It may sound odd, but one of the things I enjoy most about my wonderful and very varied and action-packed job are my surgeries. They are an intellectual challenge – a waiting room full of folk with ideas, complaints, whinges, personal problems of every kind. I have no idea what they are going to ask me, nor whether I can help as they come in the door. On reception is Miss Elizabeth Sexton, who has kept good order for 21 years for me and a further 10 or so for my predecessor. That is a real duty and service to the community. In most cases I manage to do or say something or another. I hope that having arrived rather nervous and worried, most people go away with a feeling that something will now be done. I dictate a letter or a Memo, or action note there and then with the client in the room, both so that they can correct any inaccuracies or misunderstandings, and so that they will know that something will actually happen when the tape gets back to my Private Secretary, Amy Swash, on Monday morning. I do 4 surgeries a month- two each on alternate Saturday mornings, in Calne and Royal Wootton Bassett one day, and then Cricklade and Malmesbury two weeks later. I do an occasional one in Box, and from time to time elsewhere as well.
They are of course absolutely private and confidential, so the following list of my surgery cases last Saturday have been anonymized. I thought that you might nonetheless find it an interesting insight into an MP’s daily work. I had twelve cases, about 20 people or so, who took from 10AM until 3PM to tell me their woes. Here’s a flavour: No 1 had lost £250,000 in a Ponzi scheme. Not sure I can help much. No 2 lost out on a pension because of an obscure piece of small print. Write to Chairman of Trustees in hope that he will make an exception. No 3 has been refused benefits for her disabled son. Refer her to the Citizens Advice Bureau, who are the real experts. No 4 is suffering from terrible overcrowding in a parent’s home in the aftermath of a divorce. Tragic case. Try to guide them towards the private rented sector. No 5 has an immigration problem. Amy will ring the MP’s ‘hotline’ to IND, which should at least let us know how far the case has got in the system. No 6 lost a planning application and appeal. Have to tell her there’s not much more she can do, at least until the next Structure Plan after 2026. No 7 is concerned about parking charges and disgusting litter around a recycling centre. Write to Wiltshire Council for her. No 8 needs an introduction to the Army Technical Training College at Lyneham, which I am happy to supply. No 9 has let an old planning permission expire. I advise her to apply retrospectively. No 10- has a problem with a boiler supplied under a government scheme. Write to the Chairman of the Company to suggest he might find it politic to get it sorted before I raise it with Ministers. No 11 is being harassed by an ex-husband. I listen carefully to her problems. No 12 is a group of people who have lost their free parking. Write to Baroness Scott on their behalf.
None of those cases are of earth-shattering importance, but they are of huge importance to the people themselves. Having a shoulder to cry on, and perhaps a little bit of dispassionate advice helps, and I would hope to be able to make a difference in perhaps 50 or 60% of the cases. I see about 250/300 cases a year, or 6000 since I became the MP, amounting to 12 or 15,000 people. Each case may seem insignificant, but I just hope that overall my efforts- and those of my hardworking team - may have made a little difference for the people of North Wiltshire.
Political crises are to Italy as wet weather is to English Bank Holidays - hardly unexpected. Yet the current crisis threatens to have consequences for the whole Continent of Europe which will make Brexit look like child’s play.
Political crises always have a complexity of origins and reasons, never more so than in the Machiavellian cess-pit which is Italian politics. Yet in the midst of it all, there is a clearly discernible Eurosceptic, populist theme. People do not like being bossed around by people who they have not elected, and therefore cannot remove from power. That is worsened by the Euro - Germany, and especially her banks, now dominate Italian life and demand stringency measures, which the people simply do not recognise as being necessary. The election of a populist, Euro-sceptic party, which the Europhile President then chose to remove from power, may well have long-term consequences for the EU itself.
I spent my May Bank Holiday in Warsaw attending the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Unlike the EU, the principle behind NATO is one of voluntary membership, and of mutual assistance, rather than command from on high. That’s why it works so well, although it may be at some risk from having too many low or non-contributing members. After Brexit, 80% of NATO’s budget will be from non-EU countries, especially America, despite nearly all of the EU member states demanding the military comfort of NATO membership. It may be questionable how long that can last.
Warsaw is a different place to the war-stricken, grey, communist city it was when I last visited in 1979. Having escaped from NAZI domination from 1939-1945, and from Communist dictatorship from the USSR after that until 1989, I suspect that they too are Euro-realists if not sceptics at heart. Their true allegiance is to that last great pan-Global force, the Roman Catholic Church. It too is, of course, voluntary.
The fact is that in human governance ‘big’ is simply not necessarily ‘best’, and in most circumstances big is doomed to failure and collapse. What a contrast was the Malmesbury Mayor-making, which I was able to attend on Tuesday. The oldest English Borough; very probably the oldest democratic organisation in Britain, Malmesbury maintains her independence of mind, and her right of self-determination in a quietly proud sort of way. The Town Council, and its predecessor, the Old Corporation, the Warden and Freemen, or the Commoners of the Kings Heath go back to the times of King Athelstan 1100 years ago. “This twig and turf I give to thee as free as King Athelstan gave to me” as they intone at the introduction of new Commoners.
They have learned how to do things in Malmesbury over those 1100 years and longer. Italy, the EU, perhaps even NATO, could learn a thing or two from them.
Of all of the thousands of issues, problems, ideas, lobbying, briefings, discussions, which fill up an MP’s life, I am increasingly focussing on the environment- in the widest sense of that rather over-used word. Where we live - and what we pass on to future generations - is something which we can truly do something about. In that it stands in contrast to the economy, health, law and order, where what we do tends to be tinkering at the margins rather than making fundamental change. In contrast, almost every aspect of Government policy, and personal habit, can have direct and immediate effects on the environment, local, national and international. What we do really matters, and we are have the power in our hands to make real changes.
At the most local level, there is so much we can all do. We don’t have to live in a tip. I always love visiting (and fighting for) the many mobile home parks we have in this area. Their homes and gardens are always immaculate. The owners have true pride in their environment, which often stands in stark contrast to some much bigger or more affluent homes and gardens, which quite frankly can sometimes be a thorough mess. And the amount of litter on our roadsides and streets is an absolute disgrace. Why people find it necessary to dump their plastic bottles and take-away wrappings and empty their cars of all kinds of rubbish on the green verges is beyond me.
Then we must use the planning system better to ensure that we get the homes and businesses which we need locally. But we must not give in to the developers who would, if they could, cover us in concrete from Swindon to Bristol, from Marlborough to Badminton. North Wiltshire is a green and pleasant place - beautiful countryside with charming villages and small market towns nestled in its folds. That is why we live here. It is our duty to keep it that way.
Nationally we are at last waking up to the terrible damage which our over-use of plastic does both to our own countryside, to beaches and to rivers, and of course we now know (thanks to the great Sir David Attenborough), to whales, albatrosses and seals throughout the world. It was announced this week that the level of plastics in the Arctic and Antarctic, including within the ice itself, has grown exponentially in recent years. We can make a difference to all of that- and the supermarkets and coffee shops must be forced to make sure that we do. I salute the Iceland chain in particular who have announced the end to all plastic packaging, and hope that we will all follow suit. Wet wipes, cotton buds, plastic stirring devices – all are unnecessary and are clogging up our seas.
And Globally, I have seen for myself at both North and South Poles, what an effect CO2 emissions are having on the ice. The Arctic and Greenland ice is disappearing at an alarming rate, and the dark seas and land left behind when it melts absorbs the sun’s rays rather than reflecting them as ice does, accelerating global warming still further. We must redouble our efforts to reduce our ’carbon footprint’- again something which governments can enforce, but which is down to each of us as individuals to do everything we can to make it happen.
So alongside my longstanding interest in defence and foreign affairs, I am becoming more and more involved in environmental matters in the House of Commons. I am glad to serve on the No 10 advisory group on green campaigns, and my role as Chairman of the All Party Group for the Polar Regions gives me ever-expanding opportunities to do what I can.
We inherited this world from our ancestors. It is all of our duty to do what we can to hand it on in better shape that we got it.
What a great day it was when Harry married Meghan. Perfect weather, glorious flowers, huge crowds. The finest venue of all wedding venues, pomp and ceremony yet keeping it personal unstuffy and non-pompous. It really was a cracker. Through it all shone the intensely personal relationship between the two.
In conventional terms nothing could be less predictable. An American divorcee; mixed heritage with a modern blended family which has sadly become estranged. It must be the first time ever that ‘Ms’ was used as a title on a Royal document; and she is after all about a year older than Princess Diana was when she died.
In retrospect taking a blushing 20 year old daughter of an earl and marrying her off to the much older heir to the throne was doomed to fail. But this time it’s different. Despite the unexpected choice, Harry has gone ahead with it. Meghan has overcome what must be her natural nervousness about it all. The two of them are truly matched – in the most modern sort of way; and we all wish them all happiness and a long life together.
I also welcome the transatlantic aspect of the union. I have had the strongest links with America since I was a child- my Father was partly educated there, at Princeton with Albert Einstein, and he used to take us back most years as children. We have a common language, similar laws and constitution; ever-stronger military and intelligence links; and a general outlook on life which is different, but comes from a common root. No matter what you might think about the current US Administration- and we all know its faults- Post-Brexit, I hope that we will look ever more towards America; and the Harry-Meghan union cannot but be helpful in doing so.
One of the oldest traditions of the British aristocracy is to marry American heiresses. Meghan may not be that, but she has a huge amount to offer the people of Britain because of her background and outlook, her charm and general cheerfulness. Harry and Meghan are the living exemplars of the modern-day version of the Special Relationship, and I congratulate the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh for their ability to embrace and welcome change in their family.
We all wish them every happiness for the (complex and challenging) life which lies ahead of them.
There must have been a time when I thought that I would like to be Prime Minister. I just thank my lucky stars that that particular ambition will remain unfulfilled. (You can relax now, TM, I’m not going to try to get your job.) It must be an almost impossible one. Just think of the last week or two.
The Windrush affair which cost a perfectly competent (and exceptionally nice) Home Secretary her job must have used up an enormous amount of the PM’s time and caused endless stress. Losing her fifth Cabinet Minister, and one so senior, in 12 months has been a nightmare. The Syria strikes caused huge angst, and an enormous amount of Parliamentary time for her, immediately followed by the very demanding Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference. Behind everything lies the continuing negotiations over Brexit, and especially her efforts to find the solution to the Customs Union conundrum. (Incidentally, I will not support any deal which leaves us in any kid of Customs Union preventing us from doing trading deals with the rest of the world.) Holding her Cabinet and her Party together under such circumstances is proving tricky, especially with virtually no Parliamentary majority on which she can rely.
Alongside all of those crises (and I may well have missed some more) is the normal business of Government- the security briefings; the Cabinet Meetings and Committees, the speeches, visits, dinners; that ants nest of activity which is 10 Downing Street (it’s a maze of corridors, staircases, offices and rooms in which I found myself quite lost last week). Then there’s Parliamentary business of all kinds, but of course especially PMQs which would make any normal person go grey, and takes up an enormous amount of Prime Ministerial time in preparation. The good news, I suppose, is that Mr Corbyn is such an appallingly bad opponent that the Magisterial May wipes the floor with him week after week. There are foreign visitors to greet, and constant overseas travel fitted into weekends and Parliamentary Recesses, and a diary jammed from wall to wall. All of that, and she is still being MP for Maidenhead, and a very assiduous one she is as well. So she does my job as well as being Prime Minister!
The prospect of a wipe-out which had been so widely predicted by the left-leaning BBC in last week’s local government elections must have been of deep concern. If- as some predicted- the Tories had lost thousands of seat, dozens of Councils falling to Labour, Mrs May’s position would without doubt have been called into question. She would have survived any such distraction, by blaming ‘mid-term blues’; but just having to justify yourself and fight to save your job when you are simultaneously trying to keep all of the above plates spinning must be an unwanted distraction to say the least. As it was, of course, the hard left incompetence of Labour, and our own strong record in local government meant very little change nationally, with both parties scoring around 40% of the vote. Locally, of course, we held Swindon, which should be a great relief to local people. Not bad for a Party that has gone through as much difficulty as we have over the last twelve months or so.
So I take my hat off to Mrs May. She is steady under fire; tough when needed; a shrewd political judge (leaving aside last year’s unwanted General Election). I would not do her job for all the tea in China; and I salute her for doing it.
© 2017 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA