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Military to Member of Parliament: The experience of veterans in Westminster

Labour MP Dan Jarvis and Conservative Security Minister Tom Tugendhat MP (Helmand, 2007)

7 min read

What is it like to transition from military service to being an MP? Tali Fraser meets parliamentarians from the network of veterans in Westminster to talk camaraderie, slang and safety concerns

Veterans are a fairly well-represented group in Parliament, in numbers at least, and there is a network of veteran MPs that crosses parties and even reaches back to their time before entering the House.  Take Dan Jarvis and Security Minister Tom Tugendhat who met while they were both serving in Afghanistan – and they even have the photograph to prove it. “I sort of joke with Tom that I was quicker to realise there was a life on the other side of the armed forces in this place. Although I got there before him, it didn’t come to my surprise that he came after,” the Labour MP for Barnsley Central, says. 

For Richard Foord, Liberal Democrat MP for Tiverton and Honiton, it was perhaps a clearer path. During his time at Sandhurst he was branded “an inky swat” by the college’s adjutant after winning the Sheikh Salem Al Sabah prize for Defence and International Affairs: “It wasn’t necessarily well regarded to be reading late into the night when you should have been at the bar!” 

Richard Foord as a young lieutenant Platoon Commander at an Army Training Regiment
Richard Foord as a young lieutenant Platoon Commander at an Army Training Regiment

But he found upon going into the field army that being an “inky swat” was actually “very well regarded” – and his desire to have “some bearing” on the United Kingdom’s defence and international affairs served as “a real incentive to get elected to Parliament”. 

“If ten years ago I was told I would end up here, I would have been pleasantly surprised,” Foord jokes: “I think it’s a very natural thing if you’re somebody who challenges and questions things and asks, ‘Why is it like this?’ ‘How can it be better?’ to then take a view on politics, particularly as an opposition politician.” 

When he first entered Parliament – last year, in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election – Jarvis was one of the first to approach him and let him know that “there is a real camaraderie” between veterans in Parliament.  

The day before we meet, Foord bumped into fellow veteran MP Adam Holloway in a lift on the estate, and the Conservative MP for Gravesham suggested a veteran social evening. The very prospect has Jarvis wanting to hide his passport, he jokes: “A night out with Adam Holloway, you couldn’t say for certain that at the end of the evening you wouldn’t find yourself in another country, possibly Ukraine.” 

In fact, just a week earlier, Holloway had indeed visited Ukraine: “I still think there’s no substitute for getting there and getting a feeling for what’s going on.” He got into some trouble for his first visit to the country, going with some friends only two or three days after the invasion began, at a time when government guidance warned against visits. 

Adam Holloway (Iraq, 1991)
Adam Holloway (Iraq, 1991)

Holloway is unhappy with what he calls a “deeply inexperienced political class” so appreciates the presence of those who have been out on the ground. He flags an occasion when he was giving a presentation about the Taliban to the National Security Council and the prime minister at the time, questioning him on why Holloway thought they weren’t a threat to the streets of Britain: “I mean, if you know anything about the Taliban, they are a nasty and evil outfit, but they are based in the east and south of Afghanistan, they have never so much as thrown a petrol bomb in a western city. They’re not the same as Al Qaeda… to have that level of misunderstanding at the beginning, with John McCain thinking the same thing, it was extraordinary.” 

But he does believe you have to be selective about casting back to your days of service and says, with a grin: “There are a few people here who talk about nothing else and get off about themselves, so I find that rather irritating.” 

Although all three belong to different parties, they each served in the armed forces. Holloway commissioned into the Grenadier Guards; Jarvis commissioned into the Parachute Regiment; and Foord commissioned into the Educational and Training Services.  

When I left the army I thought that I would never see any of my friends killed in action again

There is a consensus among them that perhaps Parliament could do with embracing some of the military standards of life and the one that Jarvis reaches for is “the sense of selfless service”. 

“I think, frankly, we should work a little bit harder to make sure that this place better reflects the sort of nature of that service, values and standards that we expect from those who put on a uniform,” he says. “It’s a mark of shame on our politics, that there are some very senior members of Parliament behaving in a way and doing things that would not be tolerated in other walks of life, not least in terms of the armed forces.” 

Holloway has a similar observation as to what politicians could learn from the military: “I think we owe it to the British people, as we do to our soldiers to select the best man or woman for a job. 

“In the army, people are chosen for a particular task, based on their skill set: whether you need a linguist, you need a medic, you need a radio operator, you need someone who’s very strong. That is absolutely not the case in politics, people are given jobs for completely the wrong reasons.” 

This is the case, he says, across all parties – and in doing so, they are “letting the public down” – but he won’t name names. 

Foord puts it in a slightly more positive light than his colleagues, instead pointing to what having the “inescapable” experience of service, which he claims “is not always a good thing”, can bring to the table: “If you know what it’s like to have that liability on your own life, if you know what it’s like to serve and to have those sort of same feelings of pre-deployment that service personnel feel, that’s got to serve you well when you’re making decisions about people today.” 

Dan Jarvis (Helmand, 2007)
Dan Jarvis (Helmand, 2007)

The camaraderie – or the “banter” as Jarvis puts it – that they all agree veteran MPs share is part of what helps them transcend the usual divides of party politics. The Labour MP says it makes it easier to sidle up to ministers who “share that bond of comradeship” and ask “is this really the right approach”. 

He adds: “I’ve done that on a very regular basis with defence ministers and hopefully there have been occasions where you’ve been able to make a constructive contribution, not in Hansard, and it’s not in The House magazine, but you’ve been able to actually nudge things along a bit.” 

You can even tell who the other veterans are by a “shadow language” they often don’t realise they are using, Foord says, fueled by military phrases. His favourite is referring to someone as being “Jack, or selfish”. 

Serving might provide some perspective on the pressures that come up in Parliament, but as Jarvis poignantly adds, there is one thing he did not imagine would carry over from his time in the forces: “When I left the army I thought that I would never see any of my friends killed in action again. Two of them have been: Jo Cox and David Amess. Two of them have been killed, effectively in action, in politics.” 

Now, when people approach him in his constituency, Jarvis finds his eyes darting, looking over his shoulder for any risk: “I don’t want constituents to think I am not paying attention because I am looking around… I want to be able to wander about and chat to people without having to worry that something’s going to happen. We all expect that something terrible will happen again, at some point.”

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