There’s a small gang of backbenchers, of which I am one, who have become informal advisers on the Environment to No 10. My main interest is the Polar Regions and Oceans, and so I hastened down to the highly appropriate venue of the London Wetlands Centre in Barnes to support the PM when she announced our 25 year plan for the world’s environment last Thursday.
I was proud that she opened by quoting one of Brinkworth’s finest sons, Professor Sir Roger Scruton. “[Conservatives] accept that the most important thing we can do is to settle down, to make a home for ourselves and to pass that home to our children.” That aim, of course, is at the very heart of all environmental conservation and policy.
Brexit enables us to preserve our own environment and homeland in a way that we choose rather than faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. It will make farming at the forefront of the conservation of our countryside – as Michael Gove said in his Oxford University speech recently. Brexit should be greatly beneficial to ordinary farmers, compensating them for the things which they do for the public good – environmental and habitat improvements, allowing access to the public and so on. What Michael Gove is proposing will perhaps be less welcome to those who earn vast subsidies from the CAP for no reason other than their own vast wealth enabling them to own a huge acreage.
I was especially pleased- in the aftermath of Sir David Attenborough’s wonderful Blue Planet 2- to hear the PM’s commitment to cleaning up our oceans, especially by moving further towards a non-recyclable-plastic free world. I have been asked by the Governor of the Falklands to take a small Parliamentary delegation to South Georgia with him, which of course I would be very keen to do. South Georgia is truly one of the last natural wildernesses on the Globe, and thanks to it, Britain can boast one third of the world’s penguin population! It is also full of sea life of every kind, including Blue Whales. I led a debate just before Christmas on preserving the seas around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (especially the tooth fish which lives there), and would of course love to help raise the area’s profile further. I will keep you posted if the idea comes off.
Home, the hearth, the family. These are at the centre of our human happiness and contentment. And the preservation of our environment in every way must be the primary duty of every generation. We must leave the planet in a better shape than we found it. I believe that Theresa May’s speech laid out many ways in which we can try to make sure that we do.
“It’s not the size that matters….It’s what you do with it.” I have to admit that I have never been at all sure what that little saying means. But it certainly applies to Mr Trump’s Nuclear Button. Bragging that “his is bigger than Mr Kim’s” is, of course, a demonstrably foolish thing to say. Everyone knows that America has vastly greater nuclear capability than North Korea. But one small N Korean nuke in Midtown Manhattan would spell catastrophe in world affairs for generations to come. I am all in favour of deterrence amongst mutually intelligent regimes – the Soviet Union and US for example. But I am just not convinced that Mr Kim understands the philosophy behind ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’, nor whether or not it holds much terror for him. David and Goliath spring to mind.
The same sizeism applies in many areas of public life. Does spending more automatically mean it gets better? Not at all. The NHS, for example, has had more and more public funds lavished on it in every year of its existence. It’s gone from about £10 Billion, or 3.5% of GDP when the NHS was founded in 1948, to about £134 Billion, or 9% of GDP today. The rate of increase in spending has grown enormously in recent years, averaging about 8% per annum. But do we really have an exponentially improved health service to show for it? I think not. More and more does not necessarily mean better and better.
The opposite philosophy, of course, applies in most modern technological worlds. ‘The smaller it is, the better it is’ is a reasonable summary. At least until IPADs, teenagers used to boast “Mine is smaller than yours.” In the post-Christmas bloat, most of us would probably agree that a smaller girth is better than a big one. And the bigger the Empire, the less likely it is to thrive and prosper – Rome, Greece, Nazis, Communists, the EU. Even the British Empire seems like the twinkling of an eye in our long history.
Do you remember the tale of the Texas cattleman and the old Wiltshire smallholder? “I get into my automobile and it takes me three days to drive right around my ranch”. “Oh yes,” said the yokel “I used to have a car like that too.”
It’s the small battalions which really matter - the truly local; each individual voter. It’s the little things in life, the kindnesses, the little jokes, small businesses that are what real life is all about. As Shakespeare says “A small thing; but mine own.” Giant international corporations; mega-deals; globalism, growth for growth’s sake. It’s the big things which cause so much that is bad in the world today.
So yours may be bigger than mine, but just watch out what you do with it.
The way that Christmas fell this year means that I can save my New Year message for next week. You will be reading this on or about 28th December. It’s the fourth day of Christmas, with four calling birds appearing at my true love’s front door.
But did you know that the 12 days of Christmas are in fact a code devised in the sixteenth century to allow a kind of catechism during the period when Roman Catholicism was outlawed? The Twelve drummers are twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles Creed; the eleven pipers symbolize the eleven faithful disciples; the ten Lords are the Ten Commandments; nine ladies are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit; the eight maids are the Beatitudes, the seven swans the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; six geese are the six days of the Creation, the five gold rings represent the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Old Testament; the four calling birds are the four Gospels; the three French hens are Faith, Hope and Charity, the two turtledoves are the Old and new Testaments, and the Partridge in the pear tree is Jesus on the Cross. My true love of course, is God, or perhaps his Church on earth.
I have always liked the period between Christmas and the New Year. It often gets colder, the parties are largely on hold pending Hogmanay; it’s a time for eating up the cold turkey, sorting out the house, getting some exercise to counterbalance Christmas excess, and perhaps to ponder just a bit. I always produce a kind of written balance sheet of my life. It lists my aims and ambitions, achievements and failures, joys and sorrows. And crucially it comes up with a series of practical steps which I will take in the New Year to get things going again. Perhaps I will share a few with you next week.
But for now, I hope you get a little period of quiet reflection, of post-Christmas satisfaction, of down-time, perhaps ‘me time’ in modern parlance, and for me at least a politics-free zone. So, I hope you have a restful and reflective Fourth Day of Christmas, and perhaps put some time aside for a little balance sheet drafting, enjoy some time with friends or family, relax and recover. A little bit of rest and recuperation before the New Year stretches ahead of us and all the doubts and wonders which it may bring.
January is generally assumed to be named after the Roman God, Janus who was the God of all beginnings. So he becomes the God of light, the sun, the moon, time, movement, the year, as well as doorways and bridges. He represents the middle ground between barbarism and civilisation, town and country, youth and age. All of that is symbolised in his two-faced image – looking back and looking forward, which of course is very much the flavour of thought and sentiment this week.
Looking back tends to be sad and pessimistic, looking forward is full of hope. So it is with politics. The Brexit Referendum (regretted, never let it be forgotten by almost as many people as those who rejoice over it), the resulting demise of Mr Cameron; Theresa May’s idiotic decision to call a snap election, and the appalling mishandling of it; the tough (but so far modestly successful) Brexit negotiations, and the resulting ructions, disaffection and leadership grumbles; the Labour Party in the grip of a Marxist fellow-traveller and the appalling Momentum movement which is so busy dragging it ever further leftwards; the total demise of the Liberals, and a genuine Tory revival north of the border; the election of Mr Trump and a myriad subsequent idiocies; the overthrow of Mugabe and victories (perhaps) in Iraq and Syria; all of these and so much more are the outward symptoms of a weirdly turbulent time both nationally and internationally.
But unless we are historians or hindsight specialists keen to tell everyone how we foresaw it all and warned against it; to most normal people, what is passed is past, and cannot now be changed. So Janus’s backward-looking face is sterile and unproductive. His forward-looking face, by contrast, has two aspects to it: predictions and aspirations/resolutions. The last year of unexpected turbulence renders the former pointless. So let’s have a go at the latter.
I hope that North Wiltshire will stay the happy, healthy, relatively prosperous place it has been for some time; I hope that my friends and family and I will be happy, contented, moderately successful, busy, active and generous; and that we may make some little contribution to making North Wiltshire, and Britain a better place. I hope that the Brexit negotiations will succeed and that the sunlit uplands which many of us foresee for a Britain free from the EU will indeed come true, and be seen to have come true. I hope that we will see an end to wars and terrorism, and peace and stability in most of the world; and I hope that while people will die and be born, get married, promoted and demoted; some will sadly be ill or ignorant; others will not know that they are; I hope that the natural course of life continues.
As Ecclesiastes had it: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born, and a time to die; to plant and to uproot; to kill and to heal; to tear down and to build; to weep and to laugh; to mourn and to dance; a time to keep and a time to throw away; to be silent and to speak; a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”
So whichever of those times comes your way in 2018, I wish you well in it. In the words of the old Scots song: “A good New Year to one and all; and many may you see. And during all the year to come, O Happy may ye be.”
There can be few things worse in this world than the death of a child. The loss of four in a wicked murder – as happened in Greater Manchester last week – means untellable agony for all of their relations. Am I being totally unChristian in hoping that the terribly burned Mother may never wake up from her coma? I always well up a bit at the last verse of “Away in a Manger”. “Bless all the dear children in thy tender care; and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.” Is there an echo somewhere there of the huge Victorian infant mortality? It’s a tragic Victorian message in amongst the trees and tinsel.
The Christmas holidays bring a welcome time of peace and respite after what has been a turbulent political year. A General Election about which the least said the better it will be; constant Leadership speculation; and of course the Brexit negotiations. The World remains a dangerous place indeed, although an expansionist Russia, unstable North Korea and the Daesh threat in Iraq and Syria seem to have calmed a little in recent weeks. France and Germany both have political uncertainty to come in the New Year; and President Trump remains as unpredictable (to say the least) as ever.
Yet amongst all of that, we should be thankful in this country, and in this area. The economy is stronger than ever, unemployment at a historic low, the Stock Exchange at an historic high. Interest rates remain as low as ever, and inflation hardly merits a passing worry. We have the best schools and hospitals in the world; our transport systems are never free from grumbles, but actually in international comparison terms are pretty good. Life in Britain – and especially in North Wiltshire- today is pretty good by comparison with so many parts of the world.
So perhaps Christmas may be a time to turn away from all that is wrong with the world, and to try to think positively about so much that is so good in it. The birth of a child brings a tear to any eye. All of the hopes for the future, the unsullied purity of the new born baby is one of the most precious of all moments. A dear old friend of mine, a retired Gurkha Colonel used to rush off to see any new-born, and insist on getting their bootees off to inspect their tiny, perfect feet. “All through my army career I had to inspect the awful, smelly, blistered feet of my soldiers. That’s why I love babies’ feet so much.”
It’s the same with new-born animals. Our two old dachshunds, Lollipop and Minx, mother and daughter died within a few days of each other and my old horse, Mr Kipling, in November. They were all old and had a good life. Sad to see them go, but not tragic. (And don’t tell her, but I’m getting Philippa a puppy, or maybe two, for Christmas to replace them.) We all look forward to the sight of new-born lambs gambolling in fresh pastures in only a month or two’s time.
“Wrapped in Swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. …. And Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart….” If only we could keep the innocence, the sweetness, the purity of the Christmas story all through the year, the world would assuredly be a better place.
So, after a turbulent year, I can do no better than to wish you the peace of the Christ child for all the year that lies ahead.
And a thoroughly merry time as well, I very much hope.
© 2017 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA