“Fit for the twenty-first century,’ and expressions like it, are aching clichés. ‘Modernisation’ for ‘modernisation’s sake’ is a self-fulfilling prophesy, and worthless. ‘New is Good and Old is Bad’ is as false as Orwell’s ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’ in Animal farm. All of these things are camouflage for woolly thinking, or lack of real justification for a particular action, or often both.
So it was with the debate over whether or not to turf out the 9,000 people who work in Parliament for a period of at least 5 years, and at a cost of at least £4billion to put the plumbing right. It was passed by a painfully thin 16 votes, and I and most of my grown-up colleagues voted against it. It risks wrecking the whole mysterious ethos of Parliament which is the painstaking creation of 1000 years, replacing it with a bland modernism of the kind which is on display, for example, in the Sottish Parliament in Edinburgh and the European one in Brussels. Neither, if I may be so bold, are exactly best examples of brilliantly functioning legislative assemblies. Like it or lump it, and irrespective of who may be in power, the Parliament in Westminster works brilliantly well. It is the envy of the world. By and large it produces good law, and holds the Government to account. It works- and a radical rebuild risks wrecking it. They should make do and mend, as most people living in old houses do; patch it up over the long Summer Recess; make it wind and weather proof. But for heaven’s sake please don’t ‘modernise’ it. I actually rather liked the little robin redbreast flittering around during PMQs this week. It did not harm; but the atmosphere-balanced, high security bubble which will doubtless replace it may well make such harmless episodes impossible.
I feel rather the same way about HS2, which I would have voted against this week had there been a meaningful vote on it. These vast infrastructure projects develop a momentum of their own, spurred on no doubt by an army of consultants, engineers, architects and builders who will make their personal fortunes out of it. But do we really need HS2? By the time it is operational, will we really want to speed down from the North of England to the South by train? More and more work can be done remotely and on-line with video conferencing and the rest. We are bringing in robots and artificial intelligence. Will they really feel the need to catch the 7.35 train from Crewe to London? I doubt it. ‘Build a railway fit for the 21st Century.” Oh well, that’s all right then.
I have been hobbling round Parliament this week after a minor operation to my knee assisted by my old Scottish Cromach - or crook. It was made for my late Father in 1960 or so by Archie Ronald an old shepherd from Argyllshire. He spent the winter doing it, and it is as fine a piece of art as you could find anywhere. Show Cromach makers habitually fill in the little natural dimples in the sheep’s horn using wax, to make it look perfect. Archie Ronald refused to do that as he felt it would become a dishonest gift for a Scottish Minister. So it is ‘sincere’ – which comes from the Latin ‘without wax.” Honest and old and true.
The Parliament in Westminster, our transport infrastructure, so much else about our way of life, would be so much better if we were guided by the Cromach - Honest and Old and True.
I have never heard of the President’s Club, and am glad to say I have never been to any of their events, which sound distasteful in the extreme. I thought that blatant sexism of that kind had been consigned to the dustbin along with the Benny Hill Show many years ago; and of course I join others in decrying the disgraceful scenes which seem to have occurred at their fundraising dinner in London’s Dorchester Hotel.
But then again, strip clubs exist up and down the land; porn magazines are available on every top shelf; it is alleged that 27 million Brits access pornography on line and even tabloid readers pay for a share of it. There are all male clubs all over the place – the Rotary Club, Lions and Masons to name but a few. There are Working Men’s Clubs, gentlemen’s clubs in St James’s St and a few for ladies as well. Hen nights, for example, can hire ‘Bottomless Butlers’- which I will leave to your own imagination. It is also notable that not a single employee at the President’s Club Dinner has complained, and no-one would have known anything about it were it not for a couple of undercover newspaper reporters. So is it really right that the great Ormond Street Hospital has felt it necessary presumably to risk endangering children’s lives or wellbeing by handing back £500,000 in a fit of moral outrage over these shenanigans? Might the Devil’s Money not be put to good use?
Something of the same could be said about that other President, Mr Trump. I decry much of what he has said, much of what he stands for. He is vulgar, rude, juvenile; and I am certain that I would wholly dislike him if I met him. But Donald Trump IS the President of the United States, duly elected by his people. We have billions of pounds worth of trade with the USA, and close cultural and family ties (closer, in my view than those to many European countries.) They are our oldest and strongest ally, and their defence spending and intelligence services are essential to our National safety and security. What’s more we have always kept up reasonable relations with pretty disgraceful people over the years. President Ceaucescu of Romania’s State Visit springs to mind, and of course Communist President Xi of China was here in October 2015. Is it really right to cut off our noses to spite our faces because we find some aspects of President Trump’s life and policies distasteful?
In other words, rather than overwhelmingly self-righteous moral outrage (which is often designed to demonstrate what goody goodies we are as much as what baddy baddies they are) about some of these Presidential matters; is there not room for us to rise above it a bit? Can we not decry nonsense of that sort, take no part in it; look down our patrician noses at tomfoolery and stupidity and vulgarity. It’s a question of good taste and good manners. We don’t spit on the street, nor swear on public transport. We dislike people who do. But there is no law against it.
And sometimes, we would be wise to try to remember what is in our own best interests. So I think Great Ormond Street should hang onto the cash, no matter what its provenance. And I do think that Donald Trump should come to the UK in The Summer.
I just hope that I don’t have to meet him.
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 is right to be concerned about the collapse of Carillion, as it would be of any major employer and contractor to the Government. Of course we must do all we can to save jobs, and ensure delivery of the services for which they were responsible. Locally, everything from the management of Erlestoke Prison through to schools maintenance was in their hands, and the Government will do all it can to make sure that those services continue, and that local people employed by Carillion have as smooth a transition as possible to whoever it is who will be providing those services in the future. These things are always disturbing.
Yet there is also a lot of tosh being talked about it. HM Government had no responsibility for the management of Carillion, which it now transpires was sorely wanting. Their only role was as a major client, and perhaps they should have spotted some of those management failings to safeguard their own interests. But those who are alleging corruption, cover-ups, massive incompetence and the rest are trying to make political capital out of the worries and uncertainty of the people who are employed there. And those who are suggesting that the construction and management services provided by Carillion should instead be managed ‘in-house’- in other words run by civil servants and ministers – are in my view just plain wrong. There is little evidence that monolithic civil service led management would in any sense be better. Indeed it might well be worse since it would be the public purse bearing the risk under those circumstances.
Something of the same applies to the Private Finance Initiative deals, which were found to be uncompetitive in a National Audit Office Report last week. There were some terrible deals struck, especially under the Labour Government who saw PFI as an easy way to curry votes by providing buildings and services which would not otherwise be deliverable by the public sector. We here benefitted in Malmesbury, Abbeyfield and Royal Wootton Bassett academies, and in the brand new Great Western Hospital. It is hard to believe that any of them would have been built if they had been dependent upon public funds. The PFI structure enabled private finance and borrowing to be used to provide schools and hospitals, thereby relieving the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement. They were ‘off-balance sheet’ deals, which actually do have some merit if controlled properly.
The problem with PFI is that Ministers and the civil servants who advise them were so uncommercial and inexperienced that they agreed some terrible deals. The contractors were laughing all the way to the bank. But that should not undermine the perfectly sound principle which lay behind the deals - of seeking to get private funding into public services.
The Socialists always prefer nationalisation, state provision, in-house workforces and the like, which no doubt suits their own agendas. I remain firmly of the view that the profit-motive and private-sector business disciplines actually do a better job in providing high quality public services at an affordable price. So we must not let Carillion, nor the NAO Report lead to us blundering back to State Provision of almost everything. A glance at Socialist regimes around the world will demonstrate what a mistake that would be.
“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.
© 2017 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA