Tinker, tailor, Mercer, sailor...
It's pretty obvious that Patrick Mercer is not a racist. If he was, then it seems doubtful that so many soldiers who were in his ranks would have jumped almost immediately to his defense. There was also no problem with his comments that during training would-be soldiers would be insulted over their distinguishing features. I'd be a lot more surprised if they weren't; we were shouted at enough by teachers when doing cross-country at school. He could have perhaps made clearer that such comments are only out of encouragement rather than malice, but I suspect many weren't really shocked by that aspect of his interview with the Times.
Where Mercer's remarks came into difficulty is the contemptuous and arrogant way in which he out of hand dismissed the concerns of Marlon Clancy, a Commonwealth soldier from Belize. Clancy is setting up a trade-union of sorts for those who think they've been victims of either unfair treatment or racism in the army. Clancy himself, who joined the army in 1999, the same year as Mercer left, alleges that in one case he was attacked by soldiers dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Mercer's response to this was not exactly understanding. "Absolute nonsense. Complete and utter rot," was what he said. He then followed this up by stating:
"I came across a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless, but who used racism as cover for their misdemeanours."
He may well have done, and I'm sure that ethnic minority soldiers can be just as idle as some white recruits who coast rather than stretch themselves, but in response to Clancy's experiences this was too far of a generalisation. He may not have been suggesting that Clancy was lazy, or that all ethnic minority soldiers who claimed they've been racially abused are useless, it might have been honest and what he believes, but he must have expected he'd be challenged over it, and that many would find such comments risible at best.
Things may well have changed since Mercer left the army. In 2000, the year after he left, there were only 430 soldiers from Commonwealth countries. Since then, with British recruits white or otherwise drying up once it became clear that joining the army was no longer going to involve just peacekeeping, the army has had to resort to recruiting abroad. There are now over 6,000 from the Commonwealth in the ranks.
Clancy's other allegation was that there is now a racial hierarchy in the army. At the top there are the British white-born soldiers, then the black British born soldiers, and then there are the Commonwealth black soldiers. While this not may be the whole story, it's not to difficult to imagine that he may have something of a point. How far his example goes we simply don't know. As Sunny points out, up until recently the Gurkhas had far less benefits than their British-born comrades.
Should he have been sacked? In the current climate, especially after the Celebrity Big Brother debacle, with even the Sun raving about racial abuse, Cameron may well have had no other option. I personally don't think he should, that he should have been allowed to clarify exactly what he said and perhaps put in the caveats that he should have done at the time. I don't however think that Mercer's comments are by any means the end of his political career. He'll most likely be back after a length of time, and probably the wiser for it.
Big Stick Small Carrot - PR, not principles
Recess Monkey - Some of my best friends are ginger (with amusing comments)
Ministry of Truth - Oh Mercer, Mercy Me
Rachel North - Patrick Mercer, who resigned today
Bread and Circuses - That Mercer interview re-edited