In politics, we talk a lot about Defence Policy, and also the welfare of our troops, but do we ever think about the relationship between individual Service personnel, their dependants and politics?
Let me, as a former RAF man, and with a son and son-in-law in the Army, attempt to give a view to those who have never really known Service life. That view, of course, changes over time and between the three Services. At one extreme, you have Service personnel who lead a reasonably settled existence, particularly long-term careerist officers and Senior NCOs. They will often buy a house, often close to a “clutch” of bases, settle their family there in order to obtain a settled education for their children, and the breadwinner becomes a weekly commuter when posted away. They become part of the community they settle in, and will start to see political life like the rest of us, registering to vote locally, but unable to participate in politics as for other public servants. And, during the time I served, a large proportion of the RAF was like that, a fair proportion of the Army, and the elements of the Royal Navy who did not set sail too often, albeit they had a “home port” policy so that families could at least be settled.
At the other extreme, in this day and age of much slimmer margins and the fighting of foreign wars, the service soldier, airman or sailor has precious little time at home with his family except when they receive well-earned disembarkation leave on return home. Even at home, they are busy training and exercising for the next deployment, and the opportunities for voting are slim. They have a choice in order to register to vote: they can take the trouble to register locally as we do, or register as a Service voter in their home town. There is a website to make it easy for them to register, to help them find the local authority of their home town, and the opportunity to apply for a postal or proxy vote on the same form. The same method is available to dependants.
However, sadly, precious few of them take up this opportunity. Younger people are not so interested in politics as the oldies, and their life is so busy with work, rest and play that registering to vote is the last thing on their mind. But, when the servicemen are overseas, on deployment, the families are at home, our communities need to think on what help they can give to locally-based service personnel and their dependants – as I have advocated in another article.
And what does a serviceman think when a politician visits their unit or in the field? We might think cynically that they are just there for the photo opportunity, and indeed some may well have that motivation, but with my present-day connections I have the inside track on this!
There are rarely political visits to Afghan any more – there’s no media interest in the campaign now. When the Prime Minister, Defence Minister or Leader of the Opposition visit they speak more to the commanding officer – the Lieutenant Colonels and above to understand the problems, so the troops and junior officers only see him in passing. Visits can be very staged, but they have a tight schedule, the timing of their visits are secret, and nor do they want to hang about in a war zone for long.
One view is that the visits of senior politicians are good for the troops, as it shows that they’re interested in servicemen and they are being looked after at the highest level. And you have to admit that on Defence, at Parliamentary Questions, they really are well briefed and in touch with existing campaigns (if not prospective ones like Syria!). That knowledge only comes through getting out to the forward locations. And they are talking about people’s lives too, and they know how dearly the British people think of our service personnel.
But other, less important politicians are just seen as a nuisance, using up resources and taking up spaces on flights. Mind you, military tourism is pretty much dead now as no politicians seem to care what’s going on unless someone dies. That is a reflection of the political benefit or damage that can be had from what is going on in the battlefield: the cynical will say they only care when the body-bags are coming home, to limit the political damage, but then the generous will say it shows they care! Take your pick.
I hope our UKIP MEPs and (in future) MPs will think about the kind of relationships they should foster with service personnel after reading this.