“MPs should be like butterflies. Flitting from flower to flower cross-pollinating, but never getting bogged down in any one bloom.” So said, I think, Enoch Powell. I sometimes feel like that.
I was glad that a few comments to the press about Big Ben and the (needless ) stopping of its ‘bongs’ for four years, which is, as I put it ‘Bongkers’, led to an every widening feeling of outrage amongst the general public, and a variety of experts coming forward to say it was totally unnecessary. I was one of those asked to Chequers for a drink last week, and (amongst other things) had a chat to the PM about it. I was very glad that she endorsed my view, eventually extracting an undertaking from Mr Speaker that the matter would be re-examined when the House is back in September. A small thing but mine own.
Similarly, my remarks in this column about the idiotic waste of money by Wiltshire Police examining the slender evidence against Sir Edward Heath sparked national comment, and a hasty announcement by the Chief Constable that he would produce the Op Conifer report ‘in the autumn.’ He will not be allowed to slip it into the long grass by passing it to the Independent Investigation into Child Sexual Abuse under Professor Alexis Jay, who have made it plain that they will look at the report with interest, but that consideration of it is well beyond their remit. That view was reiterated to me in an oral question to the Home Secretary before the House rose. The report must be public, and I will make sure that it is. If Sir Edward did anything wrong then we must know about it; but if there is no evidence that he did so, then the nasty slur against this PM’s good name must be expunged for ever.
My heart was warmed by an email from a serving police officer, who, for obvious reasons will remain nameless. “I am a police officer with  years of service, and your [column] has put a smile on my face and cheered me up no end on a damp and dreary Monday morning. The content was such that I agreed 100%. It brought back many fond memories of policing gone by, a situation I fear we will never get back to. I just wanted to email to thank you for your views and the way they made me smile.”
I am just back from a few days in the Arctic leading a little expedition to visit the British Antarctic Survey on Spitzbergen. The clear waters and warm days at this most northerly inhabited spot on the globe – just a few hundred miles away from the North Pole itself was more than enough to re-convince the 10 MPs and peers in the group of the reality and imminence of climate change and the retreat of the Arctic ice. We will not solve it ourselves, but visiting the distinguished British scientists spending year after year on retreating glaciers and spreading that word back in Westminster may be just doing a little useful cross-pollination.
A word here, a question there, some media comment, surgeries, voting, influencing Ministers. It is these small, almost invisible cross-fertilisations, flitting from topic to topic like a butterfly which is the very business of politics. And just from time to time, in the words of the late great Muhammad Ali, as well as “floating like a butterfly” we, backbench MPs, should also “sting like a bee.”
The World reels from yet another Jihadi Daesh outrage - this time in Barcelona, but no different to Paris, Berlin, Brussels, London, Manchester or so many other places. Our hearts go out to the Spanish and to the bereaved and injured. We grieve, and we are resolute in never giving in to terrorism, and carrying on with our everyday lives as a kind of mark of defiance. All of those things are good and true and noble. But the trouble is that they just don’t work. No matter how many candlelight vigils, streets strewn with flowers we see, these evil people see a soft West, and a West which can be defeated by their wicked and violent tactics.
These people understand only one thing – strength. That has been proved throughout Iraq where Daesh are now virtually destroyed, and very nearly in Syria too. The Jihadi Caliphate was destroyed there by force of arms, by sheer power. Yet unless we also destroy the ideology, and cut off their source of funding, this multi-headed hydra will just go to ground under the sand, and will without doubt reappear in all its ugliness elsewhere in the Middle East or Africa, and most certainly in yet more high streets in our Western cities.
We need to deal with their ideology at grass roots level. And we must be clear and firm. People who are returning from Iraq and Syria, for example, must be carefully quizzed by MI5. And if it turns out that they have been fighting for ISIS, they must either be thrown out of our country, or at very least have their passports removed and after due process of law they must be thrown into prison. Those people who the security forces know to be suspect must be investigated, irrespective of their bogus human rights claims; those who are in prison should be sent back to wherever they came from irrespective of the regime in their home country.
And we must strengthen our delicate western liberal consciences over such things as surveillance. I don’t mind being watched, and anyone hacking into my phone or computer would find nothing more interesting than a shopping list. We must be ready to lay the blame where it lies, and be outspoken and clear about it.
I was horrified by Sarah Champion being thrown out of the Shadow Cabinet because she identified (perfectly correctly) that it is Pakistani gangs who are raping and selling white girls across much of England, including in her own constituency. The political correctness of avoiding calling them Pakistani, has overcome anything approaching common sense. If they are Pakistani people committing these crimes, then we should say so. That implies no disrespect for the Pakistani community in general; quite the contrary. Just as we would not mind if it was said that ‘It was a white man who robbed the bank’- they should be quite happy to highlight that these criminals are of Pakistani origin, but are quite different to the hundreds of thousands of wholly law abiding, decent Pakistani people, many of whom I was brought up alongside.
Walking on politically correct egg-shells will not prevent another Barcelona, or Manchester. Locking these bad people up, or throwing them out of the country, may well help towards it, even if it bruises a few of our delicate Western sensibilities in doing so.
How we rejoice in the triumphs – and the long and brilliantly successful careers – of Mo Farah and Usain Bolt. The world of athletics will be a poorer place without them. And how thankful we are to HRH the Duke of Edinburgh as he undertakes the last of 22,219 solo Royal appointments spread over 70 years. The Edinburgh Festival, by coincidence, also celebrates 70 years of existence with this year’s estimated 50,000 performances of over 3,000 shows in 300 venues. Would you like to be there? Probably. But would you like to be one of the thousands of stage performers? Well, I doubt it.
Whatever you may think of President Trump – or Theresa May, Philip Hammond or Boris Johnson – do you really think that you personally would do a better job? Most people would, I think, run a mile.
I was amused by a BBC report this week that whereas male bosses of FTSE 100 companies are averaging £4.5 million pay this year, female bosses manage only about £2.6 million. Lucky them, I’d say. Or are they? What do they have to sacrifice in their ordinary family and private lives in order to justify that kind of money? And do they have any time to enjoy it? Think of the sheer stress of running a company that size. Think of the hassles.
Few of us on this world have got what it takes to be a Bolt, a Farah, a Prince Philip, a big boss of an industrial company, or a stage performer. Few of us could (or would want to be) great politicians. So what is it that makes these people what they are? Are they blessed with huge innate talent? Do they inherit energy, or skills, determination or abilities which are denied to the rest of us? Possibly, but not to such a huge extent as their achievements might suggest. Most people, at least in a country like ours, have reasonably equivalent intelligence, drive and ability. There has to be some degree of ‘nature’ in it – and some people are demonstrably blessed with particular stature, or brains, or musical or athletic ability. But is that really enough to set them apart from birth? Surely not.
So it must be nurture. Spotting some kind of innate talent or ability, enthusiastic or ambitious parents or trainers push their charges beyond what any normal human being would be expected to do. Hundreds of hours of gruelling training creates a mental and physical strength or ability to allow them to perform at their very best.
Or is it luck? Being the right person in the right place at the right time? Of course there’s a lot of that in it. That certainly applies, for example, to the Duke of Edinburgh. (Although by reputation he would probably say he was “the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong moment.”) No matter what our innate ability, no matter what our determination and training, we need a good following wind, and a guiding star to maximise our performance at it.
So as we contemplate our betters – in all of these areas including politics – just let us pause for a moment and think: “Could we do it? Would we want to do it?” They may not be exactly what we want, but are they not still to be admired for what they do? Nature, or nurture, or luck. But alongside that there must be a good dose of dedication to duty – determination to do what is best, perhaps to fulfil some kind of destiny; to put to one side the things that we ourselves might want to do in favour of what we believe to be right, or our obligation, or duty. I suspect that that one word – duty – says more about HRH than the rest of it put together. There is a lesson there for all of us.
After the NHS, the greatest British iconic hero must be the Bobby on the Beat. It gives us a warm feeling to think of the policemen of yore – nice old fashioned uniforms, batons swinging as they stroll down our High Streets. “Evening all,” as Dixon of Dock Green used to say. “Mind how you go now, Sir.” Z Cars, then the Sweeney brought it a bit more up to date, then The Bill, Lewis, a Touch of Frost, and so many more. We love our coppers, even if our mental picture of them may well be at some variance with the reality on the ground.
What a magnificent operation the Newcastle Police carried out in catching and then convicting a large number of people smugglers, modern slavers, pimps, groomers, child rapists. Call them what you will. ‘Scum of the earth’ will do for me. I personally support the £10,000 given to the convicted paedophile for the extensive information he was presumably able to provide. The end really does justify the means if his information has led to dozens of these people being taken off our streets, despite the bad taste it may leave in our mouths. The policing skills and methods needed for that kind of operation are well away from anything we have seen on TV.
Closer to home, however, I very much regret the recent announcement that the police stations in Calne and Malmesbury are to close, to be replaced by some kind of ‘police touchdown point’ whatever that is supposed to mean, and in Royal Wootton Bassett there will be a ‘Community Police Team Hub.” (Why can’t these people just use ordinary old-fashioned language which the average reader would be able to understand? They might meet less outrage if they did.) Whatever they may be, they just won’t replace that comforting blue light outside the Police Station. But there again, the good old Police Box, beloved of Sergeant Dixon is now only remembered as the Tardis in Doctor Who, and I guess that technology must mean that policing methods constantly move on.
Perhaps Wiltshire Police resources would be a bit less stretched if they were not wasting £2 million and 18 full-time officers on a pretty pointless investigation of allegations made against the late Sir Edward Heath. He’s dead, for goodness sake, and the case against him seems pretty flimsy to say the least. They’ll be looking into Jack the Ripper or Henry Vlll who had a nasty habit of chopping off his wives’ heads next. What a waste of time. I have made my views known in very plain terms to the Chief Constable, and I hope that he will take steps to wrap up this idiotic waste of public money with no further delay.
We all have the highest respect for our policemen and women, and they do a magnificent job. But there are too few of them; officers are under constant stress and strain; and it is my view that the scarce resources they do have are sometimes quite wrongly directed by senior staff and officers. Maybe it’s time to get back - just a little – to Community Policing. And who knows? Perhaps a bit of Dixon of Dock Green and The Sweeney would do law and order locally an awful lot of good.
Fresh back from a fascinating visit to Monte Cassino, and a most moving visit to the British and Polish War Cemeteries there; and watching the commemoration of Passchendaele, sparks conflicting emotions. What a tragedy it is that these young men had to die. What a piece of needless vandalism that the (unoccupied) monastery was destroyed. Yet what would the world be like now if it were not for our readiness to fight for what is right, and to deter what is bad. ‘Arma Pacis Fulcra’ as the Honourable Artillery Company motto hath it- ‘Arms are the Balance of Peace.’
The Defence of the Realm is the first duty of any Government. Post- Brexit our new found independence will once again make us a world force, a free trading nation, and our land, sea and air forces will have a renewed importance. We do ‘punch above our weight’ in foreign affairs and defence terms. We rank fifth in the world for defence spending (£40 Billion, and outranked only by the US, China, Saudi Arabia and Russia), we are one of only three NATO countries who achieve the 2% of GDP spending which the Alliance sets as a basic minimum.
All well and good. But our army at 82,000 soldiers (currently only 78,000) is the smallest since Waterloo, and there are said to be dastardly plans afoot in the MOD to cut it even further; our Royal Navy is rightly immensely proud of the two new Aircraft carriers; yet there is some doubt as to whether or not we have enough people or enough planes to fill them; and our air force has done well in many areas of equipment, yet is perilously short of serviceable fast jet fighters.
So with all of that as background, and representing as heavily a military area as I do ( Wiltshire boasts half the British Army, in the North here we have the £250 million newly refurbished Technical Training College and REME HQ at Lyneham; we have the tri-service communications HQ at Corsham; 21 Signals Regiment at Colerne; IX Regiment of the Royal Logistics Corps at Hullavington; and a very large number of my constituents are either serving or retired from the armed forces), I have no embarrassment at my focus on Defence matters in Parliament.
I chair the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust, which seconds 35 or so MPs and peers to the three services for 12 months, embedding them for a minimum of fifteen days to experience service life for real; I am chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Armed Services, which lays on weekly high level briefings, usually over a meal; I arranged over 10 years the regular Parliamentary welcome homes for each brigade as it came back from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a number of one-off parades (this year we have the 100th anniversary of the founding of the RAF and 100 years of service by women in the Royal Navy, both of which will be commemorated by receptions in Mr Speaker’s State Rooms); I have served for the last 5 years or so on the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, and hope to be re-elected to it in September; I am a graduate of the Royal College of Defence Studies, a visiting fellow of St Anthony’s College , Oxford, and Patron of Operation Christmas Box which sends boxes to service people who are on overseas deployment at Christmas; and I served for seven years in the Reserve Army, in the form of the Honourable Artillery Company.
So I am proud that Defence of the Realm- and keeping the Government up to scratch on it - is without question my own first duty in Parliament.
© 2017 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA