To Malmesbury for the simply superb funeral and memorial service for Sir Roger Scruton. That lovely poem, The Darkening Thrush by Thomas Hardy: “I leant upon a coppice gate, When Frost was spectre-grey…”; Janacek’s Moravian folk song, Laska (Love) superbly sung by Kristi Bryson; TS Elliot’s Little Gidding (“We shall not cease from exploration…”) I held it all together pretty well until the inexpressibly beautiful Schubert Ave Maria, when I was surprised to see tears cascading down my black silk tie….
Am proud to show off Hannah Twynnoy’s grave to Michael Gove and Bishop Richard Chartres on the way through the Abbey churchyard. “In bloom of Life, She'ssnatch’d from hence,She had not room to make defence; For Tyger fierce Took Life away. And here she lies In a bed of Clay, Until the Resurrection Day.” It commemorates the serving girl eaten by a visiting circus tiger to the Malmesbury innin 1703 …. Strollover to the Town Hall for a packed glass of wine in the Hobbes Parlour. How appropriate to remember one great Malmesbury philosopher in a room dedicated to another, Thomas Hobbes.
Matt and Carole Gould from Calne are bravely fighting to strengthen penalties for knife crime in memory of their lovely daughter so tragically murdered last year. The Goulds came in to see Home Secretary Priti Patel about it last year, and now, having raised the very lenient 12-year sentence on her murderer with Rob Buckland the Lord Chancellor in the House, I am glad to arrange a meeting with him for them. I am especially impressed by a group of Ellie’s school friends who came to see me last week with some very practical suggestions to try to prevent such a tragedy recurring- basic self-defence as a standard part of the curriculum, for example.
Colerne Village Hall has much to celebrate- both its constant rebuilding and restoration, and the very many local groups which meet there. Glad to have a stroll round and to meet them all. An hour passed celebrating the local strength which RogerScruton so passionately supported. I feel like ‘leaning upon the coppice gate’ on the way out, not only to relieve my hip which has seized up after an hour in the village hall.To those who have noticed me hobbling around with a stick (my Father’s old Scottish cromach), all it is is a dodgy hip, which the lovely NHS promise to replace within a month or two. Too much treading of the streets in the General Election, I expect. Those who have had the operation tell me it’s wonderful, and I have to admit I can hardly wait.
Standing up for a long time is a particular problem which makes a debate I call on Tuesday in Parliament a particularchallenge. I manage to stand for the 30 minutes which my intro speech takes, but I am glad to collapse back on to the green leather benches. It’s a 1.5-hourdebatecommemorating the 200thanniversaryof the first sighting of the Antarctic continent, and the 60th anniversary of the AntarcticTreaty. There are a great many issues in the frozen South, but of course the greatest of all is Climate Change, and the rapid melting of the ice cap.
As a result of all of that, I am not sure that I am quite the dashing young Lochinvar I imagine myself to be when I propose the toast “The Lassies” in the Caledonian Club Burns Supper that evening.
So that’s it, then. After nearly four years of wrangling, political upset, two PMs losing their jobs, and a Nation split, sometimes even a family split over the issue; it all came to an end last evening, when a burly clerk in white tie and tails ceremonially carried a bundle of papers wrapped in a pink ribbon from the Commons up to the Lords (would not be so easy if they were moved to York) signifying the will of the Commons. After some debate, the Lord Speaker enquired politely if any of their Lordships were ‘not content’. There being none, we left the EU. Phew!
I personally believe that we have done the right thing and left what is becoming an increasingly defunct organisation. But I am also aware that historians a hundred years from now may well conclude that I was wrong, and that the Remainers were in fact right all along. None of us has a monopoly on correctness.
So I rather welcome the low key way that we did it- observing the Parliamentary niceties, and without any hint of triumphalism. Of course, I personally will raise a glass of champagne at 11pm next Friday. I have disliked the EU for forty years since I voted against joining in the first place. I am glad to be leaving, and strongly believe it will be to the great advantage of Britain and Britons.
Yet there is nothing nastier than told-you-so triumphalism. Now is the time for the Nation to come together. For Remainers to become Reluctant acceptors; for Brexiteers to lay down their weapons, and for the Nation to drive forward together.
Parliament certainly feels that way. A feeling of peace, of consensus has settled over us. The new Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle has played a key role in calming tempers and returning Parliamentary debate, PMQs and the rest it to how they should always have been - civilised and intelligent discussion of the great issues of the day. The protestors in Parliament Square have all gone home, the tented village of media on College Green has been dismantled, the green handed back to the pigeons. The acrimony and personal rudeness of the last four years has gone to be replaced by the traditional courtesies.
And if we can do all that in this hotbed, this cockpit of political acrimony and debate, so must it be throughout our great nation. Now is the time to put the past behind us and get ahead with the real business of running a better Britain…
If we had killed Himmler or Göring or Goebbels with Hellfire missiles fired from a Reaper drone in - let’s say - 1938, would the world be a better place? I am sure that we would all agree in retrospect, that that would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and a generation of misery, and so would have been more than justified. But would it have been justified under International law at the time? And would it have made Hitler a weaker or a stronger person? And what would his military reaction have been? These, of course, are the very questions troubling us all over the killing of Soleimani and his deputy. Was it justified? Will it save lives? What will the reaction be from Iran or their proxies across the Middle East, and very probably across the rest of the world as well?
I welcome the fact that the Iranian reaction so far has been modest and relatively harmless and hope that will satisfy their need for revenge. We must all de-escalate and seek to use diplomatic means to resolves the crisis. (Thank goodness that the UK, unlike America, has kept our Embassy open in Tehran). We must never forget that the security of our own troops - and civilians - must be paramount; but also, that we have an overwhelming duty to keep Daesh contained. Our troops are mainly being used to train both Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers to do just that. I visited them a year or two ago near Erbil; and it will not surprise you to hear that our boys do a great job. Military training is one of our greatest skills. It makes a huge contribution to keeping Daesh under control, and we must not be deflected from it.
Parliament’s back and plunged into the Committee stage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. 30 or 40 hours of debate were set aside this week for it. But despite Remainers’ complaints that that was not nearly enough (their vote against the Programme Motion was one of the main reasons for the General Election), they were unable to put up enough speakers to keep the debate going, so that it collapsed in about half of the time allocated. By the time you read this, we should have completed most stages of the Bill, and so will be moving towards Big Ben chiming out to celebrate Brexit at 11pm on 31 January.
Europe in turmoil, President Trump in deep trouble, dangerous events in the Middle East. The world is indeed a dangerous and confused place at the moment. Britain must be in the lead in seeing us through it.
Life in the new - safe majority, 5 years ahead of us, Brexit decided and therefore calmer - Parliament has nonetheless set off at a gallop. Here’s a flavour of my multifarious week:-
Sunday 12th. BBC Politics Show at 10AM. Can’t believe anyone watches, but am glad to have old friends round for lunch who have indeed seen it.
Monday 13th. Sad news of death of Brinkworth son, Sir Roger Scruton. A hugely distinguished philosopher, pianist, barrister, countryman, and the world is a poorer place without him. Wish Harry and Meghan would take a lesson from his modesty and kindness. Ask a question about Iran and do a long Channel 4 News interview about the disgraceful hounding of old soldiers by the Police. Chair a dinner for a General (as Chairman of All-Party Group for Armed Forces, NATO Parliamentary Assembly and a cluster of other military related posts.)
Tuesday 14th. Ask a question about brutal Ellie Gould murder case and Attorney General’s refusal to allow parents to appeal against lenient sentence. BBC Points West carry the story. Am taking parents to see Lord Chancellor and Swindon MP, Rob Buckland about it all next week. Various meetings setting up All-Party Group for Polar Regions which I chair. Dinner with group campaigning against plastics, whose passion rather watered down by presence of food manufacturers, supermarkets etc. Having seen albatrosses stuffed with plastic, I try to stiffen their resolve.
Wednesday 15th. Am not at all sure that I support the idea of Big Ben bonging out at 11 PM on 31 January to mark Brexit, especially not at a cost of £500k. What role does Brexit triumphalism have in bringing the Nation back together? Say so at the ERG, which meets disdain from the ‘Spartans’. Do a Daily Mail Podcast (check @jgray on Twitter-see how up to date I am) about old soldiers. Dinner with main Hong Kong leaders (Taipan? Hongs?). The problems in Hong Kong are even more intractable than Brexit was here; but we found a way through it.
Thursday 16th. Votes on Queens Speech debate which has been going on all week. Lots of Maiden speeches- 109 hyper-talented new intake all rushing around with sharp elbows expecting promotion within days. They may be disappointed. Select Committee elections come first. They have organised a new intake ‘slate’ to get each other elected. Will skew the Committees away from the old and bold, who actually know what they are talking about. And anyhow, promoting your own fellow intakers must have tactical career downsides, you’d have thought?
Friday 17th. Stimulating meeting with friends of Ellie Gould, who have some great ideas for combatting knife crime. I promise to follow it through in Parliament.
Saturday 18th. Surgeries in Cricklade and Malmesbury (Calne and Royal Wootton Bassett last week) will get me back into the od constituency routine. I can feel a bit of sleep coming on for the rest of the weekend.
Maybe it’s something to do with my Scottish ancestry, but the New Year always induces a variety of emotions. Sentimental, nostalgic, forward looking, drunken. Its all about saying farewell to all that is past (over the decade perhaps) and making plans for the future. It’s Auld Lang Syne “Now here’s a hand my trusty friend, and gie’s a hand o thine.”); its about sparkle, champagne, handsome first footers with a lump of coal, and a shocking hangover on the 1st of January.
Its been a turbulent year, and one which we are probably glad to see the back of. But there is now a tangible feeling of optimism around. Post- election and post-Brexit, there is a way forward. Talks with people of all political persuasions and views over the last couple of weeks have had one thing in common- a sense of relief that it’s all over; that clear fresh feeling after the thunderstorm; the weight off the mind which comes from the ending of some old relationship that has gone sour.
There’s a great deal to look forward to, and so much to be done after a period of relative stagnation. A majority of 80 in Parliament at long last means that we can start moving. And Boris and team have set about it with vigour and imagination. The Stock Exchange and money markets have been reflecting that renewed sense of optimism. A US President under Impeachment proceedings and locked in a trade war with China; Frau Merkel nearing the end of her time; and President Macron beset by problems. The field is pretty clear for Britain truly to lead the way. And the General Election now makes that possible.
It’s going to a hard work- there is a thick wedge of legislation to be agreed before 31 January. I am to Chair the Environment Bill Committee, which will be challenging. There will be a Budget, a re-alignment of Whitehall Departments; a major reshuffle in February; there are 110 new Tory MPs to settle in; a Labour Leadership battle which is squaring up to be one of the bloodiest on record, as the contestants struggle for the soul of the Labour Party; and a host of new initiatives, committees, Parliamentary battles to come.
So I am so grateful to all of those who have worked with me over the last year; to those who re-elected me (all 32,000 of you), to my friends and colleagues in Parliament. It’s been a tough year; but we have achieved a lot. And we will need that shared work, dedication, loyalty and commitment if we are to achieve all we want to in the year ahead.
So will it be a “Happy New Year”, a ‘prosperous’ one; a healthy one we all hope? Will it be an exciting roller-coaster of a year, or a period of steadying of the ship of state? I personally rather hope that after a pretty exciting couple of years, this one will be positively boring. We need to get on with the real work of Government, of making Britain truly a leader in the world. That should be serious, dull, if altogether more satisfying than the heady whirligig we have endured of recent months.
I rather like the old Scots song:
A guid New Year tae yin an aw, an monie may ye see
An durin aw the years tae come, O happy may ye be
An may ye ne'er hae cause tae mourn
Tae sigh or shed a tear
Tae yin an aw, baith great an sma
A hearty guid New Year!!
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.