From the battlefield to the green benches: In conversation with Jamie Stone, Adam Holloway and Bob Stewart
Jamie Stone, Adam Holloway and Bob Stewart share a personal connection to the British military. In the lead up to this year’s Remembrance Sunday, the three MPs reflect on Afghanistan, Northern Ireland legacy court cases and what the day means to them. Chaired by Noa Hoffman
Noa Hoffman (NH): I’d like to start by asking what Remembrance Day means to you all from a personal perspective.
Bob Stewart (BS): It means a time when I remember the people that I’ve known who have died. That goes all the way back to when I was five, when I saw my father’s battalion wiped out and all the officers were killed except for him. I remember them, let alone my own personal experiences.
Jamie Stone (JS): It’s personal for me because I served as a private soldier in the territorial army, which is a very different beast to Adam and Bob. But my father served with the 14th army in Burma. I remember my father telling me that on Remembrance Sunday, before the stroke of the hour, the entire street would stop, and everyone would stand in complete silence. It meant a huge amount to my father because my grandfather’s two brothers were killed. That made it personal, and my father took Remembrance Sunday very seriously. I adored my father; he was a brave soldier during the Second World War. It’s in his memory and that of his family that I take the day very seriously indeed.
Adam Holloway (AH): I always reflect on two things: one of my soldiers who was killed; and I think of the way that politicians send young men off to wars, not with the scantest of information or knowledge about what they’re doing. In the last 20 years we have cast tens of millions of people in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan into unimaginable insecurity.
NH: Three months after Britain’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, how do you think the retreat was handled by the Ministry of Defence (MoD)? Do you think the withdrawal should have happened at all?
BS: The lesson of history is that we’ve always had our backsides kicked whenever we’ve been into Afghanistan, and my regiment has been there on four separate campaigns. Each time we’ve not come out with a great, glorious victory. The lesson of Afghanistan is that it’s an extremely difficult country and we shouldn’t actually think that we can go and solve it by sending in military forces, which is what we did. With regard to the withdrawal, anyone that’s got an iota of military understanding would know you do not stop your air power first, it’s the last thing you stop. They did it in reverse – they stopped air power so the troops on the ground had no cover and in consequence the Taliban made huge gains. That was a mistake.
JS: Bob is absolutely right about the air power. Air power has been crucial since the Second World War onwards and he who commands the skies commands the battlefield. I want to put on the record that although I’m an opposition politician, I do think that Ben Wallace as Secretary of State went above and beyond in terms of the way he conducted himself and helped backbenchers like me get interpreters etc out. My daughter did three tours of Afghanistan. She’s never moaned about it and she did it in the same spirit as everyone else did – got on with the job. But I sometimes wonder, now that we’ve come out, does she and do other people say, well what was that all about?
NH: What do you make of the government’s Troubles amnesty plan?
BS: I don’t particularly like it, but I understand that we’re in a situation where we may have no options. Fundamentally, and all three of us definitely agree on this, I want those people that have been dragged backwards and forwards to court, for that to stop. I’m 72 and I’ve been involved in fatality shootings in Northern Ireland. I do actually feel that I’ve got a right to say this: we’re going to have to suck on it and dislike it. I want those people that are under this pressure, with this pressure against them, to stop.
AH: Apart from the odd bad apple, there is absolutely no equivalence between the British troops and the terrorists in Northern Ireland. What you see happening now is almost an industry of lawyers flapping around this like vultures.
NH: I’m interested to hear what you make of the rise of China and its military ambitions. What implications will this have for the armed forces in Britain?
BS: The Chinese are expanding their military hugely. They’ve changed their doctrine; they’re practicing beach landings and I’m thinking of Taiwan. They’ve upgraded their equipment; they’re going for state-of-the-art aircraft carriers. China is militarily expanding and sending its fleets further and further towards us. Our friends in the region are extremely worried.
JS: We’re incredibly lucky in that Australia and New Zealand are our kith and kin. We owe it to them to stand by them. China is right on their doorsteps. I worry that we’re over stretching ourselves in terms of what we can do. I regret the cut in the size of British army. If we have to do something in Bosnia, it’s going to be harder than it was 10 years ago. I regret the fact that in the next four years, in an expansionist budget, we’re going to cut armed forces spending by 1.4 per cent.
AH: I think Bob and I would completely agree with that. Let’s not forget that hundreds of thousands of troops came from our traditional friends like India, New Zealand and Australia, to help us during the Second World War fighting fascism. We remember and honour them by continuing what they did. Therefore, we have to stand up to totalitarianism, whether it’s from China or anywhere else. But we do need the resources to do it, as Jamie says.
NH: How will you all be commemorating Remembrance Sunday this year?
BS: I’m going to the Beckenham War Memorial. I’d love to be at all the war memorials in my constituency. As soon as I’ve done that I’m going to jump on the train, come up to London, and join the old boys in my regiment at the pub.
JS: My time in the territorial army, if it taught me nothing else, taught me how to stand to attention to sing God Save the Queen. I shall do so on Remembrance Sunday in my hometown. Then one week later, I shall lay a wreath at the Polish War Memorial in Invergordon, which is a very moving service. After that, we shall retire to the social club in Invergordon and probably drink a certain amount of vodka.
AH: I have about seven remembrance events on Remembrance Sunday. I’m also having some friends for lunch, including a man who never met his father who was killed in Normandy.
NH: Thank you all, that was a really interesting and insightful conversation.
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