As an MP you routinely try to influence things locally and nationally; you generally support your own political party in Government and support the promises laid out in your Manifesto; you do what you can to help people with their many and varied problems locally. But strange as it may seem it is pretty rare that you have to take a decision of huge importance, almost never a decision of generational, historic, national and international importance. Yet that is what each and every MP is faced with next Tuesday, 11 December.
I am clear, and have very publicly stated, that I will oppose this very flawed plan produced by the Prime Minister. It is the worst of all possible worlds, risks keeping us half-in half-out of the EU and would very probably be a catastrophe for the Union. I will be voting to leave the EU, an organisation against which I have been very committed and clear for very many years. Indeed, I remember when I was a young man voting against joining it in the first place. So it’s not that I am unclear or wavering in any way. I know what my course of action will be, what I believe to be my duty to my constituents (78% of the many hundreds of letters I have received are opposed to this ‘Deal’) and to Britain, the EU and the wider world. I shall be voting with my own convictions and beliefs. I could not live with myself if in some way I compromised them.
Yet that personal certainty does not make it easy. I am very conscious that my vote may well be decisive and have a real effect on the way of life, of every aspect of life, in Britain for years, perhaps decades to come. And I am modest enough to recognise that there is at least a chance I may be wrong. Anyone who would claim to be absolutely certain about any truly historic decision of this sort must have a terrible arrogance.
But just as Churchill and those surrounding him were certain that Chamberlain was wrong to appease Hitler in 1939 with his ‘Peace in our time’ moment; they must have wondered during the long and terrible war which followed whether or not they may have made a mistake when they realised how many millions of lives rested on that decision.
This is a 1939 moment. It’s not an easy nor a carefree moment. It’s a heavy burden indeed. But I will vote with my conscience and my convictions to overturn Theresa May’s shoddy ‘Withdrawal Agreement,” and in favour of a clean and decisive Brexit. I believe with all my heart that that is the right thing to do. But I wholly understand and sympathise with those many constituents who do not agree with me.
I can but pray that I have got it right.
I am very proud of my daughter, Olivia, (while reserving the right to disagree with her totally on some subjects) who set herself the task of ‘going plastic free’ this year. She’s an artistic environmentalist with NGO Invisible Dust and was without a doubt sitting on my shoulder when I spoke to the 500 or so people attending the brilliantly organised ‘Plastic Unwrapped’ Festival in Malmesbury on Saturday.
It was Sir David Attenborough’s truly iconic Blue Planet 2 which more or less overnight changed our attitude to plastic, or at least to single use, and therefore un-recyclable, plastic. Who can forget the picture of that Wandering Albatross chick on the beach dead with her stomach full of cotton buds, fishing nets and plastic cups? Or last week the whale dead with 400 plastic cups and a pair of flip-flops in his belly. Who can fail to emote over turtles choking on plastic bags believing them to be jellyfish? We know that we just have to do something about the 12 million tonnes of plastics entering our oceans every year. So what can we do?
There are three levels. Each and every one of us can make our contribution by consciously trying to cut Single Use Plastics out of our lives. Follow Olivia and the 500 people in Malmesbury on Saturday and the countless thousands across Britain who agree. Second the Government has to act- and has promised to do so. Our 25-year plan for the environment ‘A Green Future’ lays out detailed promises to tackle marine litter, to cut reliance on plastics, for example by bringing in the 5p levy on plastic bags, which has cut their use by some 86%. We have banned cotton buds, plastic straws and stirrers, and are moving towards banning SUP plastic coffee cups. We have banned the sale of products with microbeads (but have to do more to tackle what the Prince of Wales called our ‘Throwaway Society’, especially in the fashion industry.) And despite the fact that we are already well ahead of targets, we must further increase recycling and composting of plastics.
And third, we must persuade the rest of the world to follow our lead. After all, 90% of the plastic in our oceans comes from 7 rivers in Asia. We must lead then by example and diplomatic and Aid pressure.
If we act and act NOW –personally, locally, nationally and internationally, we can and we must defeat what is becoming a vast environmental scourge of our times.
The NHS (RUH and Yatton Keynell surgery) have done great stuff over the couple of weeks since my injury, and I am now very much 'Walking Wounded.' I am so lucky to have had some wonderful help from doctors and nurses, physios, and especially my lovely wife Philippa, who has been an absolute brick. And I am so very grateful for the hundreds of 'Get Well Soon' messages. They seem to be working!
Nonetheless, I was not initially amused when the whips got in touch to tell me they really needed me back in Parliament for the vote on the Budget last Thursday. ‘What a bore’, I thought. But in the event it was good to have a target and a bit of self- discipline. So I picked myself up, brushed myself down, and started all over again.
So I got myself a local helper/driver, Laura, and struggled up to Parliament in good time to do their bidding. The Whips offered to 'Nod me though' - a procedure under which an ill MP can vote not in person, but by being interviewed anywhere on the Parliamentary estate by Government and Opposition whips. I declined their kind offer. “If I have to be there, I will jolly well walk through the voting lobby with everyone else," I said. And I did- without mishap. It brought (wholly unjustified) sympathy and praise from all, including the PM, who was mildly amused that I should have been injured on her private staircase. "No PMQs next week, James" she quipped, “so you could have lain there undiscovered for two weeks." Would have done wonders for my slimming. (And no- I fell, was not pushed.)
Anyhow, having got vertical I was pleased to be able to go to Bristol to do some TV and radio, and then Malmesbury Abbey for the lovely Dorothy House concert by Blake, Parliament on Monday and Tuesday to join the Speaker and Lord Speaker laying wreaths at the newly refurbished War Memorial, and a couple of other London engagements. Then a couple of days off to prepare for full day of constituency engagements on Friday, surgeries on Saturday, and Remembrance Sunday in Lyneham and Malmesbury (including the Memorial beacons in the evening.)
So maybe the whips have done me a favour by a little bit of incentive to get back on my feet and get on with my job. I very much respect - and agree with - Tracey Crouch for having resigned over a needless six-month delay to the reforms to Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. That was poor whipping indeed. The rumoured Brexit deal that keeps the whole of the UK in some kind of Customs Union will merit careful and sceptical scrutiny. The whips will need to do better than that and use all of their whipping/HR/political skills if they are to get this putative Brexit deal through Parliament.
‘Arma Pacis Fulcra’, ‘Arms are the Balance of Peace’ is the ancient motto of my own old Regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company, whose tie I wore with pride on Remembrance Sunday, together with my Royal British Legion Royal Wootton Bassett branch badge.
A complex of thoughts and emotions swirl around the annual remembrance tide events, made all the more poignant by this year’s Centenary of the 1918 Armistice. 11 Am on 11/11/18. I joined the Speaker and Lord Speaker in laying wreaths at the newly-restored 1st World War memorial in Parliament’s Westminster Hall to members of both houses who gave their lives. And there is something very special always about the Remembrance Sunday service in Malmesbury Abbey. It was great to see The Revd Oliver Ross safely installed as their new vicar.
We remember those hundreds of thousands of young men and (in subsequent wars) women, who gave their lives, their physical or mental wellbeing, and so much else to fight for King and Country and for all of our freedoms and rights. They were following orders, and were as much fighting for their regiments, or units, and for their mates with whom they had trained and deployed. We remember their sacrifice with admiration and pride. And we think of their families and all they left behind when they went off to war.
But then I had the honour of taking the salute alongside Colonel Ed Heal at the 1000-soldier march-past at the Remembrance event in Lyneham, and it occurred to me that this great event is not just about remembering the dead and wounded. It’s also about those who currently serve – all 200,000 or so soldiers, sailors and airmen and women. We should be pleased and honoured in North Wiltshire to have the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and the Defence Technical Training School at Lyneham; IX Regiment, Royal Logistics Corps at Hullavington; 21 Signals Regiment at Colerne; 10 Signals Regiment and others at the MOD Communications Centre at Corsham, and a great many others all round Salisbury Plain. Wiltshire makes a huge contribution to the defence of the Realm, and it is right and proper to remember that at this Remembrance tide.
And there was something wonderfully moving and forward-looking about the simply lovely Children’s Remembrance service which I attended in Calne on Friday. These young people may not have personal experience of war; but they most certainly understood the meaning of Remembrance. And most important of all, Remembrance Sunday teaches them about the awfulness of war and their crucial role in preventing it in the lifetimes which stretch ahead of them.
The HAC motto, Arma Pacis Fulcra says it all for me. Pacifism, and the self-regarding nonsense of the white poppy achieves nothing. Recognising the service of our armed forces; recognising that they do what they do to avoid war rather than to cause it; remembering the awfulness of war, and paying tribute to those who made such great self-sacrifices. These are the emotions which will prevent war in the future.
And that is why Remembrance Sunday, so splendidly marked in this year of all years, is so very important.
Sometimes you can be too clever for your own good. After a vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday, I took a short-cut from the Chamber towards my office via a little-known staircase which leads from the Prime Minister’s Office to Speaker’s Court down below. I was probably trespassing, and it’s a route I had not used before and must have been unfamiliar with the carpeted staircase. Anyhow, towards the bottom, I found myself on the floor with a leg at an awkward angle. There was no-one around (thankfully not even the PM), so I hauled myself to my feet, stepped outside the heavy oak door, and promptly fell over again, my knee giving out beneath me. The Door-Keepers and Police helped enormously, and eventually I got my wheel-chair laden self back to Wiltshire, thence to RUH in Bath, where the fantastic surgeons successfully operated on my ruptured ligaments. Serves me jolly well right.
Anyhow, it means that I am currently in a leg brace and hobbling around on crutches for 6-8 weeks whilst I recuperate. Luckily, I have a fully functioning office at my home in Wiltshire, so I will be keeping up to date with emails and so on, and will be heading up to Parliament if I possibly can for all the main debates and votes. And my brilliant staff will be just as busy as usual.
So any false news that this was actually a clever ploy by the Whips to keep me away from the voting lobbies are fanciful. [PS The whips are actually the most helpful of HR experts, and not usually the ogres they are sometimes portrayed as.] I should be fully back in order by Christmas, so please forgive me in the meanwhile if I am less ‘around’ than I normally am.
There has been a flurry of letters in the last few days praising the NHS to the rafters, and asking me to suggest to the Chancellor that he should increase taxes in the Budget to pay for it. I totally agree that the NHS is the most wonderful of organisations. Truly the jewel in the British Crown, and providing some of the very best healthcare in the world free of charge to all. We are incredibly lucky locally with RUH, GWH, and first-class GPs like my own Dr Popli in Yatton Keynell. The NHS must be funded properly, and I will be speaking from experience over the next few weeks.
Yet I have some doubts about whether or not a first-class NHS can necessarily be best achieved simply by raising taxes. By how much, I wonder? And who is to pay them? This year only, or more and more taxation with every year to come? I am sure that we would all say, ‘a few hundred a year extra would be worth it.’ But why do we think that would be the right figure? The NHS must be properly funded and run, but I am just not convinced that a tokenistic tax increase, which might make us all feel better in ourselves, would necessarily be the magic wand which some people seem to think it would be.
So as I give myself over to the (highly capable) NHS in RUH, you can be certain that I will fight every corner in Government for it. And for now, I just crave your forgiveness if I am less active in Parliament or around North Wiltshire than usual.
Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA