It is the privilege of a lifetime to be elected to Westminster and to take my seat on these green Benches alongside so many new and talented one nation colleagues. While there is some personal irony to being referred to as “the cavalry”—not least because I cannot ride a horse—none of us is immune to the nature of the previous Parliament, nor to the need to make up for lost time now. I express my thanks to Members on both sides of the House for their warm welcome. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.
Entering Parliament for the first time is daunting: while I am slightly institutionalised by nature, this is a different kind of institution altogether, and I will admit to suffering the occasional bout of imposter syndrome. For those who pause for breath, the Palace is an ancient and inspiring place, full of echoes, whispers and the ghosts of those who have gone before. Indeed, the giants of our political history still sit among us. Who would dare to tread in their footsteps? But we have a chance to be a force for good, and it is incumbent upon us to do so.
It was during the Brexit doldrums of last October that I was fortunate to seize upon a fresh wind—I thank everyone at the Bracknell Conservative association for seeing something in me—and I left the Regular Army after proudly serving my country for 27 years. Handing in your ID card after a long career is no easy feat, but to do it with only six days’ notice was both unprecedented and unnerving. To any veteran who may be listening, I want to tell you that I absolutely get it. But the Army has done me proud, and I am grateful to everyone at the Ministry of Defence for showing me the door so quickly and allowing me to soldier on here.
It is customary at this point to pay tribute to my predecessor, but I would like to mention two, if I may. Andrew MacKay served as the MP for Bracknell for almost three decades before 2010. He was a loyal, much-loved and effective local politician. He is still spoken of fondly on doorsteps today, and has been a good friend to me since I was elected. More recently, Dr Phillip Lee also served this place with distinction, ploughing his own furrow as a man of conviction and always championing the causes dear to him. I thank both men for their huge contributions to Bracknell and for the legacies that they have left.
What of Bracknell itself? Nestled between the M3 and the M4 in east Berkshire, it is a new town, built in the late 1940s to offer an alternative to post-war London. It is characterised by one of the lowest rates of council tax in the country, a buoyant job market, near full employment, high-tech research and development facilities, and an abundance of international companies. It is indeed the silicon valley within the Thames valley, full of optimism for the post-Brexit economy and blessed with opportunity, as symbolised by the superb new Lexicon shopping centre.
It is no coincidence that Bracknell Forest Council has been able to get things done as a unitary authority that always balances its books. It is led by Mr Paul Bettison, one of the longest-serving council leaders in the UK; I commend him and all his staff and councillors. They serve their community with distinction, and I look forward to building a lasting relationship that is based on both give and take. We will also work closely with our friends at the neighbouring Woking Borough Council.
Bracknell is a great place to live, work and play, and has many open spaces that we must preserve from unsustainable house building. As a local boy, I am also fond of its people: they are hard-working, straightforward and blessed with a great sense of humour. During the election campaign, I was proudly informed by one constituent—please forgive me for quoting exactly—that
“you could win in Bracknell by pinning a blue rosette to a dog turd”.
I did, of course, thank him for what I took to be a compliment, but there is a serious point. I hope never to take this support for granted, and I am grateful to the people of Bracknell, Crowthorne, Finchampstead, Sandhurst and the uniquely named Wokingham Without for placing their trust in me.
I was proud, in 1993, to march up the steps of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, in the constituency that I now represent. In that time, I enjoyed some seminal experiences in amazing places with inspiring colleagues. Our recruiters will simply say that they are ordinary people doing extraordinary things, but the reality is much deeper. They come from all over the world to serve all over the world, notably from our great Commonwealth nations. They are multi-faith, male and female, gay and straight, black and white, and bisexual and transgender, and I have been proud to serve alongside every single one. Conversely, for those who have suffered the frustration or indignity of working alongside me, I can only apologise.
Right now, more than 10,000 people are serving in operations across the globe, away from friends and family, doing what they do without fuss and with complete humility. For some, the stakes are high, but military service is not just about fixing bayonets. For our combat and combat support arms, I have the highest regard, but it is also about everyone in the chain doing what they are paid to do. I would like to pay tribute to all those who sustain, particularly to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, the Royal Logistic Corps, my own corps, and our civil service and contractors. More than 230 personnel from my own unit, 27 Regiment Royal Logistic Corps in Aldershot, are today manning the green line in Cyprus, and a further 14 soldiers from 19 Tank Transporter Squadron in Bulford are in Estonia supporting our combat forces. I am proud of the work they are doing and I miss them greatly.
As for the future, our armed forces do not need a magic wand, but they do need to know that they are valued, supported and resourced for what they do. That is why we have a golden opportunity now, with the forthcoming strategic defence and security review, to get this right. Our combat capabilities are among the best in the world, but we also need to tackle the threats that come from the other domains, too, notably space and cyberspace. Greater exploitation of remote technology, information systems and autonomous platforms will be needed, and our surface naval fleet will require more ships if we are to maintain a global presence.
But you’re an Army man.
Indeed. Quantity does, of course, have a quality all of its own. We should also focus on those strategic enabling capabilities that allow us to maintain a fully expeditionary posture, such as additional airlift, transport ships and utility vehicles, plus specialist logistic capabilities such as port and railway operators, movers, drivers, tank transporters and air dispatchers.
Operating freedoms and resilience do come at a price, but—here is the big but—the SDSR, when it comes, must be aligned to a defence industrial strategy, which places British manufacturing at the heart of what we do. We already have some of the best research and development facilities in the world and a coalition of the willing, so let us design British, build British, buy British and sell British. Once we have reassured those who have boldly continued to preserve our nascent defence manufacturing capability, we can transform this impetus to other commercial sectors, too, so that we boost all of our exports and put the UK back on the map.
That is my vision for post-Brexit global Britain—a proud, united, and independent nation with a strong economy based on manufacturing and services trading freely all over the world and creating the wealth that we need to pay for our public services. To protect British interests, we will need an agile and influential Foreign Office, robust defence capabilities and bucketloads of soft power. We already have the right tools for this with our diverse multicultural society, our unrivalled diaspora, our media outlets and our fantastic Commonwealth, but there is a snag. If the Government are to avoid writing foreign policy cheques that they cannot cash, then the Ministry of Defence will need more than 2% of GDP in its account. Perhaps then, by employing the best brains and linking all of these essential ingredients into a single global strategy, we will have a golden thread that should see us right through to the next epoch and beyond.
Here at home, I will, of course, be proud to get behind the blue-collar domestic agenda of our manifesto. I believe that the offer is good for health, education, social care, employment, and law and order. Plus, there is yet more to come across the political spectrum. I look forward to doing my bit for Bracknell, too. Indeed, this one-nation Government will make the UK a better place, boost economic growth, enhance opportunity and preserve the enviable way of life that we have in this country. But not everyone has a house on the hill. In fact, very few do and we have a moral duty to support those less fortunate than ourselves. The scourge of poverty is one priority that we must tackle now, but there are two other areas where we, as a nation, are furthest from where we need to be.
Mental illness is the modern day epidemic and affects more people than we know. Many years ago, I lost my best friend to suicide, when he was just 28 years old, and that trail of devastation continues two decades on. To my mind, it is unthinkable that, in 2020, anybody should feel disenfranchised in our society, not just on the basis of their colour, creed or sexuality, but in the area of mental health. We have work to do to put this right and to overcome the stigma of asking for help. For those affected, it is okay to not feel okay, but we also need to invest more so that mental health gets some parity with physical health. Secondly, our collective approach to special needs education for our children is woeful. As an affected parent, my heart goes out to all those who are waiting for assessments, waiting for educational health and care plans and waiting to be taken seriously. Like mental health, this is the time bomb of our age, and we owe it to every child to see that they fulfil their potential, irrespective of what special gifts they have been given.
If there is a single theme in this maiden speech then it is service. I wish to finish, if I may, by saluting all those who put themselves in harm’s way to serve others. Our police, ambulance and fire services do an amazing job, so please spare a thought for those who watch over us throughout the night as we sleep safely in our beds. I also want to acknowledge the chefs, porters, kitchen staff, cleaners and Doorkeepers in this place—they are the true lifeblood of Parliament. Elsewhere across the UK, our nurses, teachers, careworkers, refuse collectors and other public servants on low incomes do so much for others, and the heroes of the voluntary and charity sector also selflessly give their time for free. It is they who breathe fresh air into our country. To those who do so much in support of the armed forces covenant, I salute you. It is also about parents everywhere. They, like my own, make sacrifices to ensure that their children have a better deal than the one that they had. It is this power of humanity and generosity of community spirit that sets us apart as a nation and truly binds our Commonwealth together.
Finally, what about us as politicians? To my mind, politics is not just about what we achieve, but the manner in which we deliver it. My humble instinct as a new MP is that politics should be about inclusion over exclusion, talent above ambition, friendship above division, and substance over image. We should also perhaps do more to heal those negative influences in society that still exist to undermine us today. The one thing that I do know, and that every single Member of this House shares, is that politics is ultimately about service.