Johnny Mercer and Lord West: Fighting Talk
6 min read
A generation apart but with a shared background serving their country in government and the military, former veterans minister Johnny Mercer and Admiral Lord Alan West, former First Sea Lord, discuss defence. Chaired by Kate Proctor.
Kate Proctor: “Lord West, was Johnny Mercer right to resign when the government failed this spring to put into law legal protections for veterans of the Troubles?”
(Both laugh) Lord West: “Well … I would never, ever question Johnny’s principles! Of course he felt strongly about it and did what he felt was right. It was so disgusting [the way he was treated]. It’s the veterans we have let down but he was let down himself and put in a difficult position.
“I would have been furious if, in the course of trying to look after my sailors, I’d been told one thing, only to then have it fall down. I’d have been bloody furious, I can tell you. We were in similar meetings where we heard assurances that Northern Ireland veterans would be protected.”
Jonny Mercer: “There are 2.2 million veterans in this country, and they have a degree of expectation when you stand next to them at elections and make promises. And if you’re not going to deliver, then it puts you in a very difficult position. My entire two years in government, as veterans minister, I’ve got to be honest, I was treated like shit throughout. So I’m quite pleased to be shot of it. But if a government was to come in and change the way it did veterans’ affairs, then I’d be quite pleased to have another go.”
KP: “What should the government do to help veterans from the Northern Ireland conflict right now?”
JM: “There are solutions available, but you can’t have an amateur go at this. Clearly we cannot live in a country where those who break the law are not held to account. But within that space there must be mechanisms to prevent going after men essentially until they die for their service on operations.
“The secretary of state for Northern Ireland [Brandon Lewis] is quite heavily off the pace. I asked him the other day if he’d actually met any of the soldiers going through this process. He said he couldn’t meet Dennis Hutchings [a veteran subject to legal proceedings] because it was sub-judice, as though Dennis was the only individual going through this process. There’s about 200 people who have gone through this already!
“That demonstrates to me a complete lack of knowledge around legacy. I think we will eventually [make the change] because I’m just going to campaign harder and harder, and make ministers’ lives more and more miserable until they actually follow through on it.”
My entire two years as veterans minister, I was treated like shit
KP: “To pivot to Lord West’s area of expertise, as a former naval man, what do you make of the Royal Navy’s carrier strike group and their seven-month operation from the North Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific? Will this win us friends and allies?”
LW: “Our allies, particularly the Americans but [also] the Australians, New Zealanders, and the small countries around the South China Sea, are really delighted they’re going. In fact the Americans are so pleased, they’re providing jets for the carrier.
“And the Australian trade agreement opens up other things like the trans-Pacific global trade agreement, so this is all very important stuff for us. I took a carrier of over 20 ships out to the Far East, to Japan, and to the Hong Kong withdrawal in 1997. I signed £2.5m-worth of trade deals while on the trip.
“There are lots of benefits and it’s why I worry because we haven’t been spending enough on defence. We haven’t really got enough ships to ensure that all the places we need a ship, to ensure stability, can be done while we are running carrier battle groups.”
JM: “A growing Royal Navy is important and the equipment we have now is extraordinary. I welcome an ambitious carrier group deployment and certainly wish them well.”
LW: “Am I allowed to talk about the army at all?”
KP: “Yes, if Johnny will let you.”
JM: (Laughing) “Yeah, what do you think about the army?”
LW: “I am very concerned about the reduction in the size of the army. The line one hears, that ‘Oh the army aren’t deployed all the time, you don’t need that many people.’ Well that’s an old Treasury argument. You base [numbers] on your contingency requirements, as well as your actual requirements, and I think we’ve reduced it too much. And this’ll surprise Johnny, having done the [army] platoon commanders course in 1966 …”
JM: “Did you turn up to the wrong training station?”
LW: (Laughs) “Well a lot of people teaching there had been in the Second World War and the message they gave me was you need artillery and bloody tanks. You need firepower and I hope our army remembers that. A lot of that can be done with long-range stuff, I know. But when people spend so much money to try and kill tanks, it means they must be pretty important.”
JM: “That figure of 70,000 [the number of soldiers the regular army will be reduced to] … everyone has disowned it. I spent my time [in government] going from the Treasury to the service chiefs to the secretary of state, asking who came up with 70,000. Nobody could tell you.
“There’s a bigger issue there though, Alan, I think. Which is if you go to a general election and you say I’m not going to cut the size of the army, then you cut the size of the army, it speaks to greater challenges around your ethos and values towards military service. Politically speaking, I think that’s pretty foolish.”
LW: “You’re right Johnny; constantly they were saying ‘We won’t reduce the size of the army.’”
JM: “They would never get away with that in the United States.”
KP: “How concerned are you about the state of relations between the West and Russia right now?”
LW: “I am very concerned and find it very difficult to work out exactly what Putin wants. He is irrational. The Crimea issue was handled badly by the West and I had sympathy with Russia – I’ve been there lots of times and they all speak Russian.
“The Ukraine issue [though], that’s very bad news. The fact he’s got more nuclear submarines west of the UK since any time since the cold war, and using WMD [weapons of mass destruction] on our native soil [in the Salisbury Novichok attack]; before nuclear weapons and when we were a greater power, we would have gone to war for that.”
JM: “Things have worsened in the last 10 years. I have a lot of sympathy with what Alan says, though I slightly disagree on Crimea. That’s more to do with how you achieve your political objectives and how the Russian state chose to do that, but the threats are very clear.
“I am also worried about the Chinese; there’s no limit to their ambition in that space. And that’s why we need to get defence and security in this country right.”
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