The summer recess is a good moment to reflect on the complex relationship of an MP and his or her constituency and Parliament. I am fortunate that I love North Wiltshire and its (surprisingly varied) people, that in my 25 years or so living and working here, I have got to know every corner, every street, every village and hamlet, and that I have had some engagement or another with pretty much every organisation or event. In the best part of 1,000 surgeries, I must have seen perhaps 10,000 people; on top of that I probably have written 100,000 or so letters plus 24,000 or so to eighteen-year-olds on their birthdays. (I have been doing the latter for 21 years, so that anyone who lives here and is aged 39 or younger should have had at least one personal letter from me.) I visit schools and businesses and organisations of every kind, make speeches, open fetes, and just generally ‘get around the patch’. Perhaps as important as any of that, I live here, and just going about one’s ordinary everyday life, one picks up the flavour of what people are thinking and doing.
That, I think, is the most important aspect of an MP’s ‘constituency’ life. Of course I do what I can to help people locally, and I do seem to get involved in the most abstruse of issues on behalf of local people. But that, in a sense, is not the absolute central part of my job, which is to represent the people of North Wiltshire in Parliament, rather than vice-versa. A bear trap for an MP might be to make two common errors. Either to become so massively ‘embedded’ in their constituencies, spending their whole time doing things which really ought to be done by local councillors at county or district or parish level, or by all sorts of local organisations and bodies, that they land up neglecting their parliamentary duties; or to become so fixated by Parliament that they frankly ignore their patch. Both failings diminish the purpose in being an MP. I should know exactly what the people of North Wiltshire are thinking and doing, and then seek to reflect that in the Commons.
There is another common misunderstanding here. Some people write to me with an argument along the lines that since I represent them in Parliament, I am duty bound to represent their views, even if they are views with which I personally do not happen to agree. They are confusing a ‘representative’ with a ‘delegate’. On almost any issue there will be a divergence of opinion in North Wiltshire, and it would therefore be impossible to represent them all. That means that I must use my own judgement, my thoughts about what would be best for the nation, the constituency, my party and then myself, in that order, and then act and speak, and vote accordingly.
If, overall, most people conclude that I have done the right thing for them and for North Wiltshire over the five years of a Parliament, then presumably they will re-elect me. If I have not, they will have the ability to get rid of me at the ballot box. That is the great advantage of the age-old First Past the Post electoral system which ensures a close and direct personal link between the MP and the constituent.
That my majority has increased over the 21 years that I have been your MP from 3,500 in 1997 to 23,000 in 2017, suggests, I hope, that by and large I have been successful in pleasing most of the people at least most of the time. To those who disagree with one or other aspect of my work, I apologise, and can only hope that overall you will nonetheless conclude that I am doing my best to serve all the people of North Wiltshire.
The immediate aftermath of two General Elections and the Brexit Referendum have rather dominated the last three summers. So it is good to have a campaigning-free Summer Recess. Philippa and I have a week off in Spain (if the runways in Barcelona have not melted), and I am leading a trip to Greenland (more about which thereafter.) But for the most part we are right here in Wiltshire. People pay a lot of money to come here on holiday, so we who are lucky enough to live here should jolly well enjoy it.
I am hoping to do a bit of reading and writing. My new book, ‘Full English Brexit’ is due out in late September, and next Spring I am planning a compendium of these Columns, ‘Wiltshire to Westminster’. (From a bookshop near you.) I have just completed an article about the Inuit which will be coming out in Geography Magazine in October, and a 4000 word essay for the Royal United Services Institute on the use of the Royal Prerogative to go to war. My weekly Column gets a gratifying number of readers and commentators, so I shall keep up my ramblings over the Summer.
It’s time for a fair bit of reading too (which one never gets a moment to do during the Parliamentary session.) I am half way through Gordon Brown’s very well written Autobiography. I like the personal bits, but get a bit weary of his wanderings into ‘Neo-endogenous Growth Theories’. I was glad to read my son John’s two brilliant books- on the history of stationery and of silk screen printing, would you believe? And I have a ‘Must Read Table’ piled high in my study.
One aspect of an MP’s job is to take complex and obscure subjects and try to summarise their real impacts for their constituents. The main one at the moment, of course is Brexit; but there are constant others. That can only be done if the brain is given a little down-time from the daily hurly-burly; and with a bit of reading and writing to soothe the troubled breast.
Gladstone had a library of 20,000 books; Winston Churchill of course was a prodigious reader and writer, and Clement Attlee was famous for his love of the classics (and for catching the bus into Parliament); Macmillan loved poetry; and William Hague is a brilliant biographer - Pitt the Younger is one of the best political biographies ever.
So I will be keeping up my constituency engagements over the summer, but perhaps at a less hectic pace than normal. I hope to spend a fair bit of time in my ‘man-cave,’ reading and writing, resisting Philippa’s demands that I should ‘get out and about and do something useful,’ and generally preparing the old brain for what will, without doubt, be a tumultuous Autumn.
It would take the most ardently politically correct of puritans to see anything even slightly wrong with Kipling’s oft-quoted poem ‘If’. That did not stop a group of Manchester University students obliterating it and replacing it with some barely-coherent jumble last week. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…..” A moral there for the last week or two in Parliament. Surely we can disagree on Brexit without resorting to name-calling, cheating, blows? Hundreds of people responded to my email last week opposing the Chequers Agreement. Around 80% supported my stance on it. It is amazing how many of the few ‘Remainer’ emails I received felt it necessary to threaten and abuse me and those who are calling for a clean departure from the EU,
There is so much more to life. In the last week, quite aside from any Brexit shenanigans, for example, I spoke at a Maritime Reception in Parliament, had breakfast with an Admiral to discuss cyber warfare, chaired the Offensive Weapons Bill Committee, spoke at the MOD to a group of 40 MPs who are just about to undergo 15 days of military training under my wing; briefed Box constituent, Lucy Fisher, who at the age of 30 has just been promoted to be the Times Defence Correspondent; spoke at a meeting of senior American generals; quizzed Ministers about the UK’s policy approach to the Arctic; had a conference call with the Governor of the Falklands; had an hour-long meeting with a senior constituent in need of help; spoke at a Ladies Luncheon Club at Bowood, a political supper club at Luckington, and receptions in Hullavington and Box; drove round Royal Wootton Bassett helping Judge ‘Bassett in Bloom’; and held busy surgeries both there and in Calne. All of that is alongside the normal routine of Parliamentary and constituency business (and a bit of private time too.)
The House has risen for the long Summer Recess now. It will enable us all to calm down, cool off and gather our thoughts for the Autumn which promises to be just as turbulent. The Brexit negotiations, and their handling over the last two years inspire a few “if only…” thoughts. They are pointless. We are where we are and we must now get it sorted. People are rightly concerned about what would happen ”If not?...” I hope that M Barnier may give some thought to that too.
Why do we Brits love to remember our great military failures? Charge of the Light Brigade; Dunkirk; A Bridge too far, Arnhem. (And yes, I know, we also celebrate Waterloo, Battle of Britain and D-Day.) Also interesting that we are unique in having no specifically military music- just playing ordinary music in a military manner. It’s a sort of military modesty which we do not share, for example, with the Germans or Americans.
As soon as the House rose on Tuesday, I went off with a gang of 30 or so MPs and Peers for a quick battlefield tour of Arnhem. I try to go to the Remembrance Sunday outdoor service at the former RAF Blakehill Farm, near Cricklade, from where many of the gliders on Operation Market Garden in 1944 were launched, so I was keen to see where they had landed up. It was good to go to the very landing site and to see the fine model glider which commemorates it.
There were elements of disaster, of course. Many of the gliders crash landed; radios did not work; the Brits under Lord Carrington (who died only last week) did not move swiftly enough forward to relieve their besieged compatriots 10 miles up the road at Arnhem. The best laid plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy. But despite the ultimate failure of the Operation, it is good to remember the sheer heroism of so many who took part in the battles – the glider pilots, the American paras rowing over the Rhine using their rifle butts instead of paddles under intense enemy fire; the paras who fought and died so valiantly; the eccentric British officer who carried an umbrella so that he could not be mistaken for a German. These and so many other fine tales are worth recalling.
And a solemn visit to the magnificently maintained War Cemetery is a salutary reminder of the awfulness of war. It was heart-breaking to see how many of the fallen were teenagers or in their early twenties. What a dreadful waste of life. I was honoured, as the Chairman of the All Party Group for the Armed Forces to lay a wreath at the simple Lutyens designed War Memorial.
“Their name liveth for evermore.”
I am a bit of a loyalist- to my Party as much as to my country. But I cannot be loyal to the emerging ‘Deal’ announced last week at Chequers and beefed up in this week’s Brexit White Paper. It bears little resemblance to what most normal people had hoped Brexit would mean. In the words of the former Foreign Secretary, it means that ‘The Brexit Dream is dying.’ I have always been a strong supporter of a true Brexit, and will not therefore be supporting this Chequers agreement when it comes before the House in the Autumn. I believe that a large number of my colleagues will not do so either, in which case it stands no chance of becoming law.
I hope that The Prime Minster will listen very carefully to messages such as mine and in the aftermath of recent turbulence and resignations will re-think her Brexit Deal proposals, aligning them better with her own commitment to ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ’No deal is better than a bad deal.’ There remains a good chance, of course, that M Barnier will turn this proposal down, or seek to change it, for example with regard to the free movement of people. That would be wholly unacceptable.
It is true that we do have Brexit, albeit not the kind the people voted for. We are leaving the EU, the Single Market and the Customs Union (sort of). We are - with a few caveats – taking back control of our borders, our trade and our laws. And some would therefore argue that maybe ‘a Brexit in the hand is worth two in the bush’. Only a year or two ago, they would say, the very notion of our departure from the EU at all would have been unthinkable.
But all of the evidence is that what is now on offer is the worst of all possible worlds. For example, we will be tied into EU rules and regulations on all manufactured goods; we would have no say over those regulations; and we would be paying £39 Billion for the privilege of becoming an EU vassal state.
So I will be working to persuade the PM that what she has proposed at Chequers is unacceptable, and does not deliver the Brexit which 52% of the people voted for. She is unlikely to persuade the EU to accept it without further amendment, and will not anyhow get it through the Commons. She must therefore change what she has proposed in some very fundamental ways.
For now, I do not want any kind of Leadership challenge. If she won a Vote of No Confidence hands down, her position would be strengthened, not weakened. If she lost it there would be a long Leadership battle with Brexit negotiations on hold; and the outcome of that election would be wholly unpredictable. There would be at least a chance that a Remainer would become PM. So a Leadership challenge at this stage would be a very high risk gamble. I would much prefer simply to persuade the PM that the Chequers agreement is unworkable, and ask her to think again about it.
I may be an unwilling rebel; but this issue is so big, so very important to me, and I believe to the majority of my constituents that I have told the PM and my whip that I will indeed be disagreeing with the Chequers deal when it comes to the Commons.
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA