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Sat 17 August 2019
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Iain Overton’s analysis of how Parliament’s 50 MPs with service backgrounds vote on issues such as military intervention, Brexit, immigration and surveillance – and why this should be scrutinised.

There is much political capital to be made today from being a veteran of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. 

Of the 11 Tory MPs who have thrown their hat into the ring to be the next Prime Minister, two (Rory Stewart and James Cleverly) have served in the British Army.

Other big names in the party – including Tobias Ellwood and Penny Mordaunt – have service backgrounds in various forms, while backbencher MPs like Johnny Mercer and Mark Francois seem permanently to be exploiting their links to the military to get their moment in the political limelight. 

There are 50 Members of Parliament with current or past service records, out of a total of 650. And they certainly are of a type. Of the 50, 44 are Conservatives, 48 are white, and 49 are male. This means that about one in seven Tory MPs have had a service background.

Of these MPs, 22 served in the regular army, 21 served or serve in the Territorial Army, three served in the Royal Navy, and two served or serve in the Royal Navy Reserves. Two MPs served in the Royal Air Force.

The fact that the majority of politicians with service careers have predictably illiberal voting habits must not be forgotten in an age when veterans are all too often placed upon a political pedestal.

Commentators seem to praise the virtues of having such military statesmen and women. We live, so the argument goes, in an age where career parliamentarians are rooted in self-interest, whereas ex-servicemen and women bring honed management skills to Westminster.

New Statesman article last March claimed that “military experience is conducive to teamwork” and that it offered an alternative to the “mass, callow and uninspiring” career politician.

Conversely, we have a media that routinely attacks politicians who are not seen to be blindly supporting veterans. They are accused, like the Labour party has been, of “abandoning“, or “hounding” those who have donned khaki. 

It was of little surprise, then, to see Boris Johnson’s Twitter banner, until recently, depicting him shaking hands with a line of ex-Paratroopers – virtue by association.

The notion of such virtue in political life, though, has consequences.

When it comes to approving the use of military force to defeat Britain’s enemies, a recent article in The Economist opined that veteran MPs were “less likely to resort to war than civilians, precisely because they know its cost”.

This is not true.

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Of those 50 MPs with current or past service, an established voting record for or against British military intervention overseas (i.e. the casting of more than two votes) could be established for 44. Of these, about three-quarters (33) could be considered ‘hawkish’ (i.e. the majority of their votes were in favour of military action). Overall, there have been 268 total votes cast by current MPs with armed services backgrounds for or against military intervention. Of these, 187 (70%) favoured action: more than the commons voting average.

Of the Conservative MPs, only one could be considered a ‘dove’ (John Baron). Notable ‘hawks’ include Penny Mordaunt, the first ever female Defence Secretary, who voted in favour of military intervention in five out of six votes; International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, with three out of four votes being in favour; Sir Hugo Swire, with five out of seven; and Tobias Ellwood with five out of six.

But, it is not just on matters of war that service-background MPs have predictable voting habits.

Veteran MPs have consistently voted against bills that would have promoted gay rights (71% against), and a notable 100% of veteran MPs’ votes on the hunting ban were opposed to it. Only 12% of votes from MPs with a service background supported assisted dying.

Veteran MPs are also largely Brexiteers – routinely opposed to UK membership of the EU (91% against) and the right to remain for EU nationals (93% against).

As a group, they routinely oppose raising welfare benefit (only 7% voted for bills that would do this); whilst also voting against increasing the tax rate applied to income over £150,000 (71%).  They also did not feel that bankers’ bonuses should be taxed (87%).

We live, so the argument goes, in an age where career parliamentarians are rooted in self-interest, whereas ex-servicemen and women bring honed management skills to Westminster.

100% of their votes were in favour of mass surveillance, and 96% were in favour of a stricter asylum system. Meanwhile, 65% votes cast by veteran MPs were against measures to prevent climate change.

Clearly, veteran MPs are a powerful force in Parliament, but one that has a very distinctive face.  They invariably vote for military intervention, against liberal social issues, for Brexit, against benefit increases, against higher taxation for high earners, and for stricter immigration and surveillance.

It is undeniable that some veterans have risked much for the preservation of the liberties that make the writing of articles such as this possible, and there are many veterans who are stalwarts of liberalism.

But, the fact that the majority of politicians with service careers have predictably illiberal voting habits must not be forgotten in an age when veterans are all too often placed upon a political pedestal.

The 50 MPs with service backgrounds are: John Baron, Richard Benyon, Crispin Blunt, Campbell Gregory, Leo Docherty, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Richard Drax, Iain Duncan Smith, Tobias Ellwood, James Heappey, Adam Holloway, Dan Jarvis, Johnny Mercer, Andrew Mitchell, Mike Penning, Jim Shannon, Nicholas Soames, Bob Stewart, Rory Stewart, Sir Hugo Swire, David Tredinnick, Ben Wallace, Richard Bacon, James Cleverly, David Davies, David Davis, Mark Francois, James Gray, Chris Green, Dominic Grieve, Simon Hart, Philip Hollobone, Mark Lancaster,  Sir Edward Leigh, Clive Lewis, Ian Liddell-Grainger, Jack Lopresti, Bob Seely, Andrew Selous, Sir Desmond Swayne, Paul Sweeney, Tom Tugenhadt, Bill Wiggin, Andrew Bowie, Andrew Murrison, Andrew Bridgen, Julian Lewis and Penny Mourdant.

Iain Overton is executive director of the UK charity ‘Action on Armed Violence’ and author of ‘The Price of Paradise: How the Suicide Bomber Shaped the Modern World‘. Follow him on Twitter @iainoverton

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