Johnny Mercer is a member of the Defence Select Committee and MP for Plymouth Moor View.
Thursday was a tough day. 27 media engagements for a nobody from Plymouth who’s been an MP for five minutes – I’m afraid sometimes you stick you chin out and take what comes.
The image of that Syrian boy brought a visceral reality to many. The truth is that the scene has been enacted elsewhere hundreds if not thousands of times over the last five to seven years years…but without a camera to capture it.
I was determined not to react to it when it appeared on our screens on Wednesday – cruelly, for the Prime Minister, just moments after he had given an interview about the desperate situation in North Africa. My wife could not bear the image: the child happened to be lying lifeless in the surf in the precise body position that my two year-old daughter sleeps when I check on her at night. However, we cannot allow this one picture fundamentally to change our approach – and neither has it.
The policy that David Cameron outlined at the start is precisely right – a “comprehensive solution”: a multi-faceted approach in which one factor alone cannot bring success. And we should be proud of what the Conservative Party has contributed to this effort by way of support for military action in Iraq. The Prime Minister attempted to get Commons clearance for Syria too, but was thwarted by a two-faced Ed Miliband, backed by a weak-willed Labour Party.
We have contributed the single biggest sum of money to stabilising that part of the the world – almost £1 billion. These are proud achievements in a country that has seen the debate slide so far to the right to the degree that that a fair few of us Compassionate Conservatives (is there another kind?) feel uncomfortable when we visit our local Red Cross Refugee Centres.
I believe that the UK will take more refugees – and, again, I will be proud of that. But there must now be a change in the debate, an uptick in action and an aggressive pursuit of the root cause.
We should work night and day to get the message over that we understand and even share legitimate concerns surrounding economic migrants, and the subsequent effects on public services and our communities. But refugees are a completely separate matter, and we should not speak of them in the same breath.
No doubt MPs will be asked to consider military action in Syria in the autumn. We must now see a gear change in aggression towards the group of cowards labouring under the false name of Islamic State. There are young men and women in this country – many are my friends – who for some time have wanted desperately to engage this cult face to face. I urge anyone who joins in the inevitable debate that follows to think long and hard before they group under the banner of ‘our boys and girls in foreign fields’.
So let’s take this problem on. But there are many difficult days ahead, and there are no clean answers. We need to redefine what we see as ‘success’; we need to redefine what we see as a threat to our existence and our way of life, and we need to redefine our acceptance of risk and stand firm when the pull and push of military action starts to bite.
In Iraq in 2006-7, when U.S and UK Special Forces went up against an Al Qaeda group that was killing 3,000 people a month on the streets of Baghdad, an Al Qaeda Commander at the time complained that every member of his group went to bed at night in their homes fearing that they might not wake up again. An intelligence-led, multi-agency, multi-national man-hunting operation must be part of the Prime Minister’s “comprehensive strategy”. But, crucially, we must stand by him when the first bomb goes astray and unintended consequences arise; our military’s strength must be matched by our resolve at home.
And let’s seriously increase our support to groups currently supported by the US in Syria in whatever form they ask for our help: mentoring, precise control of bombs and missiles, medical support and heavy weapons – we have learned a great deal from our painful scars of Afghanistan and Iraq. But as I have always said, difficulty cannot be a reason not to get involved, and thus become an increasingly isolated ‘soft’ power nation.
This autumn, as the debate mounts, please remember how you felt on Thursday morning when you saw that dead boy. Remember him when you argue for us to change our commitment to giving away 0.7 per cent in GDP in foreign aid that the Prime Minister is rightly so proud of. Remember him when things don’t go our way, and disgracefully opportunistic and fickle political opposition grows louder.
And let’s make every individual who chooses the cause and flag of so-called Islamic State – however removed their link – feel their blood run cold, every time they even think that they hear a CH-47 Chinook helicopter with some old friends inside.