Fresh back from a fascinating visit to Monte Cassino, and a most moving visit to the British and Polish War Cemeteries there; and watching the commemoration of Passchendaele, sparks conflicting emotions. What a tragedy it is that these young men had to die. What a piece of needless vandalism that the (unoccupied) monastery was destroyed. Yet what would the world be like now if it were not for our readiness to fight for what is right, and to deter what is bad. ‘Arma Pacis Fulcra’ as the Honourable Artillery Company motto hath it- ‘Arms are the Balance of Peace.’
The Defence of the Realm is the first duty of any Government. Post- Brexit our new found independence will once again make us a world force, a free trading nation, and our land, sea and air forces will have a renewed importance. We do ‘punch above our weight’ in foreign affairs and defence terms. We rank fifth in the world for defence spending (£40 Billion, and outranked only by the US, China, Saudi Arabia and Russia), we are one of only three NATO countries who achieve the 2% of GDP spending which the Alliance sets as a basic minimum.
All well and good. But our army at 82,000 soldiers (currently only 78,000) is the smallest since Waterloo, and there are said to be dastardly plans afoot in the MOD to cut it even further; our Royal Navy is rightly immensely proud of the two new Aircraft carriers; yet there is some doubt as to whether or not we have enough people or enough planes to fill them; and our air force has done well in many areas of equipment, yet is perilously short of serviceable fast jet fighters.
So with all of that as background, and representing as heavily a military area as I do ( Wiltshire boasts half the British Army, in the North here we have the £250 million newly refurbished Technical Training College and REME HQ at Lyneham; we have the tri-service communications HQ at Corsham; 21 Signals Regiment at Colerne; IX Regiment of the Royal Logistics Corps at Hullavington; and a very large number of my constituents are either serving or retired from the armed forces), I have no embarrassment at my focus on Defence matters in Parliament.
I chair the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust, which seconds 35 or so MPs and peers to the three services for 12 months, embedding them for a minimum of fifteen days to experience service life for real; I am chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Armed Services, which lays on weekly high level briefings, usually over a meal; I arranged over 10 years the regular Parliamentary welcome homes for each brigade as it came back from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a number of one-off parades (this year we have the 100th anniversary of the founding of the RAF and 100 years of service by women in the Royal Navy, both of which will be commemorated by receptions in Mr Speaker’s State Rooms); I have served for the last 5 years or so on the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, and hope to be re-elected to it in September; I am a graduate of the Royal College of Defence Studies, a visiting fellow of St Anthony’s College , Oxford, and Patron of Operation Christmas Box which sends boxes to service people who are on overseas deployment at Christmas; and I served for seven years in the Reserve Army, in the form of the Honourable Artillery Company.
So I am proud that Defence of the Realm- and keeping the Government up to scratch on it - is without question my own first duty in Parliament.
It’s easy to knock Theresa May. Her decision to call the General Election was quite clearly a massive mistake. Her conduct of the campaign left a great deal to be desired; the Manifesto which she presumably approved was amongst ‘the longest suicide notes in English political history.’ She quite plainly does not have the charm and charisma of a David Cameron or Tony Blair; nor does she have the backbone and determination of a Margaret Thatcher or Winston Churchill. She is often depicted as ‘cold’ or even ’unfriendly’ and certainly does not have the clubbability and bonhomie of a Macmillan or Callaghan. No-one seems to doubt that she will not be the Tory leader and PM at the next General Election in 5 years’ time. It’s a question of ‘when she goes’ and ‘how’ not ‘if’?
Yet for all that, there are several things to be admired about her as she heads off to the Alps for what must be a very welcome three week walking holiday. (There’s something endearingly old fashioned about a PM on a walking holiday. Reminiscent of Harold Wilson and the Scilly Isles?) The first is that despite the demonstrable catastrophe of the Election, she has not simply thrown her toys out of the pram and ‘gone off down the garden to eat worms.’ Despite the appalling press of recent weeks, she has kept at it; and that is very probably what the country (and the financial markets) needed – a degree of calm in a whirlwind world.
Second, she has actually performed very well at PMQs, despite the pretty open goal staring at Mr Corbyn every Wednesday. She does command the House, and defend her Government despite all the odds. She is also going to lengths to correct all that was initially wrong with her Administration. Her two blameworthy Special Advisers were chopped the morning after the Election to be replaced by my old friend and universally liked and respected Gavin Barwell. (He and Chief Whip Gavin Williamson – the ‘two Gavins’ - are a formidable pair.) Damian Green is an extremely safe pair of hands, as her effective Deputy, and her mini-reshuffle seems to have put more or less the right people in more or less the right round holes.
And she has taken steps to listen to her backbenchers. She has made a larger series of appearances in Parliament in the last month or two than any PM I can remember, and has had groups of us over to Number Ten to listen to our views – of the election and of Brexit. I was one of six last week who had an hour or so round the Cabinet Table with her, and she really did seem to be taking our views seriously.
So I have never really been a massive fan - in private or in public. But I do take my hat off to her performance in the last few turbulent weeks, and I wish her well for her holiday. Let’s have some more of the same after it, and life may start to look a little less gloomy.
There’s a lot of twaddle being talked about Brexit. Here is how I see some of the bigger issues:-
- It will happen. The people voted for it. We will have left the great behemoth in the sky by April, 2019. That cannot – and if you believe in democracy must not- be reversed.
- There is no such thing as a ‘hard’ Brexit, nor a ‘soft’ one, nor a ‘red white and blue one’ nor anything in between. Either we are In the EU or we are Out of it. The ‘Hard Brexit’ name has been devised by the Remain camp to frighten the electorate into thinking that if we leave we are facing poverty, job losses, general catastrophe. (Remember the failed ‘Project Fear’ during the Referendum Campaign? They are still at it.)
- EU workers: We need them. There are 3.8 million in the UK, about 1 million Brits working in the EU, plus large numbers of retired people. Everyone who is in the UK on the day we leave will be allowed to stay; those who have lived here for 5 years or more will essentially get indefinite leave to remain. Thereafter, we will of course want migrant workers - fulfilling essential jobs in agriculture, the NHS, long-term care, the construction industry, to continue to come here. It would be crazy not to do so. But it should be for the UK Government to decide how many are allowed to come in. We will at last have the ability to prevent the 250 million people across the Continent to flood into the UK at their will.
- Worthwhile EU laws, for example, on the environment, and protecting workers rights, will be transferred en masse onto the UK Statute Book. We can then repeal or change bits of it as we wish over the coming years. That will be at the will of the British people, and decided in the UK Parliament at Westminster.
- Trade will at last be a matter for us. How can it be that a great trading and maritime nation such as ours are NOT allowed to make trade deals round the world? Why can we not be members of The World Trade Organisation ourselves? Why should we be prevented from a Trade agreement with the US, for example? As to trade within the EU- well more comes this way than goes that way, so it really should not be a problem for that to continue. We don’t need to be members of the Single market, nor customs union, which prevents proper trading relationships with the rest of the world.
- Money: there will be a divorce settlement, in which we will get rid of our shares in the buildings, pay off long-term employees, sort out pension funds and so on. That is what happens, for example, when two companies de-merge. We must pay our liabilities. Of course we must. But just like a divorce settlement, neither side must be allowed to ‘take the other to the cleaners’. And after that, of course, we will be saving the vast annual payments (Yes- £350milion a week in gross terms.)
- Courts: the European Court of Justice must have no say over our laws. If not, what’s the point of leaving?
So let’s stop worrying about it. We are leaving the EU. There are all sorts of bits and pieces to be sorted out, none of them insuperable. And above all let’s get away from the utter drivel being spouted by some of those who would like to overturn the will of the people, either by staying ‘in’, or even worse making some kind of Machiavellian plot the end result of which would be all the worst bits of the EU, with none of the benefits. Let’s have a clean break, and get on with deciding our own futures.
Phew! So that’s it, then. Last year’s ‘Long Summer Recess’ (it’s only about a month) seems like a century ago. Since then we’ve had Mrs May crowned as Leader and PM, at least two reshuffles that I can think of; the triggering of Article 50 after a mild Parliamentary/legalistic battle to allow it, and the start of the Brexit negotiations; we’ve had a General Election which started with the promise of a massive Conservative majority, and ended with a hung Parliament, at least partly as a result of a shockingly bad Manifesto, and a poor campaign; we’ve had Jeremy Corbyn go from least liked pariah of the Labour Party to something of a National hero, cheered to the rafters at Glastonbury; (Mrs May’s decline in the ratings has been almost as dramatic); the SNP are on the wane, with the Tories stronger in Scotland than they have been for 30 years; the Liberal Democrat terminal decline reconfirmed by the end of their Leader and the appointment of septuagenarian sourpuss, Vince Cable; we’ve had ongoing warfare in the Middle East and the terrible tragedies of terrorist attacks at Westminster and London Bridge and in Manchester; and then we had the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower.
So by the time you read this, Parliament will have risen for the Recess; MPs struggling home for a rest; leadership squabbling put on hold; Cornwall and Tuscany beckoning wearied tribunes of the people. For me, I can think of nowhere better than Wiltshire for a rest, although I ought to relieve Philippa of cooking from time to time. So we’re off for a battlefield tour of Monte Cassino with Colonel Bob Stewart; we’ve got a long weekend in Yorkshire, a few days in Menorca with a friend, and by September I am leading a little expedition to Spitzbergen with 10 or so MPs and peers to visit the British Antarctic Survey who have the most northerly of all inhabited settlements on the Globe. Brrr…
I like nothing better than constituency events like the brilliant concert of the Scots Guards band in Chippenham’s Neeld Hall last Thursday, or the Royal International Air Tattoo at Fairford (the end of the run way is in North Wiltshire!) on Friday.
But we MPs need a bit of time off, and our constituents deserve a bit of time off from us; and a bit of a rest from the political turbulence and excitement of the last 12 months. So let’s have a nice quiet summer when we can all nurse our wounds, unwind, clear our heads, and generally relax and recover and prepare ourselves for the year that lies ahead. I won’t miss out on my Columns, but I hope that instead of politics, plots and parliamentary performances, they will be describing sun, sand and sangria. And with the school holidays arriving at last, I hope that you all too can look forward to a restful Summer Holiday.
Sometimes a particular constituency event sparks ideas on a wider canvass, or inspires me to think in new ways or new areas. One such was Friday’s ultra-moving and inspiring first viewing of two films about the life and achievements of Stanton St Quintin 11-year-old, Jonathan Bryan. Jonathan has Cerebral Palsy, and were it not for his huge personality and character and the love and fantastic support of his parents, we would never have discovered that despite his inability to speak or write, he has a fantastic brain, huge literary ability and a playful sense of humour.
His CBBC Film, MY Life, and a sister film Teach Us Too were premiered in Stanton Primary School. Jonathan uses a method of writing and speaking using eye movements on a special board, something very unusual for a child. The prose, poetry and general fun which emerged, and his resulting campaign to find a voice for others trapped inside a speechless body was truly inspirational. Quite leaving aside his disabilities, the level of thought and philosophy, and the Christianity which he shows is way beyond the natural capacity of any eleven year old.
Political and Parliamentary life can wax and wane. This week it’s a debate about public sector pay. My own view is that we should probably accept the recommendations of the 8 pay review bodies even if that exceeds the 1% cap, but that we must not as a result allow the flood gates to open in general public-sector spending. That would be irresponsible profligacy. Austerity has meant record employment, and a decent standard of living for most people. We must not wreck it by huge public borrowing or irresponsible tax rises to fund politically expedient spending growth. Brexit and all it brings are ever present in our public life; views of the Election and where it all went wrong, the DUP deal, the personality of our leader and contenders for her job; Labour’s woes of every kind. These are the very stuff of politics and public debate.
But sometimes we need to rise above the political hubbub and whirligig; and we can do so by seeking inspiration in little things, somehow or another almost unconnected to public life. Such an inspiration comes from young Jonathan and his dedicated and committed parents. It’s not just his determination to rise above his disabilities; not only his campaigning to help others in the same position as himself, but perhaps without the help which he has been lucky enough to have; it’s something about his cheerful insouciance at his disability.
Jonathan’s life is determined not by the fact that he cannot live as the rest of us are lucky enough to live. His life is determined by his original thoughts about a wide variety of matters which he is now able, through the use of his eye movement and a persex board, to express to the world. I was also struck by how profound his belief is in Jesus Christ, and how he has not allowed his disability to lead him to rail against his belief, but rather to strengthen it.
Young Jonathan Bryan is an inspiration to us all.
© 2017 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA