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command a lot of soldiers going

through rack and Selma -- so long,

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there is poster manic growth where

you don't like of these experience

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can iron you out. But you realise

you can cope with expenses. I

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realise I had a tough time growing

up, but I have to confess that

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during my period on operations and

commanding up operations, there are

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aspects of it that I found extremely

difficult to readjust to,

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particularly when I came home. But I

did not suffer with these issues, in

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a way, that they be stronger, and

they certainly made me who I am

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today. In a way, I think they

provided a bit of a platform to go

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to what I'm doing now. There are

certainly aspects of, things you

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acquire around as is, resilience and

loyalty, looking after people, that

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you employ now. So now I find that

those operations were a better rock,

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informed me as a young man.

Again,

having looked at the book, we were

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warriors, your memoir of conflict,

it is extort Barry. You said nothing

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prepares you for the repeat expenses

of war. At the end, I felt

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estimated, completely destroyed

inside.

And I did, but this was

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after a prolonged period of

operation. Citizen born to remember

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in Afghanistan, we were putting

British ships through cycles we had

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not seen before. Back in World War

II, there were lots more units,

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people cycling out of conflicts. In

Afghanistan, we were asking people

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to go Amanda lines for six or seven

months at a time, their compact --

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conducted two patrols a day. That is

a lot of conflict -- on that. I do

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not think that is too much because

we are professional soldiers, we are

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ready to do it. But I do think we

need to manage the stress, not only

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in theatre, but when they come home.

And that is a duty for everyone, not

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just the people who get a hard time,

but all through the chain of

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command. We have to be cognizant of

some people's experiences, people

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who are different to the map -- best

majority. One out of nine soldiers

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who deployed did not leave the wire,

and not all those who left the wire

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went into particularly difficult

patrols. So there was a broad

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variety of experience, some of us

are addicted in and of the wedge on

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that one, and I do think we have a

duty to those who struggle with that

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to look after them, that is one of

the things that propelled me into

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politics.

When you say leave the

wire, you mean leave the safety of

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bases and get out in to the fire?

Do

expenses you had, one where you

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found yourself isolated and alone in

a firefight, with a bullet to tell

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them firefight -- Taliban fighters

trying to kill you, and Dracula

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sleeve described -- survived, but

you describe how utterly frightening

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it was and how you shook and shook

when you emerged from it. The other

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one was the death of your friend,

who as I said it was shot and died

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in the battlefield. I get the

feeling that you do sometimes wonder

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whether all of that was worth that,

given what we see today in

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Afghanistan.

Do you?

Yes, I in this

country, this is why I came into

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politics, because I do feel we have

lost the ability to have the courage

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and backbone to see these things

through to an end state where we are

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happy with. If you look at our

withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is

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like a rock. It was calendar based,

not conditions based, not like how

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you should conduct an operation.

Largely what we have done has been

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around the British electoral cycle,

and for those of us who fought, that

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is very painful to take, because we

are totally committed to the mission

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and try to achieve a conditions

based...

Maybe the mission is

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unachievable? May be going in with

the view that you can somehow

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fundamentally change a society is

misplaced to begin with?

I do not

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think it is misplaced, but you have

to commit fully to the task. Whilst

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you are going to have to get the

security aspect of things right so

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that law and order can take hold,

you have to go harder after

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corruption. You cannot allow

officials to be elected who have no

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credibility and cannot bring the

people with them. Counterinsurgency

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warfare works, but it has to be done

properly, it must be resourced

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properly, but ultimately

politically, it must be committed

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to. And that is where we filled --

failed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A

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recent survey said that 70% of the

territory of the nation is out

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operationally open to the Taliban --

Taliban, the American are ram the

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presents, there is question over

whether the British should follow

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and support in the revving of

operations. Would you think?

I think

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we should, we have been very

comfortable in this country, we have

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almost become isolationist. You only

have to look at Syria to see how

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badly wrong you can get it when you

don't intervene. Intervention is not

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pretty, we have this idea and our

head that were in conflict is as

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binary, and it is not. It is being

sold as I lie to the British people,

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it is a messy business, but I do not

think standing on the sidelines and

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letting these things happen like

they are in Afghanistan is the right

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answer.

You say that, and a

corollary of that is that more men

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go into the danger zone and face the

very real prospect of not coming

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back. And yet you say it when you

clearly feel that today, there is

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something deeply dysfunctional about

the way the United Kingdom treats

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not just its active soldiers, but

its veterans as well? The so-called

0:14:340:14:39

military government seems to be

broken, in your view?

Absolutely. I

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think there is a serious issue in

this country around its relationship

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with the military. Veterans, let's

talk about them. There is a

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completeness reception around

veterans, almost anybody who has had

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anything to do with the military, it

is statistically impossible for

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anyone who's says they have PTSD to

have PTSD, it has become a catchall

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environment for any number of

problems that people will hit during

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their life. And the problem with

that is that if we do not deal with

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that problem, we will not get to

those who are genuinely ill that

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need our helps -- held as a result

of those operations. And I think we

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have lost an opportunity, through

this Afghanistan and Iraq period,

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these great numbers of veterans are

coming out and really gripping this

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debate and changing it fundamentally

like Americans after Vietnam.

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There's no question that the

American mindset towards it's

0:15:330:15:36

veterans is very different than that

of Britain. But you seem to be

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saying we in Britain are somewhat

hung up on, for example, exit --

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investigating alleged abuses by the

military. We know what happened in a

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rack and the years of UK

intervention after 2003. The

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implication of what you're saying is

that you do not feel it is right to

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invest -- investigate abuses by the

military?

I have been very clear and

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straightforward on this from the

start. Anyone in my position always

0:16:040:16:07

wants to see allegations and bad

apples investigated, because there's

0:16:070:16:13

no place for them.

With respect, you

said things like us, and this is a

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direct quote. The unwarranted

pursuit of service personnel through

0:16:170:16:20

the courts is a stain on our

national character, the obsession

0:16:200:16:25

with historical allegations is

unacceptable.

Absolutely right,

0:16:250:16:29

because these individuals are going

through an investigation in the

0:16:290:16:31

first place, but what is happening,

people who cannot or do I want to

0:16:310:16:35

accept the result of a fair and

impartial investigation, and some

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will try to rewrite history, they

are possibly revisiting these

0:16:400:16:43

incidents to try and get some sort

of retribution, and is not fair on

0:16:430:16:48

the individuals.

For example, those

who have died in custody...

He is a

0:16:480:16:56

case of his own, and I have those

who... I understand the case of the

0:16:560:17:01

last week, that -- someone died, and

that is not lost on me. But the

0:17:010:17:06

reaction to that should not be

investigations over 15 years into

0:17:060:17:08

the same soldiers about the same

incident.

But it gets to the heart

0:17:080:17:13

of the difference between the United

States and UK. We in the UK hold our

0:17:130:17:16

military to the very highest of

standards. And the fact that there

0:17:160:17:22

are historical and Dutch

investigations into alleged abuses

0:17:220:17:28

into Iraq and Afghanistan, it is

something we should be proud of, not

0:17:280:17:32

ashamed of.

I totally dispute the

fact that Americans do not hold

0:17:320:17:35

themselves to the highest standards,

that is not what this is about. We

0:17:350:17:38

do as well, you only have to look at

recent history as a how we have held

0:17:380:17:42

our servicemen to account. I agree

and encourage that, I do not know

0:17:420:17:46

anyone serving food does not

encourage that, because we go on

0:17:460:17:49

operations to work hard and up of

old rule of law. This is separate,

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this is an attempt to continually

pursue these individuals, sometimes

0:17:530:17:57

years after they have left service,

and the Government has let this

0:17:570:18:01

industry spawned, and it has ruined

lives across this country.

Final

0:18:010:18:07

thought, I do not know if you saw

the very end of last year, the chief

0:18:070:18:10

prosecutor of the international

criminal Court in The Hague said she

0:18:100:18:16

believes there is a reasonable basis

to continue to believe that UK

0:18:160:18:20

soldiers committed war crimes

against detainees are in Iraq

0:18:200:18:26

conflict.

I would say we need to see

the evidence, because is has been

0:18:260:18:32

investigated numbers of times.

Nobody as far as I'm aware, they

0:18:320:18:37

have not done a single prosecution

from this. We want to see

0:18:370:18:41

prosecutions, if someone has done

something wrong, they must be

0:18:410:18:43

prosecuted, but that is not what

this is about.

Many senior military

0:18:430:18:50

officials, including senior serving

officers, have suggested in the

0:18:500:18:53

recent days and months that they

believe there is a fundamental

0:18:530:18:56

problem, that the British Armed

Forces are being hollowed out,

0:18:560:19:00

82,000 serving soldiers, concerns

about the Navy and Air Force as

0:19:000:19:05

well, and it is no longer a full

spectrum capable fighting force.

I

0:19:050:19:10

think it has been a long time

coming. We really struggled in Iraq,

0:19:100:19:15

we struggled at the beginning in

Afghanistan, the equipment a lot

0:19:150:19:20

better, and I am pleased these

people are speaking up, but there is

0:19:200:19:23

more fun little problems than just

money. If I was a Chancellor at the

0:19:230:19:26

moment, and I am one of the biggest

advocates of military spending, I

0:19:260:19:29

would find it difficult to get the

military more money at the moment

0:19:290:19:33

without serious reform. The waste

that goes on at the moment is still

0:19:330:19:37

I watering, and we have not had this

national conversation about what we

0:19:370:19:40

want the Armed Forces for, what we

expect them to do, what is the

0:19:400:19:44

vision of a modern UK military?

Until we have that, I can completely

0:19:440:19:48

understand the reticence to

endlessly pour money into the MOD

0:19:480:19:52

when you have all these other

priorities that are far more

0:19:520:19:55

important to some others, and I

understand that.

Maybe there's not

0:19:550:19:58

much right now, Central focus on

these issues, because so much of the

0:19:580:20:08

political oxygen is being sucked up

by Brexit. You're a conservative MP,

0:20:080:20:13

you say you join the party not for

strong ideological reasons, but

0:20:130:20:20

because you had things to

accomplish. And we talked about

0:20:200:20:22

those. But you have to take a view

on Brexit now. Are you prepared to

0:20:220:20:26

break with your party on the issue

of a customs union, to say that

0:20:260:20:30

Britain needs to stay inside a

customs union?

I am not, I'm afraid,

0:20:300:20:37

I'm one of those who voted to

remain, if I had my vote again, I

0:20:370:20:40

would vote again, I would go to

leave. I can completely see why

0:20:400:20:46

swathes of this country decided they

did not want to be part of the

0:20:460:20:50

European Union any more, and what

communities in this country have

0:20:500:20:52

felt about the EU and how

politicians tried to sell that to

0:20:520:20:57

them, that is our job as

politicians, to represent that, and

0:20:570:21:00

I can see that across the country. I

was in Munich two weeks ago, and

0:21:000:21:03

everyone -- every time I went to the

continent, I could see why this

0:21:030:21:06

country wants to leave the EU. We

need to get that done, if I got to

0:21:060:21:10

the doors in Plymouth, lots of

people think we have left already,

0:21:100:21:12

and we need to get that done. If

that requires leaving the customs

0:21:120:21:17

union, then I'm afraid we get on

with it, because people are asking

0:21:170:21:21

us to answer other fundamental

questions around the NHS and

0:21:210:21:24

economy, and we cannot get onto

those walls we continue to pick up

0:21:240:21:27

the bones of Brexit.

A former leader

of your country, John Major, says

0:21:270:21:31

this is so important that Parliament

ultimately must decide the fate of

0:21:310:21:37

the Brexit deal. He says it should

not be decided on party lines, every

0:21:370:21:41

MP should vote with their conscience

in a free vote. Do you agree with

0:21:410:21:45

him?

Given the arithmetic of the

moment, it is pretty much a free

0:21:450:21:49

vote. I am a huge fan of John

Major... The numbers are very slim,

0:21:490:21:53

people are prepared to vote either

way. You will get a situation where

0:21:530:21:58

people will vote with their

consciences. But what I would say on

0:21:580:22:01

this is John Major, lots of respect

for him and Tony Blair, who has

0:22:010:22:05

spoken on this today, we have to

understand that they're selling of

0:22:050:22:12

this European Union contest project

contributed to where we are today.

0:22:120:22:15

And have people been given a view on

the Lisbon treaty, had we address

0:22:150:22:20

people's concerns on immigration, we

would not be here. Now we need a

0:22:200:22:24

fresh approach, and that strategic

vision about what Brexit means in

0:22:240:22:27

Britain going forward past next

year.

Is interesting you say we need

0:22:270:22:32

a strategic vision, you're not

getting that from Theresa May. Is it

0:22:320:22:35

time for somebody else to lead your

party?

Changing Prime Minister at

0:22:350:22:39

the moment is one of the worst

things we could possibly do, because

0:22:390:22:43

we have to form a resilient base

around her so she can go to the

0:22:430:22:48

European Union iMac you said this

government, very recently, it is

0:22:480:22:55

being too resident to meet the

challenges of the day.

We need

0:22:550:22:58

leadership.

We need leadership.

Every time Theresa May does

0:22:580:23:04

something, whether she says a

statement about leaving the Dutch

0:23:040:23:08

customs union or not leaving the

customs union, she gets a lesson for

0:23:080:23:11

my colleagues on one side of the

argument. And she is hemmed in by

0:23:110:23:14

this process. However you feel about

Brexit now, any division apart from

0:23:140:23:20

the premise or and away from the

Government, if you are a member of

0:23:200:23:22

this party, if you look at it from

Europe, you can only see that we are

0:23:220:23:26

going to get seen off, and we will

get...

Isn't the truth of -- that

0:23:260:23:35

this is tearing her party apart?

I

do not accept that, I accept that

0:23:350:23:38

there are serious challenges around

this. I would not stick my hand in

0:23:380:23:41

the sand and pretend it isn't. But I

do not think this is a valid --

0:23:410:23:45

defining issue of the Conservative

Party. I know I can be alone in that

0:23:450:23:49

regard, but I think being part of

the modern Conservative Party is not

0:23:490:23:56

getting things right, like public

services, infrastructure, that is

0:23:560:23:59

what being in this party is about.

This is an issue we absolutely have

0:23:590:24:03

to tackle because it has been going

on for long before I turned up here.

0:24:030:24:06

But when we get to 2019, we have to

give people to vote for.

Johnny

0:24:060:24:16

Mercer, we must end it there, but

thank you for being on Hardtalk.

0:24:160:24:20

Pleasure, thanks very much.

Thank

you very much indeed.

0:24:200:24:32

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?


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