January is generally assumed to be named after the Roman God, Janus who was the God of all beginnings. So he becomes the God of light, the sun, the moon, time, movement, the year, as well as doorways and bridges. He represents the middle ground between barbarism and civilisation, town and country, youth and age. All of that is symbolised in his two-faced image – looking back and looking forward, which of course is very much the flavour of thought and sentiment this week.
Looking back tends to be sad and pessimistic, looking forward is full of hope. So it is with politics. The Brexit Referendum (regretted, never let it be forgotten by almost as many people as those who rejoice over it), the resulting demise of Mr Cameron; Theresa May’s idiotic decision to call a snap election, and the appalling mishandling of it; the tough (but so far modestly successful) Brexit negotiations, and the resulting ructions, disaffection and leadership grumbles; the Labour Party in the grip of a Marxist fellow-traveller and the appalling Momentum movement which is so busy dragging it ever further leftwards; the total demise of the Liberals, and a genuine Tory revival north of the border; the election of Mr Trump and a myriad subsequent idiocies; the overthrow of Mugabe and victories (perhaps) in Iraq and Syria; all of these and so much more are the outward symptoms of a weirdly turbulent time both nationally and internationally.
But unless we are historians or hindsight specialists keen to tell everyone how we foresaw it all and warned against it; to most normal people, what is passed is past, and cannot now be changed. So Janus’s backward-looking face is sterile and unproductive. His forward-looking face, by contrast, has two aspects to it: predictions and aspirations/resolutions. The last year of unexpected turbulence renders the former pointless. So let’s have a go at the latter.
I hope that North Wiltshire will stay the happy, healthy, relatively prosperous place it has been for some time; I hope that my friends and family and I will be happy, contented, moderately successful, busy, active and generous; and that we may make some little contribution to making North Wiltshire, and Britain a better place. I hope that the Brexit negotiations will succeed and that the sunlit uplands which many of us foresee for a Britain free from the EU will indeed come true, and be seen to have come true. I hope that we will see an end to wars and terrorism, and peace and stability in most of the world; and I hope that while people will die and be born, get married, promoted and demoted; some will sadly be ill or ignorant; others will not know that they are; I hope that the natural course of life continues.
As Ecclesiastes had it: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born, and a time to die; to plant and to uproot; to kill and to heal; to tear down and to build; to weep and to laugh; to mourn and to dance; a time to keep and a time to throw away; to be silent and to speak; a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”
So whichever of those times comes your way in 2018, I wish you well in it. In the words of the old Scots song: “A good New Year to one and all; and many may you see. And during all the year to come, O Happy may ye be.”
The way that Christmas fell this year means that I can save my New Year message for next week. You will be reading this on or about 28th December. It’s the fourth day of Christmas, with four calling birds appearing at my true love’s front door.
But did you know that the 12 days of Christmas are in fact a code devised in the sixteenth century to allow a kind of catechism during the period when Roman Catholicism was outlawed? The Twelve drummers are twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles Creed; the eleven pipers symbolize the eleven faithful disciples; the ten Lords are the Ten Commandments; nine ladies are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit; the eight maids are the Beatitudes, the seven swans the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; six geese are the six days of the Creation, the five gold rings represent the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Old Testament; the four calling birds are the four Gospels; the three French hens are Faith, Hope and Charity, the two turtledoves are the Old and new Testaments, and the Partridge in the pear tree is Jesus on the Cross. My true love of course, is God, or perhaps his Church on earth.
I have always liked the period between Christmas and the New Year. It often gets colder, the parties are largely on hold pending Hogmanay; it’s a time for eating up the cold turkey, sorting out the house, getting some exercise to counterbalance Christmas excess, and perhaps to ponder just a bit. I always produce a kind of written balance sheet of my life. It lists my aims and ambitions, achievements and failures, joys and sorrows. And crucially it comes up with a series of practical steps which I will take in the New Year to get things going again. Perhaps I will share a few with you next week.
But for now, I hope you get a little period of quiet reflection, of post-Christmas satisfaction, of down-time, perhaps ‘me time’ in modern parlance, and for me at least a politics-free zone. So, I hope you have a restful and reflective Fourth Day of Christmas, and perhaps put some time aside for a little balance sheet drafting, enjoy some time with friends or family, relax and recover. A little bit of rest and recuperation before the New Year stretches ahead of us and all the doubts and wonders which it may bring.
The litmus test for a really sound deal is that it leaves both parties vaguely dissatisfied. I am delighted that we have completed the tortuous Phase One of the Brexit negotiations (and welcome the fact that we got at least some concessions from the Europeans). Phase Two should be a great deal easier, not least because the European countries know very well that they need tariff free trade with the UK more than we need it with them. Theresa May must be ready to pay ‘hard ball’ with them to remind them of that sheer economic reality.
I feel perfectly happy about the mutual arrangements for EU and UK citizens, which is entirely logical. The continuing role for the European Court of Justice for eight years may be a symbolic blow for the Remainers. But it is at the discretion of British judges and will be used in only a very few marginal cases where UK law cannot decide what is right for EU citizens in the UK. The £39 Billion price, of course, is huge. But it will be paid over a very long period, and the £13 Billion net which we pay to the EU today will quickly gobble it up. And I welcome the absence of any ‘hard border’ with Eire, which would anyhow have been wholly impractical. So far so good.
But I am concerned by the meaning, effectiveness and long-term consequences of the [‘Regulatory equivalence’] which was necessary to achieve the Northern Irish solution. If it means, as some have interpreted it, that we will forever accept EU regulations, then we are in effect remaining members of the Single Market and Customs Union. It would mean that we cannot do trade deals with other countries - especially the US - whose regulations may well be wildly at variance of the EU ones. It is pointed out that Japan, Korea and Canada have all equally agreed ‘regulatory equivalence’ in order to achieve a trade deal with the EU, and that does give me some comfort. But I remain uneasy about it.
It is surely obvious that if you want to sell goods or services to another country- or group of countries, then quite plainly the standard to which they are manufactured must match those of the buying country. If they do not, you will not be allowed to trade with that country. We will not allow sub-standard goods from other countries to undercut our own goods manufactured to high British Regulatory standards. That applies whether you are selling to the EU, Australia, America or India. And it is largely a matter for businesses to ensure that their product meets the high standards of the country to which they are selling. But that should not be a matter for international treaties and governmental agreements, so much as sound commercial common sense.
So I welcome the progress so far, and I congratulate the PM on achieving it. But I am watching it all very carefully indeed and am by no means giving the deal my unconditional support. It’s a bit of a fudge in some respects (as all good deals probably are), and there are some very worrying elements to it. But for now I will give it the benefit of the doubt.
So for now its back through snow storms and floods to Westminster after a positive blizzard of constituency events, all of them thoroughly jolly, to a final marathon getting the Brexit Bill through its Committee stages. (Midnight votes all week by the look of it.) By the time you read this l will truly be looking forward to a Brexit-free Christmas holiday.
There can be few things worse in this world than the death of a child. The loss of four in a wicked murder – as happened in Greater Manchester last week – means untellable agony for all of their relations. Am I being totally unChristian in hoping that the terribly burned Mother may never wake up from her coma? I always well up a bit at the last verse of “Away in a Manger”. “Bless all the dear children in thy tender care; and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.” Is there an echo somewhere there of the huge Victorian infant mortality? It’s a tragic Victorian message in amongst the trees and tinsel.
The Christmas holidays bring a welcome time of peace and respite after what has been a turbulent political year. A General Election about which the least said the better it will be; constant Leadership speculation; and of course the Brexit negotiations. The World remains a dangerous place indeed, although an expansionist Russia, unstable North Korea and the Daesh threat in Iraq and Syria seem to have calmed a little in recent weeks. France and Germany both have political uncertainty to come in the New Year; and President Trump remains as unpredictable (to say the least) as ever.
Yet amongst all of that, we should be thankful in this country, and in this area. The economy is stronger than ever, unemployment at a historic low, the Stock Exchange at an historic high. Interest rates remain as low as ever, and inflation hardly merits a passing worry. We have the best schools and hospitals in the world; our transport systems are never free from grumbles, but actually in international comparison terms are pretty good. Life in Britain – and especially in North Wiltshire- today is pretty good by comparison with so many parts of the world.
So perhaps Christmas may be a time to turn away from all that is wrong with the world, and to try to think positively about so much that is so good in it. The birth of a child brings a tear to any eye. All of the hopes for the future, the unsullied purity of the new born baby is one of the most precious of all moments. A dear old friend of mine, a retired Gurkha Colonel used to rush off to see any new-born, and insist on getting their bootees off to inspect their tiny, perfect feet. “All through my army career I had to inspect the awful, smelly, blistered feet of my soldiers. That’s why I love babies’ feet so much.”
It’s the same with new-born animals. Our two old dachshunds, Lollipop and Minx, mother and daughter died within a few days of each other and my old horse, Mr Kipling, in November. They were all old and had a good life. Sad to see them go, but not tragic. (And don’t tell her, but I’m getting Philippa a puppy, or maybe two, for Christmas to replace them.) We all look forward to the sight of new-born lambs gambolling in fresh pastures in only a month or two’s time.
“Wrapped in Swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. …. And Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart….” If only we could keep the innocence, the sweetness, the purity of the Christmas story all through the year, the world would assuredly be a better place.
So, after a turbulent year, I can do no better than to wish you the peace of the Christ child for all the year that lies ahead.
And a thoroughly merry time as well, I very much hope.
It’s been a week of great and momentous and tragic events in the World. The appalling attack (by Daesh, we presume), on a Mosque of the wrong brand of Islam, and the murder of 305 wholly innocent people as they went about their prayers is an atrocity in itself, and may well have long-lasting consequences for efforts to find some kind of peace across the whole region. We may have celebrated the end of the Caliphate in Raqqa and Mosul a little prematurely.
The end of the dictator Mugabe in Zimbabwe should, we all hope, signal a new start for that great country. It used to be known as the bread basket of southern Africa, and was a prosperous and well run country. It is barely recognisable now. A stable and prosperous Zimbabwe would have greatly beneficial effects on the neighbouring countries, and potentially all of sub-Saharan Africa. We can but hope that the new President has the will and the power to start to turn the country around.
In Europe, Mutti Merkel is holding on by her finger-tips. I have thought for a while that she would be gone by Christmas with huge destabilising consequences for Germany and the EU. Brexit trundles along meanwhile, with the hope that we may soon start trade talks, albeit perhaps with a heavy price tag attached to them.
At home, Spreadsheet Phil seems to have survived the Budget, largely by making it pretty boring, with the sole exception of the stamp duty tax exemption for first time buyers. Steady as she goes.
Amidst all of that, you would have thought that my post-bag would be brimming over with views on any and all of those great matters each of which has the significant potential to affect our everyday lives as well as the prosperity and peace of the Globe for generations to come.
But no. My post-bag has been stuffed to the gunwales with letters about animals- mainly whether or not one of the Brexit Bill votes last week may have downgraded our concern for animals as sentient beings, on which I received many hundreds of letters, each of which will be replied to. Meaning no disrespect to the very concerned people who wrote to me, I hope that I am able to assuage their concerns. The amendment proposed, which was anyhow flawed in its drafting, was designed specifically so that Labour could claim that we Tories were uncaring about animals. The social media and 38 degrees storm which followed was a carefully planned scam to try to discredit we Tories.
The reality is that our standards of animal welfare in the UK are higher than anywhere in Europe, and across the Globe. Of course we recognise that animals are sentient beings, and having now lost two of mine within a week, I need no lectures about animals having minds and hearts. But all of that, plus a whole lot more, is now and has for many years been written into UK law. We had no need of a bogus amendment to the Brexit Bill to pretend to be forcing us to do something which we already exceed.
We really must try to focus our attentions to the great and important events which are happening around the world, and beware of silly political scams like the sentient animals one. Let us raise our gaze just a little.
© 2017 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA