When my old friend, 102-year old Kitty Sparkes, grasps you by the hand, fixes you with her glittering eye and tells you what’s what… well, you listen. “It doesn’t matter what she says or doesn’t. Mrs May is the Prime Minister and you must support her,” she said at a lunch on Friday. And I do. I am proud of the picture on the front of my Christmas card this year of 120 soldiers in Westminster Hall being welcomed in by the PM and me. And I mean no disrespect by the cartoon inside the card of me falling down the PM’s Private staircase in Parliament, clutching my controversial book, Full English Brexit. There is just a little kitten heel showing from the PM’s door, and the inevitable caption “Did he fall or was he pushed?”
Later last weekend I was at the superb Youth Action Wiltshire Carols evening in Malmesbury Abbey arranged by my dynamic constituent Rebecca Worsley, and attended (amongst others) by HRH the Duchess of Cornwall. (She must have had enough of me by then- we were at the Wiltshire Air Ambulance launch that morning, then at the opening of the lovely Moravian Church Museum in Malmesbury earlier in the evening.) I was particularly moved by Sheila Hancock’s reading of the old story of the Christmas Truce. The Germans started off by lighting Christmas trees all along their trenches, then joining the Tommies singing carols round a campfire in No Man’s Land, and then of course on Christmas Day itself playing a famous game of football before the fighting started again on Boxing day.
Kitty’s wise words, and the image of bitter enemies singing carols and playing football, together with the general message of good will and hope and cheerfulness which surrounds Christmas made me view the dramatic events of the previous week in Parliament in a new light.
Everywhere I go round the constituency people tell me that they want Brexit sorted; they want to fulfil the people’s expectations in the Referendum of a Clean English Brexit; they want certainty and clarity; they want an end to the national humiliation which we are suffering at the hands of the EU; and to a very significant extent, they want us to stand up to Brussels in a real way and tell them how it is. And perhaps more than anything else they want us in Parliament to stop bickering about it; stop the in-fighting and name calling and behave like Statemen not school children.
So I renew my plea for sense and sensibility in Parliament. The real enemy is not each other- Jacob against Ken Clarke; IDS against Anna Soubry. The enemy for once is not even the Labour Party, who are as split over Europe as are we Tories. The enemy in M Barnier, and Juncker and the rest of them. They are the ones who are preventing a fair Brexit by their insistence on the wholly unnecessary backstop. They are holding us out to dry (and up to ridicule) and they are doing their best to give us a good punishment beating too, no doubt to warn other wavering EU states of what will happen to them if they have the barefaced effrontery to want to leave their rotten little club.
Well I think it’s time for Britons -all of us collectively- to stand up to them. “The people voted to leave and leave you must now let us do on honourable terms. And if you do not, come the 29th of March we will leave anyhow.”
Discussions continue over the EU Withdrawal Act. In one respect, I am glad that the Prime Minister chose not to progress with the “meaningful vote” on the deal which she has so far negotiated, because I believe it to be fundamentally flawed in a variety of ways. If we are to save the Union the so-called backstop with regard to the Northern Irish border must be deleted. But there are several other aspects of the deal which are almost equally unacceptable.
The Prime Minister must therefore now seek a fundamental renegotiation with the European Union; and if they are not prepared to consider the points we make, then we must urgently prepare to leave the EU on the 29th March without any further discussions. I am increasingly of the view that that could be managed, albeit with a period of turbulence in the short term. Most of the world’s trade is conducted under WTO terms and there is really no reason why we should not do so as well. At the very least we must be ready to make it plain to our EU partners that we are fully ready to leave without having come to any formal agreement with them, which may of itself be sufficient to make them see reason. After all, EU countries need a trade agreement with the UK at least as much as we need one with them.
While I greatly admire her dogged determination and stamina, if the PM is unable to initiate that fundamental renegotiation in the time available, then I am beginning to come to the view that she must step aside in favour of a tougher negotiator who may be better able to deliver what 17.4 million people voted for on the 23rd June 2016, namely a clean and straightforward break with the European Union. Whatever the outcome of last evening’s vote of no confidence in Mrs May, the mere fact that it occurred and that a significant number of Conservative MPs indicated their lack of confidence in her should surely be enough to demonstrate to her and to those around her in 10 Downing Street that she must now renegotiate the deal or risk losing the confidence of her Party.
This is a complex and fast-moving area of politics and I will, of course, try to keep you up to date on it as we go along. I know that my approach will be highly satisfactory to the 52% of my constituents who voted to leave, will be a slight disappointment to those with whom I disagree about holding a second referendum, and will no doubt be disappointing (although unsurprising) to those who would like to remain in the EU. As your MP I believe it to be my duty to lay out plainly what I believe knowing that many of my constituents with whom I am otherwise in alignment will not agree with me. That is the very nature of a binary decision such as this, and I would much prefer that my constituents should at least know with clarity where I stand even if they do not agree with me.
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.
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.
‘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.
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA