Dr Andrew Murrison is the Member of Parliament for South West Wiltshire and served as a medical officer in Iraq in 2003. His book Tommy this, an’ Tommy that; the military covenant is published by Biteback.
The Armed Forces and Society report, published last week by Lord Ashcroft claims one in five Servicemen has been the butt of abuse in public. It’s appalling, but comes as no surprise to me.
A few months ago I was accosted by a bearded bloke on a bike. ‘Baby murderer!’ Contorted, spittal-flecked face jammed in mine. I’m a politician, invective goes with the territory, but baby murderer? Except I was in uniform – as a Navy reservist, a medic as it happens.
We’ve come to a sorry pass when public servants in the Queen’s uniform stepping out in the middle of our capital city can’t pass by without being ‘dissed.’ And Lord Ashcroft’s timely and thoughtful study has shown my experience was not unusual.
A senior officer I know extremely well was recently instructed to remove his rank slides on boarding a commercial aircraft on duty. The airline’s Chief Executive has written to me dissociating his company from the practice. So, presumably, his employee was acting unilaterally, taking an easy liberty that would be unthinkable elsewhere.
Let’s be clear, the uniform I wore in central London last year and the insignia my friend was asked to remove does not belong to me or to him but to the Sovereign. It’s her uniform. Offering casual insult to it does not impugn the dignity of the wearer but that of the Queen and her taxpaying subjects. It would never happen in the US, France or Germany. Try it on in Turkey and you’ll end up in a very unhappy place.
Aggression of the sort highlighted by Lord Ashcroft’s research falls into two camps exemplified by my anecdotes. On the one hand, there’s issue-related angriness of the sort offered to me as ‘baby murderer.’ But the second, free-floating, unthinking, affront is worse. It found its purest and most egregious exposition in the complaint made by female bathers at the Leatherhead Leisure Centre in November 2007. Holding that amputees from a nearby military rehabilitation centre were taking too much space, they whined about paying to swim when the soldiers had not. And, bleated the watery harridans of Leatherhead, the men’s broken bodies might scare the children. If there is mitigation for such behaviour in Britain’s less favoured districts, the stockbroker belt contains not one ounce of it.
Harrods ejected an officer shopping after a Remembrance Day parade, later proclaiming that only soldiers in what it called ‘fatigues’ would be barred. The store added to the confusion in a letter to me. Apparently, servicemen in ‘smart parade-type barrack dress uniform’ would be admitted. I tried this out and, in fairness, was served without distinction among Harrods’ blue jean and ‘T’ shirt wearing customers.
In a similar vein, we had the spectacle of Charlie Gilmour, expensively educated son of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, protesting against tuition fees by swinging from the Cenotaph’s Union Flag. At the other end of both country and social spectrum, magistrates had to endure CCTV footage of one Wendy Lewis dropping her drawers, urinating and performing a sex act at Blackpool’s war memorial.
And yet despite the barbs and slights, it seems to me the public at large is lined up behind our Armed Forces as never before. It has shown itself perfectly capable of separating man from mission in a decade of controversial expeditionary warfare. Indeed, the Ashcroft report highlights much that is good among the bad. Charities like Help for Heroes have been massively successful and the government has responded to public sympathy by writing the military covenant – the compact between soldiers and their public – into statute. The Royal Wootton Bassett affect and empathy of the sort I witnessed at the repatriation of six Warminster-based soldiers through RAF Brize Norton in March are deeply impressive.
What’s to be done to turn the minority highlighted by Lord Ashcroft?
Firstly, right-thinking people must not be shy. Soldiers will not be embarrassed by strangers in the street thanking them, US-style, for their service. Respect legislation would be alien here but the law must draw parameters that reflect public sentiment. We should have the national self-confidence to make it clear that gratuitous offence shown to those that serve or have served is unacceptable and liable to be treated as an aggravating factor in sentencing. But, ultimately, we must remember the defining characteristic of a free society, the latitude people have to shame themselves.