We should be proud (but perhaps not surprised) that all three winners in this year’s CPRE Best Kept Village competition are in North Wiltshire. Biddestone, Hullavington and Charlton may not necessarily be the prettiest villages in Wiltshire (although they must be close to it); but they have been adjudged to be the ‘best kept.’ Parish councils, parishioners of every kind, by taking a pride in their immediate neighbourhood; by keeping their own gardens and window boxes immaculate, and tidying up communal areas with litter-picking and more; these are ordinary people taking a real pride in their own and their immediate environment. That spirit of self-help, and of concern for our neighbours was celebrated in the Award Ceremonies last Sunday, two of which I attended.
I apologise to the villagers of Biddestone whose ceremony I missed owing to a previous commitment to reading a lesson at the lovely little service at Luckington church to rededicate two graves of those who had given military service. My reading, from the Gospel of St John was the famous old tale of Jesus telling the disciples about a grain of wheat. Unless it falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain. “If it dies, it bears much fruit.” Great Oaks from Little acorns grow. But not without them dying first.
Self-sacrifice for the greater good of the greater number is the spirit which lies behind the Best Kept Villages (and a fair number of great oaks round well-kept village greens too). And it is the spirit which permeates our armed services, where huge discomfort, and of course great risk to life and limb, are accepted for the greater good of the soldier’s mates and unit, and ultimately for the greater good of Queen and Country.
By contrast, the intonation from the Prayer Book at a graveside that “In the midst of Life we are in Death” has always struck me as being a bit negative, and also blind to the Resurrection. Surely “In the midst of Death we are in Life” is more positive, and also much more in line with the grain of wheat or the acorn, from which grow great oaks.
The British Bull-dog, whether or not in favour of Brexit will not tolerate our Prime Minister’s humiliation by a bunch of Europeans. We will not be bullied, nor patronised by the EU, who by that very action remind us of all we dislike about them. Salzburg has had the life-giving consequence of uniting almost everyone in support of Mrs May against the Eurocrats. So it may seem like an ‘impasse’; Chequers may be ‘dead’; the immediate outlook for the negotiations may be a little bleak. But in the midst of death, there is life. Chequers may turn out to be the acorn, from which a (wildly dissimilar) oak tree emerges. The annoying Europeans may just turn out to have been the rain and sunshine which makes it germinate and grow. President Tusk may well come to regret his vulgar little cake joke.
It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what makes a good leader. There are those who believe it is all about micro-management, the firm smack of authority, pushing people around. My own style is the opposite- laying out the strategic direction for a project, hiring the right people to do it and then masterful delegation. I seem to have acquired rather a lot of interests and responsibilities, but it works well because of the brilliant team I have delivering them.
Adam Fico is my Chief of Staff and has run most aspects of my political life for a good few years now; he also masterminds the All Party Group for the Armed Forces which I chair; Amy Swash my Private Secretary especially looks after Constituency correspondence and is a born diplomat on the telephone; Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Longbottom runs the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme; Dr Duncan Depledge looks after my Polar Regions interests; and my long-suffering wife, Philippa runs the diary, the constituency office and local events and engagements. All are true professionals and just ‘get on with it’ without undue interference from me.
I was glad to speak up on Wednesday in a debate in the House of Commons for the hundreds of professional people – from the Police and Ambulance Service; from Odstock Hospital; from Porton Down; from Wiltshire Council and others – who played a part in the appalling poisonings in Salisbury and their aftermath. It was good to know that one of the detectives involved- who lives locally- was in the Commons Gallery for the debate. There were a myriad of different skills and professions involved in it all, each of whom carried out their particular job bravely and professionally under the general lead of the Prime Minister (about whom more later). They were left to get on with it.
The European Research Group, of which I am a supporter, met last Tuesday to discuss Brexit (as we very often do). A few hotheads raised the question of Mrs May’s leadership of the Conservative Party. They were quickly silenced by those of us who realise that if the Brexit negotiations are to be as successful as we hope, now is not the time for a leadership battle or change of PM. They may have their frustrations with the way the negotiations are going, but that is not a good reason for changing the General in the middle of the battle. On the contrary, if we are unhappy with one or another aspects of her leadership, or the direction she is taking in those negotiations then we must make her aware of it, and seek to persuade her to modify her views. So the press reports of that meeting were wholly exaggerated.
Leadership means setting the direction of travel, masterminding the strategy and appointing the right people to carry it out. We must make sure that the PM sets the right strategic direction, but that thereafter Dominic Raab is left alone to get on with it.
I was critical of the Parliamentary process last week, so let me redress the balance just a shade. We’re back for a slightly dotty two week session before we break up again for the Party Conference Season. I think we should abolish (or perhaps consign to weekends) these outdated jamborees in seaside towns.
My Parliamentary life for a few weeks will be dominated by chairing the Committee Stage of the Offensive Weapons Bill. Law is made in this country in a complex series of processes. A Green paper, media comment, think tank papers produce the idea; a White Paper laying out the ideas in detail may follow; then its First Reading of the resulting Bill, which is simply a first sight of the printed draft; Second Reading is a whole day debate in the Commons, discussing the principle behind the Bill; then it’s into Committee where every line, dot, comma and word is debated to try to make it good law, whether or not one agrees with the principle; Report Stage is when the Committee reports back to the whole House on the changes they have made, and when further detailed amendments can be carried; then its Third Reading to discuss the amended Bill in full. After that the Bill goes off to the House of Lords, where a similar process is followed, and any amendments which are agreed by them, then come back and forth to the Commons (‘Parliamentary ping-pong’) until the Bill is finally agreed and goes off to Her Majesty for her signature.
As a member of Mr Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen, it is my job to chair committee stages of bills, chair debates in Westminster Hall, and very occasionally the main Chamber when we are sitting as a “Committee of the Whole House” on finance or constitutional issues. It’s quite a challenging role. You have to be even-handed, even if you have your own clear views on the Bill in question; you have to understand and implement the extremely complex procedures of the House as laid out in Erskine-May; you have to recognise even the most obscure or recent backbencher when they rise to speak; and you have to stay awake, no matter how dull the debate may be.
Without compromising that impartiality, I can say that the Offensive Weapons Bill seems like a good idea - banning acid sales to prevent these horrific attacks, controlling knife sales, and limiting certain types of weapon. Yet those who make Elderflower cordial are concerned about getting the citric acid it requires; the catering industry are worried about whether or not knives should be bought on the internet, and posted; and specialist gun clubs are fussed about large-bore weapons, which the Bill bans. These and a host of similar details will be thrashed out in Committee.
As Chairman of the Bill Committee, I take no view on it, and cannot vote at any stage in its consideration. So I apologise to the small number of constituents who have tried to lobby me on it.
There are four committee sessions a week- two each on Tuesday and Thursday, each lasting up to three hours or so, so it can be a gruelling experience for the Chairman. But the end result- the legislation - tends at least to have been carefully chewed over, amended, explained. Like the Bill or hate it, the British system at least ensures that it has been well discussed and that it is as good an Act as it possibly can be.
The final Boundary Commission Report was published this week. In very broad terms, Chippenham comes back to North Wiltshire, but I lose Calne to the Devizes constituency. It more or less takes me back to the seat I represented from 1997-2010, and sad as I would be to lose Calne, Chippenham Town has always been very close to my heart. It all has to be approved by Parliament, so there is a chance that it will not go through. It would cost the Labour Party perhaps 20 seats, since many of their seats are far too small (as few as 35/4000 voters compared to the average of 72,000), and it is not helpful to the Lib Dems either. So it may well not go through. But if it does, I for one will be perfectly content.
Things change. It was good to have a surgery- for the first time ever, I think – in Purton on Saturday. Purton is in fact the third largest of my towns (in descending order, Calne, Royal Wootton Bassett, Purton, Cricklade, Malmesbury, Box), so it is good to give the residents easy access. And seven or eight cases (some quite difficult) appeared.
Similarly, I was glad to speak up in Parliament about Salisbury- not my patch, but the outrageous Novichock attack by what now transpires to have been GRU agents (i.e. KGB) affects the whole of the County. The PM confirmed that the outstanding job done by the Wiltshire Constabulary would be refunded by the Home Office, and so would not be a burden on the local taxpayers; and that there was now no risk of any kind of contamination. Both things will be a relief to my North Wiltshire constituents, despite them being shielded from Salisbury by the Plain!
It is possible to be ‘local’ without being ‘parochial.’ The same may apply, by analogy to the many and various Brexit debates whirling around Westminster: ‘Chequers Terms’ ; ’WTO’; ‘EEA’ ;Canada ++++; It’s all fascinating to those in the know. But the simple reality is that we want to leave the EU as currently constituted, but then return to something not unlike the ‘Common Market’, which after all, is what the Nation voted for back in 1975.
I feel confident that if we said to the Nation as a whole- Brexiteer and Remainer alike, leaving aside a few idealogues on either wing - that we are now seeking to rejoin ‘The Common Market’, then I think that most people would probably breathe a sigh of relief and say “Yes- that’s fine. That’s what we wanted all along.”!
So I shall start using the expression ‘Common Market’, and hope that others may follow. That might- just might- be the Elastoplast which would re-unite the country, and clearly express to the EU and the trading world alike what we are actually seeking. Its just words, but it may be just the words we need.
Over 40 years or so, Parliament has become weak, emasculated and muddled. Brexit may be just what it needs. Our powers to scrutinise and hold to account the Government have been eroded - by the EU, devolution to Scotland, Wales and local government, and by 24-hour rolling news providing an effective opposition singularly lacking elsewhere.
We must never forget that Parliament's job is not to run the country but to scrutinise and hold to account those of its members who, by right of their Parliamentary majority, form the government and seek to do so. It's about scrutinising Bills, and like them or loathe them at least making them into good, workable law. It's about holding Ministers to account through debates and question times, Select Committees and so much more... It's about shouting the corner for the unique local needs of an MP’s own constituency; and it's about speaking up for minorities and for the weak, and for those unable to speak for themselves, however they voted.
Tony Blair was the first PM to realise that the weaker Parliament is, the more unfettered Ministers' freedom to act will be, and he took steps to further that erosion. It was under him that we first saw the near universal use of Parliamentary 'guillotines' – the time-limiting of debate. By that means, he abolished one of the few real weapons at the disposal of the Opposition - time. We Conservatives voted against Timetable Motions for thirteen years arguing that they were a scourge of Parliamentary democracy. But in Government, of course, we love them and have preserved and extended them. Time limits on speeches mean that we err on the side of quantity rather than quality. Debates are pretty shabby little rags by comparison with the great old days of Thatcher, Churchill, Disraeli, and the quality of the legislation we send up to the Lords is as a result so poor that it demands dozens of amendments, many of them from the Government itself, during the much more thorough Lords' scrutiny of our Bills.
Mr Blair's emasculation of Parliament went further. He used to send his backbenchers home for 'constituency weeks' and brought in innocent amusements to keep the backbenchers happy. Westminster Hall debates are worthy enough, but being incapable of a vote are in no way 'binding.' Even less so are the recent invention of debates on public petitions which give people the entirely false impression that if they raise more than 100,000 signatures, they will get a debate in Parliament. The 4 million who petitioned for a second EU Referendum must have been more than a little disappointed at three hours of discussion concluded by a wind-up from a junior Minister.
Regular Opposition day debates in the main Chamber are routinely voted down by government backbenchers who have not been present for much of the debate; and the fairly recent invention of 'Backbench Business Committee Debates' allows a good airing of some topic dear to an MP's heart, but has little effect on policy or governmental behaviour. Debates and question times are largely formal and formulaic, the Prime Minister and Ministers pay them little attention, numbers attending from the backbenches are low and debates end early through lack of speakers.
Now they are keen to get rid of the visible signs and symbols of Parliament – the funny clothes, ancient traditions, wigs for the clerks at the Table; the long tradition of impartiality by the Speaker; the careful language, the powerfully influencing speeches. Soon they will close the building under guise of 'modernising it', making it more public-friendly and the rest of it. And in the meantime, unheeded by us, the Government are allowed to get on with whatever they want to unhampered by our only mildly irritating scrutiny. It is a weak, idle and emasculated Parliament indeed.
So what do we need to do about it? First, we should, as we Conservatives always promised to do, abolish timetable motions. That might well make life less comfortable for we backbenchers. The Parliamentary day would be less predictable. We might have to cancel some of our overseas trips, perhaps stay in Westminster for longer in the evening. It might well be a bit of a bore; but it’s the job we signed up to. We should limit the worthy but perhaps relatively ineffectual Westminster Hall debates, Adjournment debates, Backbench Business Committee debates and Opposition Days. They give us the warm illusion of holding the government to account, but are in reality largely ignored.
We should seek to cut back on 'case-work' which largely involves us in doing things which actually ought to be done by local councillors, social workers, immigration lawyers. "He's a good Constituency MP" now tends to mean not that "he is representing the constituency well by speaking up for us in Parliament", but that "he is always here.” Do we represent the constituency in Westminster, or Westminster in the constituency? It is my view that the pendulum has swung too far towards the latter.
Post-Brexit, many of the powers which we have lost to the EU over 50 years will be returned to the UK. We must ensure that they are not just hoovered up by the Government; and that Parliament is the body which must decide how they are used and then keep a watchful eye on it. Brexit may be the moment, and the means, to reinvigorate Parliament.
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA