What a week it has been. The Chequers agreement is a great deal less than I had hoped for. What we are now proposing for ‘The Deal’ is by no means as clear and robust as the 52% who voted ‘Leave’ expected. I have warned the whips that they cannot rely on my support for it when it comes before the House for ratification in the Autumn. That means that even if M Barnier allows it through unamended (which seems very unlikely, and we will certainly not tolerate any further slippage- for example on the free movement of European citizens) there is little chance that the PM will get it through Parliament. She must therefore think again and come up with a plan which much more closely fulfils the will of the people, and her own promises that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, and that ‘No deal is better than a bad deal.’
Westminster in Turmoil - Cabinet resignations, calls for a Leadership challenge (which I do not support), the Commons and media overheating badly in the record sunshine and 31 degrees; all of that almost pales into insignificance by comparison with other events. The NATO Summit could have consequences for all of our long-term peace and security. If Mr Trump, for example, were to threaten to withdraw US troops from Europe, Mr Putin would be rubbing his hands with glee. Meanwhile, we have the tragic new case of Novichock poisoning in Salisbury, and the sad death of Dawn Sturgess. That makes it a murder case, a foreign national having murdered a British citizen on British territory. That is a crime which cannot come without consequence. We rejoice at the rescue of the Thai boys from their underground prison; and of course, perhaps more than anything else, we rejoice that we have an England team in the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in half a century. (By the time you read this we will know more. Meanwhile, fingers crossed.)
Things are moving so fast in the world and in Westminster, that despite the fact that I am writing this on Tuesday morning, it may be (wholly or partially) out of date by the time you read it on Thursday. As Macmillan remarked, it is ‘events, dear boy, events” which will either hand us good fortune, or, I suppose rob us of it… It’s the unexpected and the random which makes or breaks a government.
“We honour those who serve” is the proud, yet humble, motto of Royal Wootton Bassett, commemorating the four years during which they turned out on 167 occasions to mark the Repatriation of the bodies of 345 service men and women. That was no comment on politics, nor on the nature or value of the wars. It was quite simply a final tribute to those who took orders and gave their lives as a result.
Armed Forces Day on Saturday across the Nation tried to do the same for those who still serve. And Wiltshire was delighted by the announcement that next year’s Armed Forces Day will be held in Salisbury, at least partly as a tribute to those emergency service workers who so professionally sorted out the mess after the attempted murder of the Skripals.
I’ve seen real service twice recently in my own home. I called ‘999’ when I heard some shots near my house late one night. I felt a bit foolish when it turned out to be the local gamekeeper; but I was impressed by the speed and professionalism of the police who dealt with what could have been a serious terrorist or criminal threat. Then again, when a lady ‘took a funny turn’ in my garden last Sunday, the Ambulance crew and paramedics did a brilliant job of assessing her; looking after her, and in the end concluding that it was just a little too much sun. What a great job they did.
They are truly heroes. But so are the decent folk who volunteer in our society in perhaps less hazardous, but equally altruistic ways. Volunteers – those who work in charities, organisations, committees, local government, guides and scouts, the local amateur dramatics, the church, and in so many other ways. These people are truly the lifeblood of a community like ours in North Wiltshire.
So too are those who lend a hand to others without any kind of request – or thanks. The tens of thousands of voluntary carers across our land, those who just help an old lady across the road, or give a hand home with her shopping.
But it’s not just about the military and the emergency services. We are so fortunate in a wide variety of public servants. The nice gents who run the Recycling Centre near Junction 17 were incredibly helpful and kind to my wife when she turned up recently with an embarrassingly large number of empty bottles. Philippa tried to tip them for their help, which they strongly refused. They are truly there to serve.
When I was first selected to stand and then elected as the MP for North Wiltshire, I remember getting a letter from David Eccles, who was MP here from 1942-1962. Leaving to one side all of his many great distinctions (including a Viscountcy in honour of them) this modest man summed up his career thus: “I tried my best to serve the people of North Wiltshire.” What greater epitaph could there be?
So let us honour (and thank) those who serve. In every walk of life.
We voted up to 30 times last week on the Lords Amendments to the Brexit Bill. Some were closer than others. All were stressful. And in a curious way it was physically quite demanding too (not that I am complaining about it.)
The Speaker calls for a vote by shouting “Division.” Bells ring all around the Palace of Westminster, and indeed within pubs and restaurants and private flats within the “Division Bell Area”. MPs then have eight minutes to get into either the ‘Ayes’ or the ‘Noes’ lobby, after which Mr Speaker instructs the doorkeepers to ‘lock the doors’. We then file past clerks on high Victorian desks ensuring that they score our name off as having voted, and then in single file through two half closed doors outside of which stand two tellers. They count the MPs filing past, and report the result in the main chamber. It may sound an antiquated way of voting, but, incapable of corruption, or obscurity, it really works; and it gives also backbench MPs their vital opportunity to ‘lobby’ Ministers and the PM. Each vote takes around 15 minutes, so 30 would take about eight hours, which can be quite demanding.
It was a week of drama, with whips and ministers scuttling around doing deals, persuading, cajoling. A junior Minister and six Labour shadows resigned; the Scot Nats made fools of themselves with a silly stunt of storming out of PMQs which rather backfired on them. And in the end, the Government got its way, the only compromise being over what happens if a deal is not done by the end of the negotiating period. That is now being discussed by the Lords, and will be back in the Commons shortly. (Parliamentary ‘ping-pong’.)
I stopped off on a bench on College Green to ponder these matters on my way home at Midnight that evening. I let my mind wander back over the 1000 years or so of democratic and governmental history in this place. The political battles, the seismic decisions, the geniuses and the failures. I thought of the great trials - of William Wallace, Guy Fawkes and King Charles 1; the huge parliamentary battles – women’s suffrage, reform of the Commons itself, the end of the hereditary peers, the abolition of slavery, the battle over the Corn Laws; Wars, terrorism, protests, strikes; the great speeches and plots and events and troubles. What a swirl of ghosts there was around the ancient pinnacles and towers as I sat there.
It helped to put Brexit and our current tribulations into perspective. Our ancestors have been there or thereabouts for 1000 years. Yet ordinary British life has carried on throughout for better or worse; three meals a day, Births, Marriages and Deaths. Like every generation of politicians we tell ourselves that what we are doing is more important than ever before, will fundamentally affect the lives and liberties of our constituents for generations to come. Yet the fact is that we are minnows in the great sweep of history; our battles are but eddies and whirlpools in that tide. We are at best dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. And perhaps if we come to realise that we will take both ourselves and our great battles just a tad less seriously.
It was seventy five years ago – in 1943 in Blitz-torn London – that Martha, the Austin turntable ladder came into service. Around the same time, Squadron Leader Johnny Johnson of the famous 617 (Dambusters) Squadron was the bomb aimer on their daring raids over Germany. It was a privilege to meet Johnny Johnson and hear him speak with clarity and without notes for a good 20 minutes at an RAF 100 lunch at Foxham on Saturday. He wrote out a message for the PM for me, which I will be glad to deliver to her.
Martha the fire engine went on to take part in the Victory Parade in 1946, but then fell into a sorry state of disrepair. Then in 1975, the Chief Fire Officer in Wootton Bassett, Chris Wannell, bought her as an old wreck, and set about the painstaking task of rebuilding her. Since then, to mark the great work done by his firefighting mates, Chris has used old Martha in her renewed pristine state to raise funds for the Firefighters Charity. Not only that, but Martha also graces every kind of village fete, wedding, fireman’s funeral, Royal Wootton Bassett events, especially the annual Victorian evening.
Last year Chris Wannell was kind enough to drive me and High Sheriff of Wiltshire, Sir David Hempleman-Adams up Malmesbury High Street, bell tinging to a 3000 people crowd in the Cross Hayes gathered to witness my (ultimately unsuccessful) re-enactment of the historic balloon ascent from the same square by my predecessor Walter Powell in 1873.
Well on Thursday last, Chris’s huge contribution to the Firefighters Charity and to so many other good causes using Martha was marked by a Lifetime Achievements Award in London. After it, we were given a great Garden Party in the garden of No 10 Downing Street, with Home Secretary Sajid Javid singling out Chris and the Wannell family for special praise for their efforts over so many years.
As I said I a little TV clip attached to the event, Chris is rightly honoured not just for his service to firemen; but for everything he has done for the town of Royal Wootton Bassett, including being the inspiration behind the Repatriation ceremonies. There are few events, or institutions, in the town that Chris and Audrey have not had some part in – sharing the Mayor-ship on four separate occasions, and giving some 70 years of collective service to the Town Council, and the Town in general.
People like Chris and Audrey and their children Heather (husband Charley) and Martin, are the very lifeblood of a decent society. They give their all, not for any kind of honour or thanks; not for money or position. The same could be said of Johnny Johnson and his like. They do what they do to pay back a little to their community. They truly put the needs of others before themselves; and they are driven by a love of their country, their town and its people. You don’t get many people like the Wannells and Squadron Leader Johnson, and it is good to be able to celebrate their great public service, and to salute them for it in this thoroughly memorable way.
July 5th will see the installation of the splendid new Vicar of Malmesbury Abbey, The Reverend Oliver Ross. It’s a great moment in the life of a town like Malmesbury where the Abbey still plays such a central role in the life of the town – from a churchy and a non-churchy standpoint. I know Mr Ross to be ‘splendid’ since he comes to Malmesbury having been (inter alia) Chaplain to Trinity House, of which I am proud to be a ‘Younger Brother’.
Trinity House is a great institution. It has responsibility for lighthouses and maritime aids; for training of cadets; for pilotage round our shores; and for a variety of charitable purposes - including housing and long-term care for retired seafarers. It has a magnificent HQ on Tower Hill close to the Tower of London; and it is run by 30 or so ‘Elder brothers’ and about 400 of we ‘Younger brethren.’ Founded by King Henry Vlll in 1514, last week saw our 504th annual Trinity-tide events, including an AGM at which we all remain standing (a very good way to keep meetings short), a splendid banquet, and a stroll through the streets of London, led by our Master, HRH The Princess Royal to St Olave’s for our Annual Service.
Mr Ross gave a splendid farewell sermon after 12 years as the Chaplain to the Fraternity, including the fascinating fact that the Bible contains 366 injunctions that we should ‘Be not troubled’ or similar words. That’s one for every day of the (leap) year. The service includes two great prayers of Sir Francis Drake.
“Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves; when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little; when we arrived safely because we sailed too close to the shore……. Disturb us Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas; where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of the land, we shall find the stars….”
It’s all about stretching ourselves, stepping boldly into new worlds, trusting to God and a strong light. It’s a good analogy for the new Vicar of Malmesbury; for most of us in our ordinary lives; perhaps even for us all as we venture into a post-Brexit world. Yet it’s also about seeing things through to the end. The other prayer by Sir Francis Drake reads:-
“O Lord, when thou givest to thy servants to endeavour in any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning but the continuing of the same until it be thoroughly finished that yieldeth the true glory…”
Wise words for us all in our private, and political lives. We wish Reverend Oliver Ross all happiness and success in his new role, in Malmesbury Abbey, and pray that he will have all the lighthouses and pilotage that he may need to ‘venture on these wider seas.’
© 2017 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA