The House of Commons risks becoming a sad and diminished little replica of what is often misquoted as the ‘Mother of Parliaments.’ Government governs, and we backbenchers in Parliament scrutinise what they are doing. If - for perfectly correct practical reasons - we cannot do so, then we should be clear that we are not. We otherwise risk giving false legitimacy to what the Executive are doing.
I have been back for two weeks now (on and off), and the whole place is like a ghost town in a wild west movie. It’s a bit like being on detention in school after everyone else has gone home. (Not that I ever was, of course.) In normal times, 20,000 people a day swarm around the 3 great chambers, the 50 or so committee rooms, the allegedly 34 cafeterias, bars and restaurants (I have never got around to counting them). Journalists, lobbyists, visitors, think tanks, businesses, charities. It’s a hotbed of thought and discussion about the world and politics.
Not now. The cafeterias, the committee rooms, the lobbies and corridors are either closed or so socially distanced as to make any kind of interaction with each other impossible. (Why js Parliament alone in keeping 2 metres until the summer at least?) Committees, all party groups, lobbies - all are cancelled. The Palace is closed to visitors of any kind; staff are working from home; the odd journalist wisps by like tumbleweed. Worst of all is the Chamber which is so socially distanced that only 50 people all told (out of 650) are allowed in at any one time. Half a dozen backbenchers on either side earn the privilege of quizzing ministers over great matters and decisions by applying in advance to do so and being selected in some kind of Parliamentary lottery. This week the National Security Adviser, IR35, the Loan Charge, a vast infrastructure investment programme and fundamental changes to the planning system amongst many other matters went by with precious little real Parliamentary examination. Spontaneous intervention of any kind is impossible. As for voting - well the perfectly workmanlike electronic remote voting system has been abolished in favour of a half-baked replica of physical voting through the lobbies.
So we backbenchers sit in solitary bewilderment in our little eyries of offices while the great and the good get on with whatever they want to, until the voting bell rings when we dutifully wander over to the chamber to carry out our whips’ instructions. Well not me. It is, in my opinion, quite wrong for us to pretend that this is a fully functioning scrutiny system; that we are in some way improving legislation; that we have great opportunities to advance the causes of our constituents. The physical constraints in the Palace of Westminster make all of those fundamental and vitally important democratic functions impossible. We should not be shy of saying so.
We should be upfront about the constraints and go into self-isolating lockdown. If we cannot do our jobs properly; if the Executive are getting away with things and using us as a supine cover for it; then the people should know that that is the case. So I call on the authorities to recognise that Parliament is not doing its job; to be honest about the physical impossibility of it doing so; to be frank about the Executive running the country largely unfettered at this time of National crisis; and to look forward to a time - presumably after the summer- when scrutiny can once again function for real.
The Mother of Parliaments must never be a supine or covert cover for government.
Have you ever taken an idle moment in a leafy glade to watch an ant hill in action? Colonies vary from a very few ants on a twig through to ‘super colonies’ reportedly as large as 300 million ants in an area of several square miles. The Queen ant, who lives for up to 40 years, is buried many feet below ground, surrounded by 2000 or so sterile females. Tens of thousands of workers scurry around the forest floor foraging and passing secret hormonal messages on to one another to make their journeys easier. Have you ever been amazed by the heights they can climb, and the crumbs of food many times their own size and weight they can carry effortlessly? What a wonderful work of nature. And what a great exemplar for we puny human beings.
We all welcome the further moves towards the easing of Lockdown. We long for the pubs and restaurants to reopen; some of us need a haircut rather badly; reunions with physically distant friends and members of the family are long overdue, and modest social events will all be very welcome, especially with the reappearance of the decent weather.
Yet a glance at Germany, South Korea, and even the meat factories in North Wales must make us all stop to think about the consequences of a second spike, or even a localised lockdown, which is perfectly possible. I too am disappointed by some of the things we have NOT yet done - opening of gyms and swimming pools, for example. But the collective good of the whole ant hill; the continued longevity of the Queen, trumps our own little local concerns.
Track and Trace, for example, will only operate if we agree to it. When you get a text telling you that some acquaintance has gone down with Covid, will you voluntarily self-isolate? Or will you hope it hasn’t happened to you? It all depends on us collectively understanding, accepting, and obeying the rules which are laid down for our own benefit. The age-old question underlying the Social Contract must be: what would happen if everyone acted as I am proposing to do?
We are all little ants scurrying around the forest floor. Each ant is insignificant and can be crushed in a moment. Yet collectively, and with joint endeavour, ants are the most sophisticated social organism after humans; they account for over half of all the insects in the world; and they have become super survivors over millennia of evolution. There is a phenomenon in Africa called ‘white anting”. All of a sudden, a house disappears into a huge hole created under it by the efforts of colonies of white ants nest building over years and years.
We too are well capable of doing a bit of ‘white anting’ under Covid. Of course we would like to see some things done differently. Of course we would like some aspect of our current lives to be different; of course we have our little niggles with personalities or policies. Those things are inevitable. We want the schools open sooner/not opened at all; we want the entertainment and hospitality world back to how it used to be; we hanker after so much that we treated as routine before March. Yet the individual ant is ready to sacrifice itself, to subjugate its interests under the interests of the Colony as a whole.
So let us try to put to one side the belly-aching which is becoming the norm. We have to be ready to accept that those in authority - Government, NHS and others - are doing their best. They are taking the decisions which they believe are best for all the ants. Only if all the ants have confidence in those decisions; only if they are truly dedicated to preserving the long life of their queen will the Colony survive and prosper.
Black Lives Matter - of course they do, as do lives of people of whatever colour, race or religion. Discrimination of any sort cannot be allowed, and indeed under very longstanding laws it is not allowed. Not only that, (and it may be that here in North Wiltshire we are shielded from it), but my experience is that the British people are generally a pretty tolerant, easy going lot, and most definitely not by and large prone to racism, sexism, or any other kind of -ism.
So I absolutely condemn any racist outrage in America, and agree that the police officers who played any part in the death of George Floyd must face the full force of American law. All of us were sickened by what we saw on the News, and it is quite right that we should express our outrage at it. However, I am also clear that the accused must also be given the protection of the law, in particular the basic right of ‘Innocent until proved guilty.’ It is, incidentally, a matter for the Government of the USA, and not something over which we have any influence.
I strongly support the right of free expression of our views, and the right to demonstrate. Peaceful protesting has always been part of our DNA. How it can be justified under the Covid social distancing rules is another matter; but I suppose that the Police are right in their view that people were going to turn up anyhow, and short of arresting tens of thousands of peaceful protestors, there was not a great deal that they could do about it. Good British policing has always meant calming things down rather than stirring them up.
However, I am absolutely at one with the whole of British society, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister at our outrage that the legitimate desire of people to condemn racism, should have been hijacked by brutish thugs in the way that it was. Thirty or so police officers injured by flying missiles including bicycles is simply unacceptable. So are people desecrating the Cenotaph by climbing up it; so are the morons who defaced Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square. The destruction of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol was equally vandalism and the destruction of private property which we should not tolerate.
There is a debate to be had as to whether or not we should allow statues or portraits of historic figures who did things which today would be wholly unacceptable. And if the Bristol Community really do find mention of Colston so upsetting, perhaps we should quietly take his statue down and replace it with William Wilberforce. That might make us feel better, but it would not change history. And any such expunging of unacceptable history must be done by quiet discussion and decision, not by mob violence and destruction. The Policing tactic of ‘casting a blind eye’ to it must anyhow be questionable.
On the other hand, you do have to wonder why these thugs do what they do? At least part of it must be to trigger the extreme outrage which many of us feel. If that is so, then perhaps the best reaction just maybe a power hose and a bit of sweeping up of discarded protest posters as the oncoming rain dispels the protestors. An under-reaction of that kind may be just as effective as the over-reaction which our outraged instincts demand.
Black Lives Matter. Of course they do. But so does law and order and the right of peaceful citizens to decency and respect. If protests there must be, then they must also be peaceful and law-abiding.
The Taliban hate religions of all kinds, so they viewed it as being reasonable to destroy the Buddha statues at Bamiyan. ISIS hate history, so destroyed Aleppo, Palmyra and a whole host of other Syrian historic sites and artefacts. The West were united in decrying both events as ignorant vandalism. Yet we rejoiced at the destruction of the huge statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad; and are surprised when we discover statues of Stalin here and there across Russia. Depictions of Hitler and Mussolini are, of course, beyond the pale. Yet should we destroy the ‘Arbeit Mach Frei’ gateway to Auschwitz because of our hatred of the holocaust? Presumably not.
The Colston statue is a matter of debate; but Gladstone? Baden Powell? Queen Victoria? What about Ghandi who despised black Africans? Does the fact that we disapprove of what an historic figure did, give us the right to deface or remove any memory of them? If, so who decides what is or is not acceptable? WD and HO Wills grew tobacco, so killing millions (without slave labour so far as we know.) Every monarch until the present Queen ruled over a huge Empire. We may not approve of Empires. But they did in those days. Queen Mary slaughtered hundreds because she was Roman Catholic, and Henry Vlll was responsible for the destruction of the monasteries and much of their magnificent art; and he cut off his wives’ heads when he tired of them.
We detest racism today and must stamp it out wherever it raises its ugly head. We believe in universal suffrage; but here in North Wiltshire a tiny handful of people had the vote until about 1850. People died building Stonehenge; farm labourers were virtual slaves. The anti-farm machinery riots in Wiltshire in 1830 saw 242 people killed and 1000 deported to Australia. What an outrage. The fact is that history throughout the world is full of matters which we detest and would not allow today. But they were of their time. And is there any purpose in an Orwellian attempt to eliminate any memory of them? We cannot censor our past.
Is there not anyhow, a risk that by obliterating memories of things we personally dislike about history, we are in the words of Churchill, ‘condemned to relive it.’ Is it not possible to decry any fascist tendencies which Baden Powell may have had while still praising his creation of the Scouts? Can we not commemorate Queen Victoria, without besmirching her name over Colonialism, for which she was only remotely responsible? Can we not accept that even our own ancestors within a couple of hundred years no doubt supported slavery, or in one way or another benefitted from it, disliked Votes for Women and enjoyed betting on Bear baiting. These are all wicked things, but do we really make history better by destroying our collective memory of them?
That may make us virtue signallers feel better about ourselves, but it neither changes history, nor necessarily prevents history repeating itself. We feel outraged at the mob rule which meant Churchill and the Cenotaph being boarded up for fear of anarchist vandalism; we detest the ‘woke’ removal of anyone who may in any way offend our delicate western liberal views. Whether we approve of our ancestors or not, they are in fact our ancestors. So let us focus our attention not on them but on ensuring a better, more liberal, fair and free life for our descendants - of all races and classes. Let us teach history, not obliterate it.
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” (1984)
Parliament’s got itself into a proper old muddle. Ill thought-through rhetoric about ‘setting an example’ and ‘leading the country’ seems to ignore the fact that we are still telling the people to work from home if they possibly can; and that we have outlawed any grouping of more than six, and even then only in the open air. Meanwhile, apparently we are setting an example by corralling 650 people (plus support staff) travelling from all over Britain in the close confines of an ancient Palace.
In a crazy moment on Tuesday we queued for 45 minutes – the queue stretching a mile or so - to vote physically on doing away with virtual voting. Only MPs who were present in Westminster could vote, thereby disenfranchising the very people who truly need virtual voting- those with medical problems; those unable to leave home; husbands or wives of key workers, or those with small children. So the able bodied voted to stop the disabled and ill from voting. They are obeying the law by staying at home; but now for some perverse reason known only to Jacob Rees-Mogg they are prevented by law from doing their job. So we all get lined up like wallies in a mile long queue, then we wander one by one into the Chamber, watched like a hawk by the Chief Whip to vote for whatever their latest daft ideas may be. Well I didn’t. I voted against. Bang goes my knighthood.
But there is another outrage here. Parliament’s very purpose is to give the Government a hard time; to scrutinise what they are doing; to question their policy announcements; to examine the detail of the Bills which they are trying to get passed. Whether virtual or in person, we are not doing that either. Only 50 MPs are allowed in the Chamber at any one time (25 each side, less a few Liberals and SNP), so perhaps 12 each of Tories and Labour. Two Ministers, a Parliamentary Private Secretary and a whip or two means that there is only room for perhaps 6 backbenchers. I sneaked in on Tuesday but was only able to stay for the prayers which start the day.
Parliament should be a massive ant hill of activity- MPs and peers, staff, journalists, think tanks, lobbyists, pressure groups, visitors, meetings. We swarm around the great palace, briefing, plotting, discussing. Three main chambers and fifty or so committee rooms packed morning noon and night. Up to 10,000 people in any one day rushing around in a never-ending whirl of political activity. And the end result is actually, by and large, pretty good government and legislation.
But this fake Parliament isn’t doing any of that. All we are doing is being trotted out to endorse what the Government are doing and then sent back to our offices to get on with the emails.
The reality is that until the virus has passed, Parliament cannot operate as it should do; and it should therefore stop pretending that it can. We should (reluctantly perhaps) allow a virtual Parliament until such time as we can safely all get back together again. For what we have now is a pale shadow of what it should be; and it’s a dangerous one- because it gives the false impression it’s a real Parliament. It is not. It’s a fake Parliament, a bogus Parliament. It joins a club of fake Parliaments rejoicing in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and the Moscow Duma amongst its members.
Parliament cannot do its job properly and it is dangerous to pretend that we are.
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.