If you were that way inclined, you would be forgiven for being a bit gloomy right now. Second lockdown, disease and death, economic uncertainty, the world in turmoil. The time of year breeds gloom- the trees more or less bare; rain, fog. Even the wonderful Remembrance events in their truncated form are hardly designed to make us cheery.
Yet as Desmond Tutu said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” It is, after all in the darkest skies that we see the brightest stars. And we do suddenly have some glimpses of hope to come.
The Pfizer announcement of a workable vaccine, and the NHS determination to get it (and the other vaccines in advanced state of development) out to patients as soon as possible; mass testing, and tests with more or less immediate results suddenly look possible; even the much maligned Test and Trace system is looking better. The figures are still pretty dire- especially for Covid related deaths. But they tend to follow the infection figures by two or three weeks, and the number of those becoming ill seems to have levelled off. Even the ‘R’ factor is looking better in most parts of the country. So the Tier system, followed by total Lockdown seems to be working.
A sensible plan to get all students tested and those who are clear allowed home for Christmas has been developed; the chances of having a decent family Christmas suddenly seem brighter. Even the economy is showing signs of recovery - 16% growth in the few months between Lockdowns, which shows the resilience of the Demand side of the equation. There will still be tough times to come but these figures show that a ‘V’ shaped Recession is at least possible. After all, our expectations and standards of living are the same as they were before Covid, and our means of supplying that demand pretty much still in place. So why should the fundamentals of the economy not be just as strong as they were this time last year? The Stock Market and money markets seem to indicate some confidence that that is indeed the case.
The wider world too is suddenly looking brighter. There will be all kinds of shenanigans to come with the Brexit negotiations - there always are with EU negotiations. But it seems to me very likely that there will be a final agreement by the end of the year, and we will leave the EU on good terms, and safeguard our future by it. I have my reservations about Joe Biden, but at least we can hope for a degree of stability in the USA. Do you remember ‘Chemical Ali’ declaring that Saddam had won the war just as the American tanks were rolling into Baghdad? Spin doctors should know their place (Messrs Cummings and Cain to note.) Donald Trump must now accept that the game is up and leave the White House with whatever shreds of dignity are left to him.
So my prediction is that in the New Year - or at least by Easter - Covid will be starting to recede; the world will be a calmer place; we will have finally left the EU closing the Brexit chapter; and the economy will be less dire than some predictions would have you believe. There is suddenly a speck of light at the far distant end of a variety of tunnels, and what we must do is cheer up and make it happen.
As a pretty dyed-in-the -wool libertarian, my heart strongly inclined me towards rebelling against yesterday’s Lockdown 2 Parliamentary vote. How can any free democratic government take actions which threaten the very livelihoods of so many of its citizens? How can it dictate who we see and when and how; how can it prevent families form visiting their old folk; how can it come between a husband and wife? These and so many other Covid-induced restrictions go against my most fundamental of freedom-loving instincts. And 30 or so of my colleagues did indeed vote against the Government, and others spoke out in the limited debate we were allowed on the matter. I salute them for the strength and clarity of their convictions.
And yet…and yet…. Opinions wax and wane about the models, figures and predictions which the scientists have used to persuade the Government to take this action; indeed there are ample statistics to be used by both sides of the argument to prove their correctness; but the overwhelming consensus amongst scientists, epidemiologists, statisticians alike is that if we do not do something about the dramatic explosion of the virus, then we will see mass infections across the Nation, hospitals will be unable to handle the numbers; death and misery will follow.
Now I am no kind of a scientist; but I do feel that we have to accept their conclusions. If my libertarian instincts had led to the Lockdown not happening, and if as a result of my vote hundreds of my constituents became infected, seriously ill or died, then I would be not be able to live with myself. How can any MP be expected to take an action which, if the expert advice is to be believed, would result in misery for hundreds of the people they strive to represent?
After all, if the scientific predictions turn out to have been incorrect (as some of the Covid deniers would argue), then there is of course a heavy economic and personal price to be paid for their error; but that is, in my view, less likely to be as catastrophic as if we accept their advice. In other words, the Precautionary Principle applies here - if we act, we hope to avoid a likely disaster. If that disaster is imaginary, then we pay a price for it, but a lower price than we would pay if they are correct in their predictions, but we had not acted to reverse it. We can put an unnecessary economic price right; we cannot reverse needless illness, deaths and misery which would be caused by our inaction.
So that is why I voted to support the Government- my heart told me not to; but on this occasion my heard prevailed. President Trump’s (likely) demise is rather similar. I instinctively support the Republicans and am deeply wary about the 78-year-old socialist, Mr Biden. Yet my head tells me that President Trump is a huge personal liability, and that there is so much about him which is simply unacceptable in a civilised and liberal democracy. His method of departure- through the courts- has all the hallmarks of the worst kind of bad loser. Hilary Clinton stands in sharp contrast- honourably and quietly withdrawing from the field after a bitter defeat. My head tells me that the World will be a better place under Biden than Trump, even if my natural instincts tell me otherwise.
You’d have thought that the last thing we need at a time like this is political point scoring, silly political games, holier-than-thou virtue signalling. Yet we have had a fair bit of it this week.
Andy Burnham tried to make his name as Champion of Manchester, but looked a bit silly as a result by comparison with his Labour mayoral colleagues, Dan Jarvis in Sheffield who has quietly done a perfectly sensible deal with the Government, and even Sadiq Khan in London, who has avoided the worst kind of posturing. It is right that the Government pay for extra costs which a Local Authority in Tier Three may have to bear - Test and Trace costs, extra policing and the like. It was announced yesterday that Wiltshire Council, for example, are to get a further £3million, which comes close to covering our excess costs. Mr Burnham’s posturing was reminiscent of the old ‘us and them’ negotiating tactics of the hard-left unions in the ‘seventies. His constant claim that “This Tory Government hates the North of England…” and similar, was not only stupid, but also rather unconvincing. I kept expecting him to declaim ‘Workers of the World Unite….You have nothing to lose but your chains.’
At PMQs Sir Keir Starmer tried to criticise most of what we had done as being too stringent; but he then went on to offer his own solution - a total lockdown of the whole country for at least three weeks. So Wiltshire where we (thankfully) still have a very low infection rate would be in the same boat as Liverpool and Manchester. That seems a little harsh, Sir Keir!
Then on Wednesday a Labour Party motion in the House of Commons suggesting that schools up and down the land should be responsible for supermarket vouchers instead of free school meals in school holidays through until next Easter was resoundingly defeated. Schools have no responsibility for poverty nor hunger. That is a matter for the Department of Work and Pensions, who also have the mechanisms necessary to help those who cannot afford to feed their children. How can Heads and Chairs of Governors be held responsible for what happens to children during the school holidays? Labour hoped that our rejection of this self-regarding virtue signalling motion would be met by a howl of protest, encouraged by their less than appealing front bencher shouting ’Scum’ at a Tory speaker across the floor of the House. They will have been disappointed by the whimper of protest as a result of a general realisation that this was nothing other than a party-political stunt. (Even if their motion had been passed it would have had no effect whatsoever.)
By contrast, Rishi Sunak came forward on Thursday with a raft of measures to help businesses which will be worst affected by the Tier Three lockdowns. Furlough is extended with the Government paying much more, employers less; there are cash grants for hospitality and leisure businesses in Tier 2 – worth up to £2100 per month, and backdated to August; and a doubling of the third self-employed grant from 20% to 40% of self-employed peoples’ profits. Those together with a string of other measures are real help to businesses and employees alike.
We are all facing tough times; and we must all do our bit to stop the virus spreading more than absolutely necessary. Party-political point scoring should form no part of our reaction to a National Emergency. Sir Keir should take some lessons not from Keir Hardy (after whom he is named) but from Mr Attlee and his Labour colleagues throughout the Second World War.
It was good to see so many Covid heroes honoured in last week’s Queen’s Birthday list. These are people who went beyond what was expected of them to serve their fellow human beings in their hour of need. And they stand proxy for the many thousands of others, who serve yet who neither seek nor get any kind of public recognition for it. As Churchill said: “A medal glitters…but it also casts a shadow.”
That’s why the Royal Wootton Bassett motto, “We honour those who serve”, in commemoration of the great honour the people of the town did to the passing bodies of war heroes, is so important. We honour ALL who serve, not just those who come to public attention.
I would have loved to have been at the funeral on Monday of 104-year-old stalwart, Kitty Sparks. (But did not want to use up one of the scarce 30 places in church.) She and I were very old friends, and I greatly admired her tireless spirit right up to the end. Kitty was a nurse in London in the Blitz, wearing a cooking pot on her head in the absence of a tin helmet. She delivered 500 babies in her time and must have been a formidable figure. Later on she was a district nurse. Hers was truly a long and happy life of service to others, for which she sought nothing. (Apart from a chance to bend my ear two or three times a year on political matters, which she did as recently as last Christmas at the age of 103. I listened carefully when Kitty gripped my arm and fixed me with her gimlet eye.)
During the week (the Parliamentary half term Recess), I was pleased to visit a safe house for trafficked women at a secret location in North Wiltshire. It was good to speak to the managers, have a little tour; and above all have 15 minutes or so to chat to some of the residents. They have all been through awful times at the hands of wicked people; and are now finding a little bit of a safe refuge and peace of mind and body in our lovely County. What great work the people who run the refuge do - and wholly unsung. I salute them and will do whatever I can to help them in their noble work.
Another day I visited the refurbished police station in Royal Wootton Bassett and met Inspector Doug Downing and several of his officers. What great work they do, often under the most trying of circumstances, and how rarely is that we stop to say, ‘Thank you.’ I was glad to hear that they have been issued with some spanking new police bicycles – officers will be so much more approachable down the High Street on a bike than they would be in a rather frightening police car.
All of these and so many other unsung heroes are the people who make a true difference in our everyday lives. I wish that you could all be thanked and honoured personally. But I know that is not why you do what you do. You do it out of humanity and compassion.
And those who you help, those who you serve, and the rest of society, honour you for what you do.
It’s hard to remember a time when weightier- and more problematic- matters faced us. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse? I hope not.
First, the Covid figures are appalling and to all appearances spiralling out of control. It’s not just about statistics (more testing); the old versus the young; university terms; herd immunity; nor any of the other diminishing arguments which Covid-deniers are busying themselves with. No government could allow - far less cause - tens of thousands of otherwise unnecessary deaths. So I voted for all of the measures which cleverer people than me say we need to balance public health and public wealth, (albeit reluctantly over the 10 PM pub curfew, about which I have reservations.) It’s too easy for each of us to be an instant expert. What we want now is unanimity and clarity.
Second, the Environment in its widest sense was at the top of the agenda this week. The Agriculture and the Fisheries Bills both transfer laws from the EU Statute book to the UK one. Expert opinions are almost as diverse as they are on Covid, but like Covid, the Bills overall make good sense. (And I hope that I have been able to assuage the concerns of those who believe they will result in a reduction in food or animal welfare standards after Brexit; or that they will bankrupt the farmer. They will not. Exactly the contrary.) The Environment Bill itself, which is enormous and similarly transfers EU environmental directives onto the UK Statute Book, is back next week. I am Chairing the Bill in Committee, which is a pretty massive job. Every word in a 500-page document will be scrutinised, debated, amended. My job is to make sure that that happens within the proper Parliamentary procedures allowing full scrutiny, especially for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. That means I cannot vote on the matter, so please do not be surprised when you do not see my name attached to it.
Third, freedom has been central to many of those discussions- freedom to act despite Covid (but when does my freedom, for example not to wear a mask, impinge on yours by risking passing you my nasty disease?) Fish and Ag Bills are about freedom from bureaucratic interference from the EU or elsewhere; but then again, a decent environment depends on collective agreement to sensible rules and regulations. And today in Parliament we are discussing the ways in which the Security Services can use surveillance tactics which would otherwise be illegal. Is the prevention of a terrorist outrage more or less important than the right to be certain that our phones are not being tapped? A tricky moral maze that one.
And fourth and wrapped around numbers one to three is the whole question of Parliamentary Democracy. Who decides these things? How do we constrain the Executive, or give them the powers they need to defeat the pandemic and terrorism alike; and protect our farming food and fisheries and the wider environment by applying rules which individually we might well not like? And incidentally how do we finalise the details of our departure from the EU? (Expect late night sweaty summits followed by an emergency resolution just in time and no more.)
Parliament, the media and the body politic more widely have been actively engaged on debates on all four threatening horsemen. Only time will tell which of them we were able to rein back…..
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.