After a half-term week of Constituency engagements and Remembrance events, marred only by the sad death of my old friend, my horse, Mr Kipling, it was back to work with a vengeance:
Mon 13/11: Up to London for lunch with Norwegian Ambassador and veterans; the excellent Ruth Davidson addresses the 1922 Committee, briefing from Commons Defence Committee clerk and dinner with my daughter, Olivia.
Tue 14/11: Breakfast with (Wiltshire) General Jones (H Jones’ son), just back from commanding in Iraq; then whole day chairing Committee Stage of Nuclear Safeguarding Bill (part of Brexit - replacing Euratom). Brexit Bill Committee stage stretches through until about 1130 PM. Govt wins all votes by 18 or 20.
Wed 15/11: Appear as expert witness in front of Commons Defence Committee discussing military threats and tensions in Arctic. Rather odd appearing in front of committee I used to chair! Lunch with Lord Mayor at Baltic Exchange, chair meeting of Parliamentary Arctic group Advisory Council; then (intermittently) attend Antarctic meeting in Royal Society (and dinner) in between more Brexit votes through until 11 PM.
Thu 16/11: Up to RAF Northolt to see BFPO parcel up Christmas Boxes for our troops on Operations at Christmas. (I am Patron of the charity). 30 minute grilling on ITV South West to be broadcast tonight; then it’s off to Cambridge to speak at the Union about Scottish Devolution with co-speaker Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Home to London by 1 AM.
Fri 17/11: Train to Wiltshire to wade through paper. Tired, so cancel a couple of small engagements. Dinner with friends in Holt.
Sat 18/11: Surgeries in Calne and Royal Wootton Bassett, look in to a Conservative event in Box, then dinner near Sherston. Another late night.
Sun 19/11: Bit of R and R at home, despite an hour or two at desk clearing back log...
Mon 20/11: Attend first National Security Committee since my appointment by the Prime Minister, and speak at a NATO dinner at think tank IISS.
Tue 21/11: Walking with Wounded Breakfast, Chair debates in Westminster Hall, ask a question about environment at Foreign Office Questions, meeting about Western rail services, meet delegation from Chile.
Wed 22/11: Breakfast with RAF, PMQs then it’s the Budget
Thu 23/1: Skip rest of Budget debate and head back to Wilts for dinner with REME at Lyneham.
It’s a mixed bag of parliamentary, constituency, charitable, family and social events. Keeps me out of trouble.
Why do you think Remembrance Sunday is so poignant- perhaps even more so in recent years than ever before? It’s about remembering and honouring our war dead- of course it is. “We will Remember them….” And it’s about being thankful that it was not us “They shall not grow old…” It’s about thanking our servicemen and women today for all they do for us; and the Emergency services and other public servants as well. It’s about a renewed pride in our country and all it stands for; it’s about remembering local people and their great contribution to the wars of the past. It may well be about personal memories of relations or friends who gave their lives. It’s about all of those things and a great many more. It’s a complex of thoughts that swirl around our heads and hearts as we listen to ‘The Last Post’ and ‘Reveille’ and contemplate for what can often seem like a very long two minutes silence.
But it occurred to me as I attended four Remembrance events this year - the Children’s service in Calne, where all of the schools locally came together to lay on a most moving tableau about the Second World War, In Cricklade and then Blakehill Farm, where the gliders took off for Arnhem, then finally in Malmesbury, that Remembrance Sunday is not about the past. It’s about the future. That’s why these young people so honestly and enthusiastically commemorate decades before they were born.
Unlike any other historical remembrance, these young people are realising that their ancestors fought and died for their way of life and their freedoms – freedoms which as they look around the world today they realise that other young people simply do not enjoy in so many places.
I was very impressed this week also by attending the Abbeyfield School GCSE certificate ceremony and hearing so many wonderful attestations about the prize winners, and visiting the Cricklade Guides who were taking a keen and active interest in Parliament Week; and finally talking to GCSE students In John Bentley School in Calne about their exam project looking into education finance. We are just so lucky to have such a magnificent cohort of intelligent, capable, competent and healthy young people in our schools and colleges today. They can do what they are doing so very well because of the legacy which we previous generations leave to them.
These visits lift my heart and give me huge hope for and confidence in the future of our great Nation. “When you go home tell them of us and say: For your tomorrows we gave our todays.”
It was on 31st October 1517- 500 years ago this week – that Martin Luther so memorably nailed his 95 theses against the sale of ‘indulgences’ on the door of All Saints Church in Wittemburg, declaring it is said “Here I stand. I can do none other….” The reality is that his theses were pretty academic stuff debating whether or not the church could sell ‘indulgences’ – pieces of paper which allegedly absolved you of your sins, sometimes even before you had committed them. It was a sort of religious ‘Get out of jail free card’. The rest of Luther’s career and writings of course led to the Reformation, to the split in the church, the collapse in the power of Rome; eventually England’s split from Rome, and a host of other unforeseen consequences. It led to wars, bloodshed, martyrs. Yet at the time it was of such overwhelming theological importance that even if Luther had known of them, he would no doubt have carried on with it anyhow.
Was it really only 50 years ago that his namesake Martin Luther King equally famously described “I have a dream…” which led of course, to the racial equality we hold so dear today. But his speech, and his violent death led to almost as much rioting, civil disobedience, international disturbances as had Martin Luther’s 95 theses. How glad we are, nonetheless that Martin Luther King did it.
There are great moments in history when true visionaries, nail their ideas to the metaphoric church door, tell the world of their ‘dreams’ no matter how remote or unlikely that dream may be. So having spoken up last week in favour of Nation states, and without deviating from that in any way, the memory of Luther does make one wonder whether the Catalonians, the Kurds and other visionaries around the world should at very least be deeply respected even if we may not agree with the conclusions they come to.
Martin Luther’s vision led to bloodshed and troubles, the final ripples of which we feel today, for example, in the Northern Irish troubles which are directly attributable to the Reformation. So how we wish that the Papacy in 1517, the American Government in the late ‘sixties, the Spanish and Iraqi Governments today, could realise the potential consequences of not listening to, not trying to accommodate, visionaries like the Presidents of Catalonia and Kurdistan.
We may disagree with them, we may seek a different end result to that which they are seeking. But the means by which we stop it may either help their cause or hinder it. The Spanish, and if they resort to violence the Baghdadis are risking being the immovable objects which meet the unstoppable forces of visionary independents. If it is not handled properly, the Reformation and the sectarian troubles which followed it for 500 years, and the race riots which followed Martin Luther King’s death may pale into insignificance by comparison.
The intransigence of the EU in our current Brexit negotiations are risking the very same thing – consequences of the process being greater than the actual matter in hand.
Rumours scandals and plots swirl around Westminster like the November mist as I stroll over to St Margaret’s for the splendid Memorial Service to that great old Labour Campaigner, Tam Dalyell of the Binns. (He of the General Belgrano, West Lothian Question and aptly named autobiography ‘The Importance of being Awkward.’)
Sexual harassment and worse must not be allowed. People who are guilty of them must be named and shamed, and pay the political penalty of their indiscretions. Victims must not be dissuaded in any way from making their complaints known, they then being taken seriously and acted upon. But those very same victims have their real and tragic complaints diminished by appearing on a list alongside low-level skuttlebut and unfounded rumour. Rape, sexual harassment, the use of a position of power to demand sexual favours must not be allowed – in Parliament or elsewhere. But those serious offences should not be muddled with mild flirtation, or even a degree of tactile palliness.
None of this stuff helps the proper government of the country, nor our tense negotiations with the EU. Nor does the back-biting and plotting surrounding the re-shuffle. The World is a very dangerous place, our economy needs careful attention, as the small increase interest rates shows, and none of this stuff (important as some of it is) helps with all of that.
Tam Dalyell knew how to fight for the underdog, to campaign without fear or favour for the wide variety of causes he believed in, and his Memorial Service well reflected it. Never before have the organ voluntaries before the service included both the Eton Boating Song, the Regimental March of the Scots Greys and the Red Flag and Internationale! The hymns ranged from ‘He who would true Valiant be...” and “I vow to thee my country...” to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic ‘and the ‘Ode to Joy.’ (Tam was a passionate pro-European.)
During the great Scottish devolution debates in 1998 or so, I upbraided Tam over his ancestor, the great English General ‘Bloody Dalyell’, for capturing my ancestor, Hugh Parker at the Battle of Rullion Green in 1666 and then hang, drawing and quartering him for the crime of being a Protestant Covenanter. Dalyell shot back that his ancestor had made up for it by setting up Mrs Parker in a little tenant farm, and looking after her for the rest of her days, (which he later proved in some ancient tomes in the House of Commons Library.)
A truly great man, who knew his own mind, and campaigned passionately for a wide variety of great causes, caring little for who he upset in doing so. He was from the left of the Labour Party, and there is probably very little (aside from devolution) on which he and I would have agreed. But that does not prevent me being a huge admirer of this giant of politics.
It is people of that sort, of that calibre, of that passion, able to rise above the lowly gossip and plotting of Westminster who we need to see emerging if we are to find our way through current troubles. “Remember, Remember the 5th of November” which saw the 1605 Gunpowder Plot (partly being plotted in the Kings’ Head in Chippenham’s Market Place, I think). Plots never achieve anything. It’s time to get on with the proper government of the country.
Once a week, the most important piece of paper to come across the MP’s desk is “The Whip.” It’s a detailed list of the forthcoming business in the House at least for a week ahead, sometimes two.
“THE BUSINESS FOR THE WEEK COMMENCING 23RD OCTOBER 2017 WILL BE:
MONDAY 23RD OCTOBER
Deadline for tabling: Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Church Commissioners & House of Commons Commission and Public Accounts Commission and Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission
The House meets at 2:30pm for Defence Questions
Second Reading of the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill (Whip in Charge: Andrew Stephenson)
THERE WILL BE A 3-LINE WHIP AT 9PM FOR 10PM.
Under each piece of business there appears either one line, occasionally two, and for important business three. Hence the “three-line whip.” It means that we have to be there, and to support the Government, no excuses accepted.
We got the oddest ever instruction from the Whips last week with regard to an (anyhow unenforceable) Labour motion calling for the universally-liked Universal Credits system nonetheless to be delayed in its implementation. The note from the Chief Whip read “Three-line Whip: Please abstain.” It’s the only time I have heard of a three-line whip to abstain.
Current Parliamentary arithmetic means that every vote is on a knife-edge. Had we voted on this Labour motion, the Chancellor of the Exchequer would have been called back from Washington DC, the Prime Minister from Brussels, and doubtless other Ministers all over the place for the purely symbolic action of disagreeing with the Labour Party, and a handful of Tory rebels.
The bulk of the business of government is conducted in Whitehall rather than Westminster, and is subject to scrutiny by Parliament, but not to a vote. Separation of powers between Government and Parliament is a central principle of our constitution. So Parliamentary votes are often given a great deal too much importance. It is asking questions, and holding the Government to account in a variety of ways and means that really counts, rather than votes. The whipping system ensures that the Government secures whatever votes they want by virtue of their election to govern; opposition motions routinely are dismissed by the voting power of the governing party. Clever questions, pointed debates, crafty machinations in Commons and Lords truly give the Government a headache, which no three-line whip can alleviate.
And that, after all, is exactly what Parliament is there to do – to scrutinise the government rather than necessarily support it.
© 2017 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA