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Dan Jarvis: A quarter of a century in service

4 min read

What have I learned after 25 years? Ultimately, that service matters but it is hard. Harder than I imagined it would be.

A lot has changed since 8th September 1996. John Major was in No. 10. A sheep called Dolly was a household name. The Spice Girls were taking the music scene by storm. England experienced a gut-wrenching penalty shootout loss a few months previous – so at least some things don’t change!

Less significantly, it was when I pulled up in my battered old Metro at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, nervously clutching an ironing board to start my apprenticeship as an officer in the British Army. And so began a quarter of century in service.

I count myself fortunate to have had so many highs along the way. The pride of first putting on the coveted maroon beret awarded to paratroopers. The challenge of commanding a company of soldiers in Helmand under the most demanding circumstances. The honour of being elected to serve the people of Barnsley Central as their MP. The responsibility of leading South Yorkshire as its inaugural Mayor. Despite the relentless pressures, it has been an enormous privilege.

What have I learned after 25 years? Ultimately, that service matters but it is hard. Harder than I imagined it would be.

I didn’t always appreciate it at the time, but I now feel extremely grateful for the grounding I received in the Army. I wouldn’t be in the person I am today without it. Our Armed Forces provides the very best apprenticeship available anywhere in coping during tough times. Most importantly, you learn first-hand about the need for moral purpose and that people will follow you if there’s a clear direction of travel. Get it right and you will succeed; get it wrong and you will fail.

Whatever the difficulties and unpleasantness, hand on heart I can honestly say it is 100 per cent worthwhile

Although it is tempting to make comparisons between life in politics and the military, fundamentally, they are worlds apart. I recall coming to terms with the fact that the British Army’s values and standards weren’t just words or old-fashioned notions, but concepts to live your life by. I believed it then. I believe it now.

As I have become more experienced, I wish that all public servants lived by such a creed. We have Nolan’s Seven Principles of Public Life and some get it, but years of exposure to our political culture tells me that, too often, for many, these are just words, and are rarely lived by.

In the decade that I have been an MP, every moment has been spent in opposition as our country stumbles through a seemingly never-ending series of crises, from financial, political to health. All the while, successive Tory governments have torn away the social fabric of the communities I represent.

As Mayor, I am incredibly proud of all we have achieved but unlike the others, my powers and resources were not in place when I was elected. Consequently, I’ve had to fight for every single penny along the way.

Sadly, being in public life also means dealing with some grim experiences – verbal abuse and physical confrontation in the street, intrusion into family life and of course the death threats. But whatever the difficulties and unpleasantness, hand on heart I can honestly say it is 100 per cent worthwhile.

It is worthwhile when you protect and create thousands of jobs for your region. It is worthwhile when you change the law on organ donation and know that it will save lives. It is especially worthwhile when you receive a heart-warming thank you note from a constituent that you have helped – that always trumps the nonsense you get on social media.

One thing that does ring true in both the political and military worlds is that culture always beats strategy. Every time. In the end, it’s about what you actually do, not just what you say.

Often it won’t be easy, there will be all sorts of frustrations and frictions – “events” as they say – but show a clear lead and some courage and kindness and you’ll be heading in the right direction. And if all else fails, put the kettle on and have a hot brew – experience has taught me that it always helps!

The task ahead of us right now is far from easy. The scale of the challenge is herculean and sometimes overwhelming. We must tackle the climate emergency, rebuild our economy, and address the deep inequalities in our society. It will only be achievable if we give selfless service, provide absolute clarity on what we’re trying to accomplish and unite around a common purpose.

For me, service is about having the courage and the conviction to do just that. It is why I joined the Army, it is why twenty-five years on I serve in politics.


Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central, Mayor of South Yorkshire and a former British Army Major.

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