A fortnight ago we marked this country’s Armed Forces Day, and for us in Bucks it’s very much the Royal Air Force that is part of the core of community life.
The Walter’s Ash station of RAF High Wycombe, in the southern part of my constituency, is home not just to the United Kingdom’s Air Command but also to a number of other key defence support functions. Further North, RAF Halton provides the RAF’s basic recruit training and specialist training units.
I’ve also met a lot of RAF men and women who have so liked Buckinghamshire that they have stayed on here to live after leaving the service. My colleague Steve Baker MP is of course one distinguished example.
My impression over the years that I have served as an MP is that the public’s awareness of and regard for the armed forces has grown. You can see this in the millions raised for charities like Help the Heroes and in the ever larger crowds who attend Remembrance Day services.
I think that there are a number of reasons for this trend.
First, there is the fact that servicemen and women are more visible in the local community than before. In the days of the IRA terrorist campaign, people were strongly discouraged from wearing uniform off base. That has now changed and it’s had an impact on public awareness.
Second, Iraq and Afghanistan have brought home to a new generation the reality of warfare. There are now vast numbers of young people with friends who have been on active service.
Third, the death of the last survivors of the First World War and the shrinking ranks of those who fought in the Second, not to mention key anniversaries of both conflicts, has given all of us reason to pause and reflect on the significance of those two conflicts and their lessons for today.
I think that there is something else at work too. We live in an age when established institutions and customs of all kinds have come under criticism, sometimes justified at others exaggerated. Yet the armed forces have maintained general respect and admiration.
In recent weeks, my ministerial job has twice brought me into contact with the forces: I met British soldiers serving with the EU peacekeeping force in Bosnia and went on patrol with the Royal Navy in the waters off Gibraltar. On both occasions I was impressed by the positive, can-do attitude of our servicemen and women, by their professionalism (honed by hours of dedicated training) and by their pride in the history, traditions and mutual solidarity of their unit and their service.
Our forces are not perfect – and I’ve never met any serving man or woman who would claim that they are- but they are an asset of great value to our country.