Why do we Brits love to remember our great military failures? Charge of the Light Brigade; Dunkirk; A Bridge too far, Arnhem. (And yes, I know, we also celebrate Waterloo, Battle of Britain and D-Day.) Also interesting that we are unique in having no specifically military music- just playing ordinary music in a military manner. It’s a sort of military modesty which we do not share, for example, with the Germans or Americans.
As soon as the House rose on Tuesday, I went off with a gang of 30 or so MPs and Peers for a quick battlefield tour of Arnhem. I try to go to the Remembrance Sunday outdoor service at the former RAF Blakehill Farm, near Cricklade, from where many of the gliders on Operation Market Garden in 1944 were launched, so I was keen to see where they had landed up. It was good to go to the very landing site and to see the fine model glider which commemorates it.
There were elements of disaster, of course. Many of the gliders crash landed; radios did not work; the Brits under Lord Carrington (who died only last week) did not move swiftly enough forward to relieve their besieged compatriots 10 miles up the road at Arnhem. The best laid plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy. But despite the ultimate failure of the Operation, it is good to remember the sheer heroism of so many who took part in the battles – the glider pilots, the American paras rowing over the Rhine using their rifle butts instead of paddles under intense enemy fire; the paras who fought and died so valiantly; the eccentric British officer who carried an umbrella so that he could not be mistaken for a German. These and so many other fine tales are worth recalling.
And a solemn visit to the magnificently maintained War Cemetery is a salutary reminder of the awfulness of war. It was heart-breaking to see how many of the fallen were teenagers or in their early twenties. What a dreadful waste of life. I was honoured, as the Chairman of the All Party Group for the Armed Forces to lay a wreath at the simple Lutyens designed War Memorial.
“Their name liveth for evermore.”
It would take the most ardently politically correct of puritans to see anything even slightly wrong with Kipling’s oft-quoted poem ‘If’. That did not stop a group of Manchester University students obliterating it and replacing it with some barely-coherent jumble last week. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…..” A moral there for the last week or two in Parliament. Surely we can disagree on Brexit without resorting to name-calling, cheating, blows? Hundreds of people responded to my email last week opposing the Chequers Agreement. Around 80% supported my stance on it. It is amazing how many of the few ‘Remainer’ emails I received felt it necessary to threaten and abuse me and those who are calling for a clean departure from the EU,
There is so much more to life. In the last week, quite aside from any Brexit shenanigans, for example, I spoke at a Maritime Reception in Parliament, had breakfast with an Admiral to discuss cyber warfare, chaired the Offensive Weapons Bill Committee, spoke at the MOD to a group of 40 MPs who are just about to undergo 15 days of military training under my wing; briefed Box constituent, Lucy Fisher, who at the age of 30 has just been promoted to be the Times Defence Correspondent; spoke at a meeting of senior American generals; quizzed Ministers about the UK’s policy approach to the Arctic; had a conference call with the Governor of the Falklands; had an hour-long meeting with a senior constituent in need of help; spoke at a Ladies Luncheon Club at Bowood, a political supper club at Luckington, and receptions in Hullavington and Box; drove round Royal Wootton Bassett helping Judge ‘Bassett in Bloom’; and held busy surgeries both there and in Calne. All of that is alongside the normal routine of Parliamentary and constituency business (and a bit of private time too.)
The House has risen for the long Summer Recess now. It will enable us all to calm down, cool off and gather our thoughts for the Autumn which promises to be just as turbulent. The Brexit negotiations, and their handling over the last two years inspire a few “if only…” thoughts. They are pointless. We are where we are and we must now get it sorted. People are rightly concerned about what would happen ”If not?...” I hope that M Barnier may give some thought to that too.
What a week it has been. The Chequers agreement is a great deal less than I had hoped for. What we are now proposing for ‘The Deal’ is by no means as clear and robust as the 52% who voted ‘Leave’ expected. I have warned the whips that they cannot rely on my support for it when it comes before the House for ratification in the Autumn. That means that even if M Barnier allows it through unamended (which seems very unlikely, and we will certainly not tolerate any further slippage- for example on the free movement of European citizens) there is little chance that the PM will get it through Parliament. She must therefore think again and come up with a plan which much more closely fulfils the will of the people, and her own promises that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, and that ‘No deal is better than a bad deal.’
Westminster in Turmoil - Cabinet resignations, calls for a Leadership challenge (which I do not support), the Commons and media overheating badly in the record sunshine and 31 degrees; all of that almost pales into insignificance by comparison with other events. The NATO Summit could have consequences for all of our long-term peace and security. If Mr Trump, for example, were to threaten to withdraw US troops from Europe, Mr Putin would be rubbing his hands with glee. Meanwhile, we have the tragic new case of Novichock poisoning in Salisbury, and the sad death of Dawn Sturgess. That makes it a murder case, a foreign national having murdered a British citizen on British territory. That is a crime which cannot come without consequence. We rejoice at the rescue of the Thai boys from their underground prison; and of course, perhaps more than anything else, we rejoice that we have an England team in the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in half a century. (By the time you read this we will know more. Meanwhile, fingers crossed.)
Things are moving so fast in the world and in Westminster, that despite the fact that I am writing this on Tuesday morning, it may be (wholly or partially) out of date by the time you read it on Thursday. As Macmillan remarked, it is ‘events, dear boy, events” which will either hand us good fortune, or, I suppose rob us of it… It’s the unexpected and the random which makes or breaks a government.
I am a bit of a loyalist- to my Party as much as to my country. But I cannot be loyal to the emerging ‘Deal’ announced last week at Chequers and beefed up in this week’s Brexit White Paper. It bears little resemblance to what most normal people had hoped Brexit would mean. In the words of the former Foreign Secretary, it means that ‘The Brexit Dream is dying.’ I have always been a strong supporter of a true Brexit, and will not therefore be supporting this Chequers agreement when it comes before the House in the Autumn. I believe that a large number of my colleagues will not do so either, in which case it stands no chance of becoming law.
I hope that The Prime Minster will listen very carefully to messages such as mine and in the aftermath of recent turbulence and resignations will re-think her Brexit Deal proposals, aligning them better with her own commitment to ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ’No deal is better than a bad deal.’ There remains a good chance, of course, that M Barnier will turn this proposal down, or seek to change it, for example with regard to the free movement of people. That would be wholly unacceptable.
It is true that we do have Brexit, albeit not the kind the people voted for. We are leaving the EU, the Single Market and the Customs Union (sort of). We are - with a few caveats – taking back control of our borders, our trade and our laws. And some would therefore argue that maybe ‘a Brexit in the hand is worth two in the bush’. Only a year or two ago, they would say, the very notion of our departure from the EU at all would have been unthinkable.
But all of the evidence is that what is now on offer is the worst of all possible worlds. For example, we will be tied into EU rules and regulations on all manufactured goods; we would have no say over those regulations; and we would be paying £39 Billion for the privilege of becoming an EU vassal state.
So I will be working to persuade the PM that what she has proposed at Chequers is unacceptable, and does not deliver the Brexit which 52% of the people voted for. She is unlikely to persuade the EU to accept it without further amendment, and will not anyhow get it through the Commons. She must therefore change what she has proposed in some very fundamental ways.
For now, I do not want any kind of Leadership challenge. If she won a Vote of No Confidence hands down, her position would be strengthened, not weakened. If she lost it there would be a long Leadership battle with Brexit negotiations on hold; and the outcome of that election would be wholly unpredictable. There would be at least a chance that a Remainer would become PM. So a Leadership challenge at this stage would be a very high risk gamble. I would much prefer simply to persuade the PM that the Chequers agreement is unworkable, and ask her to think again about it.
I may be an unwilling rebel; but this issue is so big, so very important to me, and I believe to the majority of my constituents that I have told the PM and my whip that I will indeed be disagreeing with the Chequers deal when it comes to the Commons.
“We honour those who serve” is the proud, yet humble, motto of Royal Wootton Bassett, commemorating the four years during which they turned out on 167 occasions to mark the Repatriation of the bodies of 345 service men and women. That was no comment on politics, nor on the nature or value of the wars. It was quite simply a final tribute to those who took orders and gave their lives as a result.
Armed Forces Day on Saturday across the Nation tried to do the same for those who still serve. And Wiltshire was delighted by the announcement that next year’s Armed Forces Day will be held in Salisbury, at least partly as a tribute to those emergency service workers who so professionally sorted out the mess after the attempted murder of the Skripals.
I’ve seen real service twice recently in my own home. I called ‘999’ when I heard some shots near my house late one night. I felt a bit foolish when it turned out to be the local gamekeeper; but I was impressed by the speed and professionalism of the police who dealt with what could have been a serious terrorist or criminal threat. Then again, when a lady ‘took a funny turn’ in my garden last Sunday, the Ambulance crew and paramedics did a brilliant job of assessing her; looking after her, and in the end concluding that it was just a little too much sun. What a great job they did.
They are truly heroes. But so are the decent folk who volunteer in our society in perhaps less hazardous, but equally altruistic ways. Volunteers – those who work in charities, organisations, committees, local government, guides and scouts, the local amateur dramatics, the church, and in so many other ways. These people are truly the lifeblood of a community like ours in North Wiltshire.
So too are those who lend a hand to others without any kind of request – or thanks. The tens of thousands of voluntary carers across our land, those who just help an old lady across the road, or give a hand home with her shopping.
But it’s not just about the military and the emergency services. We are so fortunate in a wide variety of public servants. The nice gents who run the Recycling Centre near Junction 17 were incredibly helpful and kind to my wife when she turned up recently with an embarrassingly large number of empty bottles. Philippa tried to tip them for their help, which they strongly refused. They are truly there to serve.
When I was first selected to stand and then elected as the MP for North Wiltshire, I remember getting a letter from David Eccles, who was MP here from 1942-1962. Leaving to one side all of his many great distinctions (including a Viscountcy in honour of them) this modest man summed up his career thus: “I tried my best to serve the people of North Wiltshire.” What greater epitaph could there be?
So let us honour (and thank) those who serve. In every walk of life.
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA