If you look in to the Budget debate next week, or to Prime Minister’s Questions, or any of the great Parliamentary events, you may well be puzzled to see MPs cramming in to the aisles, sitting on the steps, and standing around the entrance. It’s because there are only 437 seats in the Chamber, for 650 MPs, so it’s a bit of a crush if they all turn up! It was done perfectly intentionally- to maintain the vibrant cock-pit of a debating chamber which has worked so well over the centuries. After the Chamber was destroyed in the Blitz, there was a brief discussion as to whether it should be expanded. Churchill stopped it to preserve its intimacy and excitement. “We shape our buildings; and then they shape us” as he famously remarked on the subject.
Every day starts off with prayers. They are said - usually using the same form as has been used for hundreds of years - by the Speaker’s Chaplain. It’s the only totally private moment in the day, with no visitors allowed in, and the TV cameras switched off. MPs stand to pray, and after a few introductory sentences they turn to face the green leather benches. No-one quite knows why. So that we do not stare at each other as we pray? Or is it a hangover from the days when MPs used the green leather benches as kneelers (as some still do in the House of Lords)
It’s a lovely little peaceful moment in the tumultuous whirly-gig which typifies the normal Parliamentary day. MPs of all religious faiths and none take part, enjoying the solace of silence and contemplation for a few minutes in their busy lives.
Being there for prayers is – by chance- also the only way you can book a seat for the day. You write your name on a little green ‘Prayer Card’ which is slotted in to a specially made slot behind each seat. So there’s a practical as well as a spiritual reason for being there at the start of the day’s business!
“Lord the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her Government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the Nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals; but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may your Kingdom come and your Name be hallowed. Amen”
That’s the main prayer, and it has been said at the start of the day’s business for at least 500 years – through war, revolution, uprising. Through good times and bad. It’s wise words will see us through the current temporary turmoil of Brexit too.
Do you ever get that hollow, sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that something is about to happen- something big; and something you can very probably do little about.
I was proud to stand beside the Prime Minister last Wednesday to welcome into Parliament 120 soldiers returning from Operations overseas. They have done sterling work for the security of our nation, and in my little speech of welcome, I also mentioned their families without whose loyal support their job would be impossible, those who have returned from operations with physical or mental injuries, and those comrades who will never return… Then on Friday, I joined the nation in rejoicing at the second Royal wedding of the year. Parliament, the military, the office of Prime Minister, the Royal Chapel in Windsor Castle, the Queen and Royal family. Another Royal announcement followed on Monday with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex revealing that they are to be parents in the Spring of next year. These are the very stuff which make up the structure of our society, and they should be respected and sustained.
Yet I do wish that the PM would listen to good sense in the Brexit negotiations and switch her attention to a trade deal with the EU after our departure, akin to that agreed with Canada. That would be acceptable, so we are told, to the EU; it would pass through Parliament with probably only limited opposition; and it would deliver to the people what they voted for – a clean departure from the EU.
However, for some reason, she seems determined to persist with the Chequers proposals, which are unacceptable to almost everyone; and with the Northern Ireland ‘Backstop’ arrangements, only made worse by the removal of a clear end-date, which would have the net effect of binding the UK to the European Customs Union indefinitely. If that is the ‘deal’ which she strikes with the European Commission on Wednesday, then it will not have my support in Parliament. I will vote against it, together with very many of my Conservative colleagues, the DUP who will not allow Northern Ireland to be ‘cut off ‘ from Great Britain in that way; and the Labour Party, bar a handful who may support the PM. If that is the case, then she will lose the vote on the ‘deal’ in Parliament. What happens then is anyone’s guess, but it must include a renewed effort to secure a Canada style agreement. It would be so much easier if she would just go down that track now.
I remain convinced that there will be no second referendum; there will be no general election. I hope that no leadership battle will be necessary within the Conservative Party; and I remain hopeful that our divorce from Europe can be on civilised and sensible terms of benefit to both halves.
But that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach indicates troublous times to come. If we carry on down the cul –de-sac of the Chequers proposals, then it is hard to see an easy or satisfactory outcome. I hope that the Prime Minister will think again, drop Chequers and seek a Canada ++ arrangement with the EU. If she does not do so the consequences – for the EU, for the UK, and for Mrs May herself could be both unpredictable and very probably pretty dire.
Party Conferences are largely self-regarding, self-glorifying, alcohol fuelled jamborees for lobbyists and journalists. Little of real substance is discussed, the main target being not members of the respective parties, but the drooling vampires of the media, hanging on every split, U-Turn or gaffe. Do you remember the Lib-Dem one? Probably not, apart from poor dear Vince trying to make some smutty joke, but getting his words all mixed up. Talk about a dead parrot.
Labour were all over the place with regard to Brexit, being unclear as to whether or not they favoured a second Referendum, and producing a demonstrable fudge at the end of it. But theirs was nonetheless a pretty slick operation, designed to appeal to the largest number of voters, in the vain hope that they would not look too deeply into what they were being promised, nor how it would all be paid for. It was a real old piece of communism in some respects, but they managed to dress it up so that no one spotted it. A couple of slick Party Political Broadcasts rounded off a bit of a remodelling of Kington St Michael boy, Jeremy Corbyn, into something at least vaguely resembling a PM in waiting. Their uncosted promises will unravel pretty quickly, but for now they had a good week.
I managed to avoid the Tory Conference as I have done for some years now. By the time you read this it will have had wall-to-wall coverage. We can but hope that it’s better than last year’s which was a bit of a PR disaster. The only show in town – and I hope the outcome from the Conference – is the question of how dead the Chequers proposals are. (Just about as dead as the parrot and the Lib-Dems.) I hope that the PM leaves herself enough ‘wriggle-room’ to switch her allegiance to some kind of free-trade deal resembling that agreed by the EU with Canada.
I hope we can now put the Conference Season behind us and get back to Parliament and some real hard work – not least, but not limited to, sorting out what really is the best kind of “English Brexit.”
There’s a fun quiz on BBC Radio Wiltshire called ‘Clueless’. It’s on the Sue Davies Show. (She’s been there as long as I have with that inimicable chirpy voice. What a great asset.) Listeners phone in with their answers to local place names from obscure clues and advise how to get there. Last Sunday the puzzle was how to get from the Fovant badges to a place whose clue was “Get yourself in a muddle and deep underground.”! Tis-bury. Geddit? Great fun, and intensely local. Getting from Fovant to Tisbuy involves a bit of a debate- via Ansty or Swallowcliffe? Now there’s a teaser for you.
I remember a dear old boy in Biddestone recounting how “I went to Chippenham [2 miles away] once – on the way to the war ‘twere.” More recently a highly intelligent and very able young woman from Box who did some work experience with me admitted that she had never been to London before (fair enough); indeed, with the exception of a school ski-ing trip she had never in her 18 years left the Corsham area.
We love the ultra-local. We love the places we know, where we are comfortable. We love the localism of BBC Radio Wilts and the Gazette and Herald. That’s the way we humans are. We build a nest around ourselves. Home Sweet Home. Home is where the heart is.
But are we parochial? Quite the contrary. Some of the most ‘local‘ people I speak to around North Wiltshire also have some of the greatest worldly wisdom. They are keenly interested in what is happening in Parliament and beyond. My dear old friend Miss Kitty Sparkes from Chippenham, who is 102 years of age and remembers being a nurse in the Blitz with only a pan instead of a tin hat, has the sharpest of minds and the keenest of interests in what is going on. (She is one of the staunchest Brexiteers I know as well.)
‘People from Somewhere’ are those who are well grounded, their feet in the Wiltshire clay; able to look out from certainty to uncertainty from the Known to the Unknown. “People from anywhere” are the jet-setting liberal elite who would despise localism and patriotism as ‘parochial and outdated.’ Saddest of all are ‘People from Nowhere’ who have neither local nor international roots. That way lies misery.
So let us rejoice in the truly local - the best route from Fovant to Tisbury. But let us at the same time look outwards; be local, not parochial; be aware and intelligent about wider Britain and the World. As Parliament starts back for what may well be one of the most turbulent of sessions, that may well be a good lodestar for the wandering and wondering local MP like me.
We should be proud (but perhaps not surprised) that all three winners in this year’s CPRE Best Kept Village competition are in North Wiltshire. Biddestone, Hullavington and Charlton may not necessarily be the prettiest villages in Wiltshire (although they must be close to it); but they have been adjudged to be the ‘best kept.’ Parish councils, parishioners of every kind, by taking a pride in their immediate neighbourhood; by keeping their own gardens and window boxes immaculate, and tidying up communal areas with litter-picking and more; these are ordinary people taking a real pride in their own and their immediate environment. That spirit of self-help, and of concern for our neighbours was celebrated in the Award Ceremonies last Sunday, two of which I attended.
I apologise to the villagers of Biddestone whose ceremony I missed owing to a previous commitment to reading a lesson at the lovely little service at Luckington church to rededicate two graves of those who had given military service. My reading, from the Gospel of St John was the famous old tale of Jesus telling the disciples about a grain of wheat. Unless it falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain. “If it dies, it bears much fruit.” Great Oaks from Little acorns grow. But not without them dying first.
Self-sacrifice for the greater good of the greater number is the spirit which lies behind the Best Kept Villages (and a fair number of great oaks round well-kept village greens too). And it is the spirit which permeates our armed services, where huge discomfort, and of course great risk to life and limb, are accepted for the greater good of the soldier’s mates and unit, and ultimately for the greater good of Queen and Country.
By contrast, the intonation from the Prayer Book at a graveside that “In the midst of Life we are in Death” has always struck me as being a bit negative, and also blind to the Resurrection. Surely “In the midst of Death we are in Life” is more positive, and also much more in line with the grain of wheat or the acorn, from which grow great oaks.
The British Bull-dog, whether or not in favour of Brexit will not tolerate our Prime Minister’s humiliation by a bunch of Europeans. We will not be bullied, nor patronised by the EU, who by that very action remind us of all we dislike about them. Salzburg has had the life-giving consequence of uniting almost everyone in support of Mrs May against the Eurocrats. So it may seem like an ‘impasse’; Chequers may be ‘dead’; the immediate outlook for the negotiations may be a little bleak. But in the midst of death, there is life. Chequers may turn out to be the acorn, from which a (wildly dissimilar) oak tree emerges. The annoying Europeans may just turn out to have been the rain and sunshine which makes it germinate and grow. President Tusk may well come to regret his vulgar little cake joke.
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA