There is something very touching - deeply moving - about the weekly Thursday communal clap. There’s something very British about it. Ordinary people up and down the land coming together (virtually of course), to bang their wooden spoons on their potlids, let off a few fireworks, play their trombones, but above all just clap and whoop and cheer to say thank you to those who are putting their lives at risk combatting this dreadful virus. It doesn’t actually achieve anything, of course, except for boosting our collective morale. It’s we Brits ganging together in the face of an enemy to show that we are not downhearted; we are not dispirited; we are not defeated. Far from it. We’ll show this silly disease what we think of it. After years of political polarisation and dispute, we are at one in this - together we will beat it.
It was good to see the PM back in Downing Street on Monday, and I thought his little statement was courageous and clear. He’s gone through a tough time experiencing Covid-19 for himself. He looked death in the face and saw it off. There is a palpable feeling of relief that he is now back to lead us through the difficult weeks which lie ahead. And what wonderful news about the birth of his baby boy, I wish them all well and send my warmest congratulations.
All government, especially at a time like this, depends on the people as a whole - or at least an overwhelming majority of them - coming together in agreement that we will take a certain action. It may not necessarily be in our own immediate best interests; but we accept that it is for the good of the country as a whole. We would so much prefer to be back at work, shopping, going to the pub and the football match. Of course we would. But we realise that if that is to be our end goal, then we need collectively to go through some pain in the meanwhile. That social contract has worked well so far - most people have readily accepted that, dislike it as we may, lockdown is necessary to win the war.
That same spirit must underly any possible easing of lockdown. Those who are calling for it to be lifted totally and immediately, are risking tens or hundreds of thousands of lives. Yet those who advocate remaining in total lockdown more or less indefinitely, or perhaps even tightening it, are ignoring the economic reality that that would create such a catastrophic destruction of our economy that it would take a generation or more to recover from it.
So what I would hope to see coming from the PM now that he is back at his desk, is a road map towards some degree of lessening of the social distancing and lockdown regulations. It’s a political decision, and only he can make it. Scientists on the one hand will be urging caution - predicting all kinds of death and destruction if we get it wrong; economists on the other hand foresee disastrous damage if we do not kick start our businesses. It’s a tricky tightrope for the PM to walk; and whatever happens you can be certain that he will be criticised for what he does. It’s one of those situations which you simply cannot win.
Collective agreement will survive if we can see a few baby steps towards getting back to normal. We need an ultra-steady hand on the tiller as we navigate the treacherous waters back to dry land.
I was delighted to hear this week that of all of the 650 constituencies, North Wiltshire is number three in the League for the number of visitors to Parliament at 746 people. The only two higher were Westminster and East Ham. Given that North Wiltshire is 2 hours or more from London, it is not bad to be the number one non-London constituency. I have always gone to great lengths to welcome visitors, and I must say that my wife Philippa, is exceedingly diligent in making the arrangements, which can sometimes be complex. Many of the groups will be school, military, Rotary Club, Woman’s Institute or similar visits, and the dates and other arrangements can take a fair bit of juggling. I try to meet as many of them as I possibly can before they go off for a thoroughly professional (and entirely free) tour of both Houses, Westminster Hall and the bits in between. I hope that you will understand that I do NOT provide so much as a cup of tea – I would very quickly become awash with the stuff.
The reason that I have always encouraged these visits is not just so that people can see the magnificent building, the historic sites, our wonderful Chamber. The Palace of Westminster is not a museum, nor a stately home. It is a working building. 7,000 people work there; there are 50 lifts and staircases, 1000 rooms (of which, according to Churchill only two matter- the Chamber and the Smoking Room); and 34 cafeterias, bars and restaurants. It is the throbbing heart of our magnificent democratic system; and it is great to welcome constituents and others to the Palace to see how Parliament works.
That is one of the reasons why I feel uneasy about the current plan to vacate the old Palace by 2025 for it to be restored. I worry that in doing so we will lose that feeling of an historic but working democratic hotbed. I would much rather that the work which is needed were done while the House is sitting, which may also make it less comprehensive and therefore less expensive. There are a number of alternative plans in circulation which would allow the preservation and modest modernisation of the Palace, yet preserving all that is best of it, not least for the many thousands of visitors who go through it every year.
Something of the same applies to the current ‘virtual’ sittings which started this week. Of course I accept the necessity for them. 650 MPs from all parts of Britain cramming together in a room designed for only 350 would of course be crazy. Social distancing is absolutely essential. So I wholly accept that some kind of electronic remote or virtual Parliament is absolutely essential while we are all in lockdown. And I think that it all worked reasonably well. It was very courteous, Sir Keir Starmer had a good first outing, and some difficult questions were asked of the Government. Yet it is just not the same. Very few of the 650 are able to take part in any meaningful way. And the very remoteness, the politeness, the clinical cleanliness of it all removes that hubbub of scrutiny for which Churchill designed the Chamber after it was bombed in the Second World War. So I accept that it has to be like this for now; but I long for a return to a fully functioning (and disease free) House of Commons. A vibrant democracy demands it.
My prize possession is an old grandfather clock which has been passed down through my family. It dates from about 1800. There are four little pictures on its face- Winter, Spring….. Waterloo and Trafalgar. (Summer and Autumn were overpainted in memory of those two great British victories.) So for 220 years it has tick tocked away on the kitchen wall of various Gray family farmhouses. Its been doing it for 80,300 days; it has struck the hour on 1,927,200 occasions. That’s a total of 12,526,800 individual ‘Bongs.’
It’s 50 years older than Big Ben; it’s lived through 8 monarchs; it’s seen off the Industrial Revolution, the two world wars, the Great Depression and so much more. Through all of that, morning, noon and night it just tick tocks away. Reliable, comforting, unchanging. Undramatic and unglamorous; workmanlike and practical.
The Queen’s inspiring and comforting broadcast had many of the same qualities. It symbolises ‘unchanging changelessness’ in the worlds of the Prayer Book. It was about concern for all; steadfastness; determination to see it through. Her own remarkable reign, and the way she reminisced about her first ever broadcast some 80 years ago was of itself hugely comforting. Together we will get through it.
People have been going through a very tough time in so many ways, and there is more to come. Physically it’s an appalling disease, as we witness watching Boris Johnson. (And no matter what your political views may be, I hope that you will join me in wishing him well. I am extremely glad he is now out of Intensive Care.) There are terrible economic hardships already, and more to come. Some people have been having a thoroughly miserable time cooped up in their flats and houses; intra family stresses and strains no doubt showing up from time to time. It’s been a pretty awful few weeks, and we are not out of it yet.
So the tough, determined optimism of the Queen’s broadcast (and after all she has seen some pretty terrible times in her 93 years, both personally and nationally) is just what we all needed. The old clock’s reliability over 220 years in all weathers, and no matter what was happening in the wider world may have a lesson for us all. We can get through all this. We will get through it. But we have to hold together, do what is right, and look forward to better times to come.
Easter is about that too. An appalling crime, a catastrophe, the inhumane wickedness of the Crucifixion on Good Friday, saw the murder of the Messiah. Or so Herod hoped and thought. But only two days later the joy of Easter Morning is that he rose from the dead, and proved the naysayers wrong. Easter is all about hope triumphing over despair, defeating wickedness.
And in modern terms the spring weather, the lambs frolicking, the first swallows returning, the green grass growing, the cows turned out for the first time; these are all signs of hope for the future.
So wherever you are, whatever you may be experiencing or facing, I wish you a very Happy Easter, and confidence of better times to come.
“This is not the end. It’s not even the beginning of the end. But it may be the end of the beginning.” Despite the awfulness of the defeats and disasters at the start of the Second World War, those are the words- alongside “blood, toil, sweat and tears” which gave the British people some hope for the future. My instinct about the Coronavirus crisis may be about the same, especially here in the West Country.
It was only a month ago that we were fearing massive numbers ill and dying. There was a risk that the entire National Health Service would have been overwhelmed. We really had no clue about what the future held.
The Government acted, and acted decisively, both with regard to the Lockdown, which would of course have been unthinkable only a few weeks previously and social distancing in general. They put a financial package in place to tide businesses and people over the worst, and to try to give a foundation stone for the rebuilding of the economy once it’s all over. Hundreds of millions of pieces of Personal Protection Equipment were sourced and shipped, testing was increased, new hospitals built in a record time; an army of volunteers mobilised; and a whole host of other ideas and initiatives.
Now of course there are criticisms which can be made. No enterprise as big as this is ever free of error. The PPE should have been delivered to the front line sooner. It should have been delivered far more widely- especially as we now realise to the Care Home Sector. There should have been far more testing; more ventilators should have been ordered. Of course, there are things that could have been done better or done differently. Hindsight is a luxury for armchair generals.
But I am beginning to be encouraged by all of the weekly online briefings I am being given. The number of sad deaths is still increasing, especially if you include all of those in care homes and in people’s private houses, which are harder to collect as statistics. It seems likely that the 20,000 figure will very sadly be about right. But that could easily have been so much higher. It appears that the numbers being admitted to hospital are levelling off, which means that the death figures will at least level off and start to fall we all hope within a week or so.
In other words, the social distancing and the lockdown which has been so hard on so many people, really does seem to be working. There is still a great deal we do not know, of course. We really do not yet have much idea how we are going to get out of this and get back to some semblance of normal life. The Government are announcing a further three weeks of lockdown- which takes us through to 7th May or thereabouts. There is some talk of easing off some of the restrictions thereafter- perhaps starting with primary schools, thinking about whether or not more shops, perhaps garden centres, could open albeit with social distancing rules in place; whether or not public parks and so on would be better open for joggers and walkers, albeit 6 feet apart.
Its most definitely not the end; not even the beginning of the end. But I just somehow sense that it may be the end of the beginning. So now we must stiffen our resolve; stick to the rules; stay at home; and see this thing through.
We will look back on these terrible days for the rest of our lives. We will recount tales of the privations, the sadness, the challenges and the warmth we experience during the great Plague of 2020, which the history books will record just as surely as that which afflicted the Israelis under Moses, the Black Death of 1348 and the Great Plague and Fire of London in 1666.
We will remember the terrifying speed with which the virus came from nowhere; the appalling deaths, especially in Spain, Italy and the United States, and perhaps to come here in the UK too. We will think of the agonising illness from which many of us will suffer; we will be grateful perhaps that that the four riders of the apocalypse passed our house by, and congratulate ourselves on our successful self-isolation. We will be critical of some things the Government have done, or not done; but overall we will conclude that they made a pretty good a fist of it under horrifically difficult circumstances. We will record our huge admiration and gratitude to those in the NHS and the care system who put the needs of others ahead of their own, some of them paying for their heroism with their lives. Perhaps above all we will remember the sense of community which has sprung up in the arid ground of self-interest. It is truly wonderful to see how many people are volunteering, helping out, looking out for each other. That is the best aspect of the British psyche, and we should rejoice in it.
The first couple of weeks of self-isolation has, I hope, not been too bad. The decent weather and the onset of Spring must have helped. (Imagine if this had been mid-October with the dark nights and miserable weather approaching.) We are fortunate in an area like this, many of us to have gardens, or access to open spaces; reasonable fresh air, and generally a decent living space. Just think what it must be like to have a family of small children shut inside a small flat in a tower block in some inner city. Their Dunkirk spirit must be wearing a bit thin already.
I hope that we are all finding useful and memorable things to do. Sort out the drawers and wardrobes we have been meaning to do for ages, perhaps do a bit of DIY. I am sure that The TV and its myriad channels, social media and the rest of it helps a great deal to keep us in touch. But I hope that people will also rediscover some long-forgotten board games; keep a diary of these momentous events, revive some ancient skill - piano paying or chess. Pick up the phone and ring as many friends and acquaintances as you can. It will be appreciated. There will be stresses and strains on families, but I hope that there will also be some great benefits of time allowing families to get together in a way they cannot usually do. There have been some great videos circulating of families putting together silly songs, for example. Let’s all eat together, round a table, enjoy each other’s company; but also keep out of each other’s hair as much as we can.
I have been working hard from home with a vast number of emails and phone calls, trying my best together with my great team also working remotely, to help as many constituents as I possibly can. I have also been finishing off a collection of these Columns (heavily edited I hasten to add), stretching back over 25 years, which my publisher tells me he will publish in time for the Christmas market if I can find 350 buyers up front. So if you think it’s a good idea (£15, dedication signature free of charge), perhaps you would just let me know informally, so that I can give the publisher some idea of the market!
Here in Wiltshire, it’s all going as well as can be expected, with relatively few cases and a handful of sad deaths. I know that it may well get worse before it gets better. So we must keep our spirits up; keep busy; and generally brace ourselves for what may be to come.
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.