There was a commotion by the back gate. I grabbed my rifle and headed over. The week beforehand I was shooting in through the hinges at insurgents trying to over-run the base that was now my home for another hot summer in the Afghan desert. The gate was covered by a sentry. I shouted up to him. He told me there was a man at the back gate seeking medical help for something in his arms.
I opened the gate cautiously. The young Afghan man started shouting at me in Pashtun. I caught the odd word, but was comforted by the presence of my translator who had appeared behind me, having been summoned by the sentry.
The man dumped the bloody rags in his hands into my arms. I peeled them back to find a dead baby girl in my arms, her face almost entirely removed. I checked for vital signs, but she was clearly dead; a bloody mess. The Afghan was asking if there was anything I could do. I asked him what had happened. He indicated that she had fallen off the back of his motorbike.
I told him there was unfortunately nothing I could do. He grabbed her back off me, wrapped her entirely in the blankets and slung her body over his shoulder, before riding off one-handed down past the base and back out into the desert to our north.
I was stunned by his disregard for his own daughter’s human life. I wondered what had caused it. Was it the immediate challenges of living in a war zone – sheer desperation to get for A to B; or was it a more cultural desperation – a casual regard for safety crafted by living through years of continuous war.
But these visceral tragedies are not confined to war-torn Nations or developing countries, as I discovered last week in Plymouth.
On the Thursday night I was visiting a residential special school for children who had extreme behavioural difficulties and had been taken into care. Whilst there, I had dinner and shared a games night with some of the children and young people. A couple of cases stood out. One concerned a young man called Ben. Ben, aged four at the time he was taken into care, used to live with his mother and baby sister who was just seven months. They didn’t live far from me.
One weekend Ben’s mother had gone out on yet another drug and alcohol fuelled binge, and left Ben to look after his little sister. He had been told to keep away from the front door. Four days later Ben was found by neighbours in his under-stairs cupboard, cradling his now dead baby sister, waiting for his mother to come home.
Ben was not alone. Keith, another boy I spent time with, had been coming to the centre for two years now. His mother used to dress him up as a female and sell him on a nightly basis for sex to fund her drug habit.
The following day I went to visit Trevi House – also in Plymouth – a facility designed to keep mothers and children together as the mother goes through rehabilitation for drug or alcohol dependency, thus doubling her chances of recovery. It is the only service of its kind in the UK that we know of, and it is in Plymouth – some thing I am immensely proud of. By addressing addiction whilst supporting parenting and tackling issues around domestic abuse, Trevi House is able to offer families a new start and break cycles that are frequently inter-generational.
Back in London it is all about Europe. Fanatically so. I get that. But the referendum will come, and it will go. By the end of 2016 it will barely be remembered.
I should probably confess that I have not had a single email about this European Settlement. We must sort out the European question of course. But everyday we obsess about it, we must also understand that this is of secondary importance to so many; including me.
On Monday the NHS Taskforce report into Mental Health was released, revealing inadequate, underfunded care leading to ‘thousands of tragic and unnecessary deaths’. Earlier this year in January, the Prime Minster gave a critical speech on Mental Health and Life Chances. Now this is something we will still be talking about at the end of 2016, and undoubtedly 2020. I hope we can obsess about these issues with equal vigour.
The modern Conservative Party must refocus swiftly afterwards this European Vote. Mental Health (75% of sufferers receiving no help at all; life expectancy shortened by 15-20 years; cost to the UK economy estimated at £105bn); child sexual abuse, exploitation and neglect; poverty, and the lack of ‘life chances’ for too many in 21st Century Britain. For these are the issues on which we will ultimately be judged; not Europe.
Last year on a visit to Portsmouth, the PM was asked whether the amount spent on access to residential rehab for addictions would be continued. The PM stated that he was ‘committed to funding abstinence-based rehabilitation. Rather than maintaining people on substitutes like methadone, we have to help more people get off drugs and into work’. That comment in and of itself belied an understanding of ‘life-chances’ well beyond that of his predecessors.
We have since seen his impressive Conference Speech in 2015 setting out a clear ‘Social Justice’ agenda, and a landmark contribution from him on Mental Health and Life Chances in January of this year. That we have a Premier who ‘gets it’ so clearly is deeply encouraging.
The Conservative Party of the past fell-out over Europe. That cannot happen again. There is a Nation to be won out there, and we have the best opportunity for a generation to do so.
We must always remind ourselves that while we may have our majority in the Commons, last May we offered something that the vast majority in our Country did not chose. We either didn’t convince them, or they voted for someone else. So we have some way to go in becoming the ‘One Nation’ party so often talked about.
And in my embryonic experience of the current political scene, society is willing us on. Of course society wants financial stability so that we can afford shiny new boats and planes for the Armed Forces and investment in our Infrastructure; however society also wants financial stability to see the life chances of the most vulnerable transformed, as well as the other stuff.
Skilful, socially aware financial management means that we can look after our most vulnerable better, intervening sooner and with more success in our most complex families is Compassionate Conservatism in action. After Europe is settled, lets please refocus and ensure that stories like Ben’s become more and more rare, for this is our best chance for a long time.
The Prime Minister promised the Life Chances Strategy in January; some off us are keenly awaiting this, so it can be a focal point and a real chance for the Government to start delivering this year.
Let’s get this Europe thing done, but then let’s get out there and make this ‘One Nation’ commitment a reality. There’s a new direction to be taken afterwards. Don’t miss it. It’s important.
Johnny Mercer is the Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View