Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to start by honouring my predecessor, Eleanor Smith, who sat on the Opposition Benches. She did great work in championing the NHS in Wolverhampton and representing the people there, and she was the first black woman to be elected to Parliament from the west midlands. I wish her every success in her future endeavours.
I am delighted to be standing here as the Member of Parliament for Wolverhampton South West. It is an honour that I do not take lightly, and I am determined to ensure that I fulfil the opportunity with everything I have. I will be devoted in serving the people who voted for me, and for those who did not, I will serve them in the same way.
The story of Wolverhampton starts in 985 AD, when it was founded by Lady Wulfruna. It grew from strength to strength right the way up to the 19th century, when it was known as a global leader in the manufacture of locks and all kinds of iron goods. There is so much more that could be said about the great history of Wolverhampton, but we might miss the gems that are there today. My constituency is home to the great Wolverhampton Wanderers—the Wolves, as they are known—and I look forward to watching them beat other Members’ teams as they continue their current success. We have an excellent university, which welcomes people from all over to the heart of our city. We also have an outstanding local newspaper, the Express & Star, which is the largest privately owned newspaper in the country—even the Prime Minister has undertaken work experience there.
But the real prize in Wolverhampton is the people. They are some of the most genuine and straight-talking people you will meet. I experienced both those qualities on the campaign trial, sometimes wishing that the straight talking was not quite as direct, but I always knew where I stood. We have a multicultural, multifaith population, ranging from Christian, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and many more. In Wolverhampton you can walk past a church, a gurdwara and a mosque all on the same street, and see the communities living and working together hand in hand. That is testimony to the great people of Wolverhampton.
The motto of Wolverhampton is “Out of darkness cometh light.” That is very apt as I move on to the next part of my speech, which is about how I came to be here, against all the odds. My childhood started very normally. My mum was a nurse and, like many other kids in my school in Hereford, my dad was in the SAS. When I was only eight years old, his life was tragically cut short. My mum had to bring up three boys on her own. She brought us up in a loving and caring home, and I want to honour her for that. But life as a single parent was not easy, and often she had to go without food just to make sure us boys could eat. I went to what was probably the worst school in the area, where I learnt far more about life than I ever did about education.
At the age of 16 I left school with no qualifications and signed up to be a soldier. I joined the finest regiment in the British Army, the Royal Green Jackets, and became a rifleman. I was still only 17 when I was shot in a training accident, tragically by a friend with a faulty weapon. When they finally got me to hospital, I was told that I had suffered a high-velocity gunshot wound, that I would lose my foot and that, if the bullet had travelled, my leg would have to be amputated up to the knee. I did what every hardened soldier does: I cried and asked for my mum.
They managed to save my foot, through four major operations and a month in hospital. While lying on that hospital bed, full of morphine, I was told that I would never walk without the aid of a walking stick, that I would never run again, and that my military career was over. I chose not to accept that. I made a decision to shut out any pain, both physical and mental—a decision that would haunt me for many years to come.
I spent almost a year in rehabilitation, learning to walk again and then to run. Eventually, against all the odds, I returned to full active service in the Army. For the whole year of rehabilitation, no one sat down and asked me how I was doing or what the impact had been. In fact, as soon as I was fit enough I was sent to Northern Ireland, during the troubles, for my first operational tour. I served in many locations around the world during my time in the Army, including Bosnia and Kosovo. While I was proving to be an effective soldier physically, those who knew me best knew that I was suffering emotionally. We never spoke about it or showed emotion—it was a sign of weakness—and we most certainly could never ask for help. Although it was wrong, I found that alcohol blocked the pain in my head and allowed me to escape reality.
After leaving the armed forces I became a bodyguard. I have had some great experiences, including protecting a Prime Minster and Government officials in Baghdad. I got to see a lot. I was excelling in what I did. From the outside I looked like I had it all together, but inside I was broken. The decision that I had made to shut out my pain when I got shot meant that I struggled to feel anything emotionally. I was numb. The more I progressed, the more the pain hurt. I was going through life in a virtual coma. I would spend evenings in my garage on my own, drinking, looking at a brick wall, wishing my life would end. I remember that my first thought in the morning, when I opened my eyes, was one of dread that I had not died in my sleep.
Desmond Tutu once described hope as the ability to see light in the darkness. I got to a place where I had no hope. Enough was enough and I finally decided to end my life. As I was in the process of doing it, I had one thought that stopped me: I did not want my children to grow up without a father, as I had done. I couldn’t do it. I felt a failure at not being able to take my own life. There was no escape from the life I was in. I was stuck.
In my mind, my life was over; I had been dealt a bad hand, and that was my life. I thought I would try to do something good for my kids. I never wanted anyone to have to experience my life, let alone my children, so I decided to take them to church. There are many reasons why people come out of despair. When I was trying to do something right by my family, I found faith. For the first time in many years, I could see a hope and a future. As the Wolverhampton motto says, “Out of darkness cometh light”, and I could see light out of the darkness. Over many years I learnt to face reality, and with my amazing wife, and great family and friends, my life has changed. I am grateful for every day that I have, and enjoy life to the full. Those who know me would testify to that.
So why politics? That is a question I have battled with for many years. I never voted prior to 2015, and my views of politicians and the decisions they made in this House could be described at best as negative. I have been on operations and stood alongside my colleagues, some of whom are no longer here because of decisions I attributed to this House. This was never my first option, but I was faced with a choice: I could moan about these decisions, I could ignore them, or I could try to make a difference. I chose the latter, and history will decide if I achieve this.
I have experienced global Britain. I have protected people in 50 countries around the world, and had the privilege of experiencing life. I have seen some of the best and worst of humanity—what people can do for each other, but also sadly what they can do to each other. I bring to this Chamber an unusual experience that I will use to help shape how we move forward. I want to champion social justice, and to see that families do not go without food, that people do not sleep rough or suffer in silence, and that they are helped when they need it. I basically want our children to grow up in a country of which they can be proud. I know how my life was transformed, and I want to inspire people to believe that they can see change in theirs.
We have promised a lot and we have a lot to deliver. Failure to deliver on our words will mean that all this has been for nothing, and the people of Wolverhampton and this country will be no better off. If we become a Government of action, we will change the very fabric of society for good. I have served my country before with pride, and I will do so in this Chamber.