Jon Wheale is hoping to make the switch from serving army officer to MP for Burton after being selected as Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate. NIGEL POWLSON finds out why a trained soldier wants to swim in the sea of politics.
AFTER serving in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Afghanistan Jon Wheale was so moved by the social injustice he witnessed in war-torn parts of the world that he decided to fight his future battles in politics and use his experience to influence the decision makers.
The ex-Royal Artillery captain will now be standing for the Labour Party in the next General Election, hoping to represent East Staffordshire in corridors of power after 20 years in the regular and reserve Army.
Jon’s father was the vicar at St Mark’s, in Winshill, and his mother a maths teacher at de Ferrers Academy. He attended Joseph Clark in Winshill and Abbot Beyne Secondary School before the Army beckoned.
“I joined up by walking into the old recruitment office on Station Street,” he says.
“It was something I started thinking about towards the end of school as I enjoyed all the outdoor things, Venture Scouts, doing my Duke of Edinburgh Awards in the Peak District . . . So the attraction was a career that would help me explore those interests and would also do some public good as well.
“It was also a sense of adventure and being able to do things that were not readily accessible in other walks of life.”
Jon was selected to go to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst for officer training and then commissioned into the Royal Artillery. He volunteered for the earliest operational tour he could go on, in Northern Ireland in 1998.
He was in Ulster during the Omagh Bombing and for the visit of former US president Bill Clinton.
He says: “For a young person it was an enormous experience and a huge honour to lead soldiers in that type of environment at a time when the politics were in the balance.”
Jon was then asked to lead a team, based in Macedonia, preparing for peace enforcement duties in war-torn Kosovo.
“I was responsible for the British contingent’s close air defence,” he says.
“I met Serbian soldiers who were still to leave the area, and was also involved in dealing with human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing. That had a big impact on me, leading soldiers in that environment.”
It was at this moment that Jon started to think about a career outside the Army.
He says: “Having witnessed social injustice, which ultimately means seeing people being made to suffer in the worst possible way and having had to deal with the remnants of some of the worst things that people can do to each other, it made me think that what I wanted to do was find out why these unfortunate events take place. That’s where my interest in politics stems from.”
Jon was later deployed to Afghanistan in the early days of the mission to secure the country from terrorism and find a long-term peace plan.
He says: “I was tasked with running a surveillance and security team to the west of Kabul. The idea was to ensure that they could peacefully hold their first executive assembly. So I was watching politics in action, with the different groups in Afghanistan coming together while I provided the security.
“I was in a trench in Afghanistan watching the consequences of politics all around me. Kabul had been torn apart by many years of fighting but there was a real effort going on to find a peaceful solution and secure a future for the country. That showed me how important politics can be.”
Before leaving the Army, Jon was attached to the Jordanian armed forces as an instructor at their peace keeping operation centre, learning about international relations and co-operation.
He then left the Army and returned to university to study international human rights law.
“That was all really inspired by what I had seen in these places during my army career,” he says.
Jon, now 40, has been involved in risk management for national and international companies since joining the civilian ranks but is now focusing his energies on his political aspirations.
He will be supported by his wife Emma and two small daughters, Betty (21 months) and Clementine (four months).
Jon says: “My wife has a big sense of humour. She has been married to me during my time in the Army, when I was selected to be the Labour candidate and will be with me on election day.
“Emma’s an extraordinary person and backs me completely.”
Jon met his future wife on a blind date when he was still in the Army.
“I had just got back from Afghanistan and a friend’s wife introduced us. The rest is history and we have been together for 13 years now.”
Jon joined the Labour Party as he felt it fitted with his views of social justice.
He got more and more involved and when the chance came to be the party’s prospective parliamentary candidate for East Staffordshire, he jumped at the opportunity and was duly selected.
He says: “I believe that Labour is the party that looks to take action to remove social injustice, wherever that maybe – finding employment for young people, ensuring the NHS continues and, on the international stage making sure we have an armed forces that can protect the national interest and intervene in some of the types on conflict I have been involved in the past.”
Jon believes that our armed forces are doing an ‘enormous amount of good and a public service’.
He says: “They are putting their lives in danger ultimately to make the streets back at home more safe and that extends to all the uniformed services, police, prison service, NHS workers – all these people need our continued support.
“What is particularly unfortunate at the moment is the fallout from the strategic defence and security review which is putting pressure on our armed forces, even at a time when the Government relies on them more and more. We saw it in the Olympics when the armed forces were brought in to provide the security and in recent weeks to help in the areas hit by flooding. More and more they are being used as national insurance policy.
“Soldiers and service people are the last ones to say ‘no’ when they are being called upon in an emergency but if we are to call on them in difficult times we need to make sure they are adequately resourced and listened to.”
It’s often a big adjustment for career service people moving into civilian life but Jon feels he has done ‘reasonably well in transferring those skills and experiences’.
“I also think they want people in Westminster who have an experience of life outside of politics,” he says. “The armed forces has given me a great grounding.”
Jon is keeping fit and active now by preparing for the Uttoxeter half marathon in May.
“I have been out running a fair few times and have realised I’m not as fit as I was,” he says. “So I won’t be running it in my army boots as someone suggested.”
He will however be raising cash for the Art and Soul charity in Uttoxeter.
It’s his way of giving something back, something which is also part of his political ambitions.
But, if he’s successful, it will be a big change. Our armed forces have almost universal respect and admiration from the public at large while our politicians, especially after the expenses scandal, have never been less valued.
So does Jon accept that his change in career will see him take a dip in respect?
He says: “Respect is a two-way street. If respect is wanted, it has to be earned.
“It goes back to trust, which is absolutely paramount when you are dealing with people’s lives. It’s something I have been taught in the Army; that we must have mutual respect. Unfortunately, in In some ways that has been lost for politicians. That’s regrettable as politicians are ultimately public servants, dedicated to doing something good. That should be commended but politicians need to earn that trust.”
And what would it feel like to take the East Staffordshire seat at the next General Election?
“It would be an enormous privilege to be elected as an MP for the town, where I was brought up and where I went to school. I would work tirelessly to payback the trust put in me by Burton, Uttoxeter and the villages.”