So who are you? A Brit? A European? Citizen of the World? Or perhaps a Wiltshireman, Malmesburian, or a resident of the Withybed Tynings? Are you a person of somewhere? Of Everywhere? Or perhaps of Nowhere? So much that is happening right now is a search for identity, for Nationhood. Or perhaps it’s a battle between those who seek identity, and those who despise it as ‘parochial’ ‘Little Englander’, ‘Nationalistic.’
The Brexit negotiations are making steady, if unflashy progress. The fishermen were unhappy this week because of an apparent delay in our departure from the Common Fisheries Policy. But surely they should at least be glad that it will happen - albeit an unregulated two years later than hoped. More work is needed on the Irish Border, and our borders in general (perhaps in this modern world we don’t actually need them?) It’s a bit glacial (some of the glaciers I saw in South Georgia are moving quite a lot faster than Mrs May), but it’s all going in the right Brexit direction. At the heart of the Brexit debate lies our wrestling with identity- are we British or European? Is it possible to be both?
Our outrage at the despicable poisoning of two British citizens, albeit of Russian background, in Salisbury, and of the accidental poisoning of DS Nicholas Bailey (and we rejoice at his release from hospital) is only partly about law and order. Plenty of people are sadly murdered or attacked, and we hear little about it. Our outrage over this incident comes from the fact that it was done by nerve gas; and that it was done by Russian agents operating on our territory. ‘In Cathedral Salisbury of all places? Who do these Russkies think they are?’ So we welcome the expulsion of 23 of their spies, and no doubt more from other European countries, not necessarily because they are bad people (although they may be), but because they are foreign agents. It inspires a sort of John Buchan outrage in the English breast.
The same applies to the idiotic decision to allow our lovely new blue British passports to be published in France, despite the fact, inter alia, that the French will not allow their own passports to be printed overseas ‘for national security reasons’.’ Reverting to the good old blue British passport was an important symbol of British independence of mind, which is somewhat weakened by depriving local company De La Rue of the contract in favour of a Franco-Dutch printer. What can Ministers have thought they were doing? I have written to Home Secretary, Amber Rudd to ask that she reverses this demonstrably silly decision.
The important thing about the Falklands War all those years ago, was not just that the Argentinians had invaded a pretty depopulated couple of islands in the South Atlantic. It was that they are British, and that the people living there wanted to be British. Sir Rex Hunt fighting to defend the Governor’s house, where bullet holes still adorn the walls, before marching out the front door head held high having donned his full Diplomatic uniform was a great moment. Pride and honour even in defeat. And the Para having yomped 95 miles from San Carlos to Port Stanley with the Union Flag flying from his radio aerial is one of the great images of all time. The Chief of the General Staff, whose wife is from Wiltshire, made a fine speech along similar lines in Parliament last week, and I’m delighted he has now been appointed the new Chief of the Defence Staff. The Falklands may be 8,000 miles away; but they are very much British, the people are very much Britons, and it is their right to determine that that is the case.
We should not be ashamed of these things, nor of our pride in Wiltshire, or Royal Wootton Bassett, or our street, or our home. These are the things which define us as proud human beings. They may call me a ‘Little Englander’ or a ‘Provincial Wiltshireman’. I will wear both insults with pride.
There is a magnificent simplicity, and purity, to be found in the remote sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia were I have spent the last week with the Foreign Office, British Antarctic Survey, environmental scientists and others. This rarely-visited outcrop 700 nautical miles east of the Falkland Islands is home to the largest bird in the world, the Wandering Albatross. These massive seabirds, whose nests we came within a few feet of, soar over the world’s oceans for seven years before coming back to their home nests to breed and feed their young. They live for up to 70 years and truly command their environment, yet longline tuna fishermen are devastating their numbers. Even here, 3 to 4 days travel from the nearest human habitation, plastic is washed onto beaches and human influence is having visible detrimental effects.
The Patagonian toothfish, and the Antarctic krill occupy uncharted depths, but would be harvested by industrial trawlers were it not for their activities being carefully managed by representatives of the Government of South Georgia to ensure any fishing is conducted responsibly. There are concerns about such trawling outside of UK waters. Other species are thriving - gigantic elephant seals, thousands of fur seals, and on one beach alone 250,000 king penguins. Most heartening of all, those whales - the monarchs of the sea - are showing the first signs of recovering from the dreadful depredations of man which we witnessed in the old whaling stations we visited at Grytviken and Stromness.
We attended a superb church service in the little whalers’ church at Grytviken, where The Revd Nicholas Mercer spoke of wilderness and wildlife, of isolation and comradeship. Skua and skylarks, penguins and pipits punctuated his sermon a few yards from Shackleton’s grave, just the other side of the rusting remains of the whaling station with the piles of vicious harpoons lying around.
On our way back, we stopped off to visit the Falkland Island battlefields and paid our respects to the 250 fallen soldiers who are buried in the superb Commonwealth War Grave military cemeteries. I was especially moved by that of Colonel H Jones VC. The unspoilt serenity of the Falklands landscape was brutalised by that terrible war, as is our natural environment brutalised by so much of modern industrialism. I was visiting the bleak wilderness named Salisbury Plain on South Georgia when I came to hear of the chemical attacks by the Russians near its local namesake.
How can we humans destroy what is pure and good and simple by our foolish brutalities? We have so much to learn from the Wandering Albatross and the Patagonian toothfish.
No matter what your view about Brexit, I hope that you will be ready to agree that the PM is playing a pretty canny hand at it. The terms laid out in her Lancaster House speech, reiterated in Florence and fleshed out in the so well-drafted Mansion House speech last Friday have been clear and consistent.
We will leave the EU as a result of the people voting to do so. That will be 12 months from now, although there will then be a further implementation period. We will leave the Single Market and Customs Union, without which we would not in effect be leaving at all; we will regain control of our laws by liberating ourselves from the European Court of Justice, and we will regain control of immigration, albeit making a small concession with regard to EU immigrants who arrive here during the transition period. She remains firm that there will be no ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, although the details and exact working of that still need to be fleshed out.
All of that is now pretty plain, and has the great merit of being fairly pragmatic and giving neither the Remainers nor the extreme Brexiteers exactly what they want, while keeping both camps moderately happy. It was a great relief to see Dominic Grieve and Jacob Rees-Mogg side by side welcoming the speech. That alone must be a triumph of conciliatory politics, and the PM is to be congratulated for it.
So if the final terms of our departure from the EU are as laid out in the Mansion House speech, then I think most people will be (perhaps a shade reluctantly) ready to accept it as the best deal we could possibly hope to achieve under the circumstances. My concern now turns to the EU 27, who must unanimously agree to these terms. Will they? Who knows? If they do not, then we will leave the EU anyhow, and will no doubt use these terms as the basis of our continuing relationship with our European cousins. After all that is as much in their best interests as in ours (or perhaps even more so).
I still take the view that leaving with ‘no deal’ would actually be perfectly workable, and that the threat that we might do so should be enough to force the EU to face the realities of our departure. I was much encouraged in that view by Sir James Dyson’s remarks last week. Dyson, of course, are large employers locally, and make a huge contribution to the local economy. It is Sir James’s view that he imports large numbers of vacuum cleaners and the rest from his factories in the Far East on WTO terms. Dyson are nonetheless one of the largest white goods suppliers across the EU.
So I feel quietly optimistic about the way the negotiations are going. We will leave in 12 months, and the runes are beginning to look very hopeful of a friendly and prosperous relationship with the EU thereafter alongside a free and economically successful future for our great Nation.
By the time you read this, I will 8000 miles away, on a little Fisheries Protection vessel the Pharos 2, just off South Georgia. Little heard of since Argentinian ‘scrap metal merchants’ sparked off the Falklands War in 1982 by hoisting their flag over the disused Whaling Station at Grytviken; South Georgia and Antarctica are rarely out of the environmental news these days.
The Nation’s heart went out to the South Georgia Albatross chick in Sir David Attenborough’s magnificent Blue Planet 2 filmed full of plastics, and now the island’s penguin population is also under threat. Around 300,000 king penguins live on this remote, mostly uninhabited island, which together with the neighbouring South Sandwich Islands, are a British sub-Antarctic Overseas Territory. A quarter of the world’s penguins are by that means British citizens.
Yet a report this week suggested that Climate Change is driving the meeting point between the warm and cold waters of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctica, which currently lies close to South Georgia, further South, away from established penguin colonies, who depend on them for survival. Rats leaving British and Norwegian whaling ships over several centuries resulted in an infestation of the islands. Retreating glaciers then allowed them to spread across the island, with disastrous consequences for the rare South Georgia Pippit and destruction of 95% of the native bird population. Only now, as a result of a multi-million pound rat eradication programme is the native birdlife beginning to recover. And there’s been a debate in parliament recently about the Patagonian Toothfish, which is also under threat.
So at the invitation from the Governor of the Falklands I will be joining British Antarctic Survey scientists, Foreign Office officials and others, on an expedition to South Georgia to see for ourselves, and then promote greater attention to the islands, their delicate environment, and Britain’s obligation to protect them. For example, there is a current proposal, the privately funded Discovery 100 Project, which would bring together heritage protection and cutting edge Antarctic science to create a scientific research station in and around Grytviken. And there is work to be done to enhance the protection of marine areas not just around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, but right across the Southern and Antarctic Oceans.
It’s remote, largely uninhabited, and wholly inaccessible. But Britain should be proud of all we are doing to preserve the heritage and biodiversity of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; we should be immensely proud of the superb scientific contribution of the British Antarctic Survey; and we should be doing all we can to preserve and enhance this remote British territory, which is of such vast importance to the environmental health of the Globe.
I’ll report back from my expedition to Shackleton’s grave next week.
It’s been a bit of an odd week for me:
Sunday: Up to London late after busy Constituency week. Train delayed, taxi gets lost and lifts in my block of flats out of order necessitating 5 stories hike. Probably very good for me.
Monday: 9 am Eurostar to Brussels. One of most civilised ways to travel. As a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, two days of talks about defence and the West. Interesting to see perspectives of other nations, such as Germany, whose ‘military caveats’ mean, amongst other things, that they cannot fight at night.... Followed by an interminable discussion about EU relations with NATO after Brexit. 80% of NATOs funding comes from non-EU countries. EU should in my view, focus on trade, and leave defence to NATO. I say so, which does not endear me to the Europhile audience.
Wednesday: After a morning’s discussions, train to Parliament to catch up. Black Tie dinner at Trinity House, of which I am a Younger Brother, with Wilts explorer Sir David Hempleman-Adams as my guest. Walk to St Paul’s with him after dinner for a slightly squiffy selfie. Also Hempie’s not much good at map reading!
Thursday: Various meetings in Parliament, then train home.
Friday: Sharp-suited young men from Lidl fail to convince me that we need one of their stores on a greenfield site at the edge of Malmesbury. I promise to oppose it, which they do not like very much. They could take some lessons in PR from the wonderful travelling showmen whose annual lunch at the Swindon Hilton (just inside my constituency) is next on the agenda. What a lovely, straightforward, honest, decent, and generally cheerful bunch they really are. The Scarrott family from Royal Wootton Bassett are very old friends. They have run the local fairs for generations. A fine bit of old England, and ‘worth a guinea a minute’, unlike the Lidl PR lads.
Saturday: Surgeries in Cricklade and Malmesbury yield their usual mixed crop of cases. Especially impressed by one gentleman, whose son was killed many years ago, and is now keen to campaign to stop the same thing happening again. I vow to help in any way I can. Dinner is near Tetbury with a quaint old literary society celebrating RS Surtees, the Victorian author of Jorrocks' Jaunts and Jollities, amongst so many other things…. Decent, honest traditional people, if mildly eccentric and a little politically incorrect!
Sunday: Lunch with friends near Compton Bassett and a desperate effort to deal with paperwork.
A myriad of different experiences- from Brussels, to Parliament, Trinity House, the Showmen’s Lunch, the Surtees dinner at Chavenage and so many other experiences sharpens judgement about people, events and issues. It helps to sort the sheep from the goats, to recognise the things which are good and old and true from those which are downright unconvincing. Lidl take note.
© 2017 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA