Can you believe that MPs give themselves a medal for visiting a war zone?
By Azeem Ibrahim
The other day I read that MPs get a medal just for visiting a war zone. If you cannot believe what you have just read, believe me: I couldn't either. They don't have to spend months in the country like our service personnel. They don't have to wait months after they come home to be presented with the thing. Nor do they have to display any particular bravery, contribute to the war, or do anything, really. They just have to get on a plane and have a look around.
The medal is a reward for ten or more years' membership of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, a body set up to encourage MPs to spend around 22 days a year with the military on duty. Their medal is made of silver and is attached to a crimson, gold and green ribbon representing the colours of the Lords, the Queen and the Commons. MPs in the scheme are also given a uniform, and are invited to take part at the entry level rank of Major. If they go on enough 'training' days, they can earn a promotion to the 'rank' of 'Colonel'.
So, compare and contrast. The armed forces have to serve in a war zone or display conspicuous bravery to be awarded a medal; MPs can get one just for dropping by. The real rank of 'Colonel' is one which is earned by years of dedication, discipline, getting up before dawn, selfless service to the defence of the realm, and bloody hard work; MPs reach a rank of the same name by sticking around in a 'scheme' for long enough. This is ridiculous.
Unsurprisingly, the awards have been criticised by ex-servicemen, the families of service personnel who have died in Iraq, and also by a senior officer who led British forces in Afghanistan. One Colonel said: "It seems a bit rich to give a medal to an MP for visiting a combat zone, yet the government is not prepared to give a medal to someone who has lost a leg or an arm in battle."
The scheme was set up by an ex-MP in 1988 'to give MPs a clearer idea of what life is like for service personnel'. "What I am trying to get them to do," he has said, "is support the men and women in the armed forces." Of course, this is a laudable aim. But did it not occur to him that perhaps medals and military-style promotions are not the most sensitive way to do it?
This scheme degrades the real medals that our brave troops get. It is right that medals are for acts of bravery and heroics, and anything less degrades the rightfully-earned medals earned the hard way.
Even politically, the insensitivity is shocking. After all the evidence over the last year that MPs set themselves apart from those they represent when deciding how much they should be allowed to charge to the taxpayer, one would have thought that your average MP would have been on the lookout for any practice which offered even a hint of insensitivity. And yet this badly sets them apart from those they are seeking to represent; it is an example of a particularly egregious and insensitive double standard. At least the expenses scandal was about greed. This is in many ways lower - it cheapens the lives of our armed forces.
It is perhaps possible to believe that this ex-Tory dreamed up the idea of these medals in good faith. But for MPs not to have twigged that it was offensive in the extreme shows an extraordinary lack of sensitivity which almost calls into question the ability to do the job of representing their constituents who serve in the forces. How could they not have seen how this looks?
I am proud to have worn the Queen's uniform as a reservist paratrooper for seven years. MPs need to realise that medals are all the recognition we as soldiers get for spending long months in staggeringly deprived locations getting shot at and blown up. I urge you to visit http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/notompmedals/ and sign the petition against these insulting medals for MPs.
Azeem Ibrahim is research scholar at the International Security Program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, member of the board of directors at the Institute of Social Policy Understanding and a former reservist in the 4th Battalion Parachute Regiment.
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