You have to admire the PM’s sheer stamina. She answered questions in Parliament on Monday for 3.5 hours on the Syrian airstrikes. Dozens and dozens of questions from many people of a sharply different opinion to her on the matter, and many who would love to see her make a mistake over it. The following day she was back in the Commons to lead the debate over ‘Who takes Britain to War?’ This was the topic of a book I wrote last year. I am glad that nearly everyone now seems to agree with me and my co-author, Mark Lomas QC, that at least under circumstances such as those we saw in Syria, it should be the PM who decides without asking for any kind of vote in Parliament.
Then on Wednesday she was back in the Commons for PMQs, and wiped the floor with Mr Corbyn and his foolish attack over the Windrush affair. Unbeknown to him, apparently, Labour were themselves at least partly responsible for it. Talk about leading with your chin… The whole thing was an appalling administrative error, which must now be put right. The 250 or so people involved are as British as anyone else, and they must be reassured of it. We invited people from the British Commonwealth to come here to put right some of the decay and dereliction left by the war. It was the Windrush generation who answered our call, and their right to British citizenship must now be without doubt.
On top of all of that Mrs May was hosting CHOGM, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London. She spoke at numerous events, attended State Banquets and was generally fully active in welcoming the heads of Commonwealth countries from across the Globe. I was delighted that the Commonwealth agreed that the Prince of Wales should be its head when The Queen -very sadly - decides to hand it on. It was St Thomas Aquinas who first defined the ’Common Weal’ – that those in authority must rule not for themselves but for the common good of all. The Commonwealth firmly espouses those- rather British- virtues, and it is right that we should seek to spread them as far round the old British Empire as we possibly can.
I had children from Royal Wootton Bassett’s Noremarsh Primary School up in Parliament during the week, and dropped in to speak to Years 5 and 6 in Box Church of England Primary who had visited Parliament a week or two earlier. In total I guess I spoke to perhaps 150 children, and what a bright bunch they were. Their level of questioning in particular was sharp and to the point. Their knowledge of politics and Parliament was astonishing and encouraging, and their willingness to engage quite outstanding for a group of ten and eleven year olds. They will go on to make an outstanding contribution to society – to the Commonwealth perhaps.
We in Britain have a huge amount to offer the world- in political and Parliamentary terms; from our outstanding education systems and high quality teachers and pupils; from our first class health service, brilliant transport and infrastructure systems; and in so many other ways. We like to knock ourselves- that is part of the British culture. But the reality is that I am delighted that the highly intelligent and capable children I met from those two local schools, and thousands like them across Britain will be our leaders post-Brexit. Our futures are in good hands indeed.
“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Burke was writing 250 years ago, but his wisdom applies just as much to Syria. Chemical weapons are the most despicable of all, and have for decades been outlawed throughout the world. Yet they have been used often by the Dictator Assad in Syria, at least partly no doubt encouraged by our failure to act in 2013. Closer to home a similar agent was used in a failed murder attempt on the streets of Salisbury. Next time it could be a mass gas attack in the London Underground. Use (or possession) of these weapons cannot be allowed, and Theresa May was wholly justified in her surgical strike against chemical weapon factories and stockpiles in Syria last weekend.
The PM stood up well to the fuss which the pacifist Leader of the Labour Party tried to make in the Commons on Monday, straightforwardly laying out the reasons and the outline legal justification for the strikes. It was quite right that she refused to expose the secret intelligence, or indeed the detailed legal advice over targeting, which she had shared with the Cabinet before the strikes. Those are matters for her, and for the generals and intelligence chiefs who advise her. It is on the basis of that advice that she herself took personal responsibility for ordering the military action, rather than seeking ‘political top-cover’ by asking for a vote in the House of Commons.
It is the PM’s heavy duty to decide on these matters; and it is the responsibility of the House of Commons to hold her to account for it, as we did in the very full Parliamentary debate on Monday. The separation of responsibilities- between Executive and Legislature - is vitally important to the proper conduct of warfare. Our ability to scrutinise what the PM has decided was badly undermined by Tony Blair’s insistence on a vote to cover up his illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. By getting his backbenchers to be whipped into supporting him, Blair was abdicating his responsibility for that terrible decision. 2003 also amply demonstrates that a vote in the House by no means necessarily results in the right decision being taken.
So I strongly support the PM’s action in striking against the chemical weapons capability of Assad. She was not taking sides in the civil war; nor was she seeking to topple the dictator (even although some people would like her to have done so.) She straightforwardly struck against the sites where these appalling weapons are made and stored. She was wholly justified under International law in doing so.
And she reasserted the constitutional right, and the strategic and tactical necessity , of the Government taking responsibility for warfare; the Commons thereby strengthening their duty and their ability to scrutinise what the Government have done and truly to hold them to account for it.
Easter’s glorious message of the Resurrection of Christ and the Rebirth of the World, coincided this year with the Jewish celebration of their liberation from Egypt celebrated in the Passover which looks forward to plenty in the Promised Land ‘flowing with milk and honey.’ Yet behind both celebrations lie terrible suffering, catharsis – the Crucifixion, and the bondage of the Jewish people. Even the recent Spring Equinox is a combination of hope for better things to come, and a memory of a hard winter passed.
On 1st April, by chance, we also celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the foundation (in Upavon, Wiltshire) of the RAF. The magnificent service in the RAF Church, St Clement Dane, and in commemorations up and down the land, remembered the sacrifices in so many wars in which the RAF have played a decisive part, not least here in Wiltshire. We remembered our dead and their ultimate sacrifice; yet we also welcomed the way in which the RAF helps defend our nation today.
The world is a more dangerous place than for many years, and we need the sheer power of the RAF to deter aggressors of all sorts. The RAF are active in the Baltic States and Poland at this moment, for example, patrolling the Russian border. And they regularly accompany Russian bombers in UK airspace. Theirs is a magnificent history, and they have a great future to look forward to as well.
The RAF motto, Per Ardua ad Astra - Through adversity to the stars - would have served the early Christians- St Peter crucified upside down for his devotion- and the Jewish people following Moses across the Red Sea, as well as it does the modern RAF. And without diminishing any of those great events, there is much in that motto for all of us. Nothing is easy. Nothing in politics and public life is easy. But its only through effort, through adversity that we can achieve the stars.
So as the weather gets better, as we rejoice in the new-born lambs frolicking in the fields, the sweet little chickens, the trees and hedgerows busting into life with wild flowers; as we look forward to the warmth and softly fecund generosity of the Summer to come; as we do so, it is worth remembering the Wiltshire mud and rain and cold; the hard work of the farmers; the battles we fought to achieve these sunlit uplands.
The Easter Parliamentary Recess may be a time to ponder what we have come through - and none of it is easy - and to look forward to the prizes which will be ours if we perservere. There is so much to do in every aspect of public life, so many wrongs that need righting, so many battles to be fought. We can only achieve a better Britain for all through struggle and adversity.
So be of good cheer. Remember the message of Easter and of Passover, of the Spring Equinox, and of RAF 100. It’s been tough. But there are good times just around the corner.
There can be no worse offence against humanity than racism. We remember this week the 50th anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King in Memphis, and we salute what he did for the emancipation of Black Americans. His famous speech, of course, was 5 years previously in August 1963. “I have a dream. That one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…That all men are created equal.…. And all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty we are free at last.” It’s a magnificent speech and well worth reading in full.
Yet 12 months later – in July 1964 - I well remember visiting New York with my parents, witnessing the race riots and gunfire, and seeing notices on the buses “Whites only.” Hard to believe in retrospect.
It had been only a year previously that Nelson Mandela had started his 27 years in prison on account of his campaigning and speaking against Apartheid, which was viewed as being subversive. That allegation may have been more justified against his wife, Winnie, who died this week. Yet even her sometimes violent and revolutionary approach, which was in such contrast to her husband’s pacifism, played an important part in ending that brutal regime. Your ‘revolutionary’ is my ‘freedom fighter.’
All of that might seem like ancient history. But this week we are aghast at the blatant anti-Semitism which has been exposed (despite Mr Corbyn’s protestations to the contrary) at the left of the Labour Party. They mix up their love of the Palestinians, their hatred of the State of Israel, their distrust of capitalism in general with a resulting hatred of demonstrably successful capitalists, the Jewish people, as a whole. Nothing could be more foolish, yet it is alive and well in some parts of the Labour Party today, with for example, Bristol MP Thangam Debbonaire being shouted down at a Labour Party meeting this week because of her outspoken criticism of anti-Semitism in her own party.
Why cannot all human beings, of all classes and religions, of all sexes, and all types, just be treated as human beings, as Martin Luther King so memorably called for 55 years ago? Or can we not remember what Robert Burns demanded some 225 years ago? You remember his poem “A Man’s A Man for A’That.” “Then let us pray that come it may, (as come it will for a‘that), That …. Man to Man, the world o’er, Shall brother be for a’that.”
Pete Seager marched with Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, and coined “We shall overcome” for it. It went on, of course, to become the general anthem for the Civil Rights movement. How prophetic were his words: “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”
So who are you? A Brit? A European? Citizen of the World? Or perhaps a Wiltshireman, Malmesburian, or a resident of the Withybed Tynings? Are you a person of somewhere? Of Everywhere? Or perhaps of Nowhere? So much that is happening right now is a search for identity, for Nationhood. Or perhaps it’s a battle between those who seek identity, and those who despise it as ‘parochial’ ‘Little Englander’, ‘Nationalistic.’
The Brexit negotiations are making steady, if unflashy progress. The fishermen were unhappy this week because of an apparent delay in our departure from the Common Fisheries Policy. But surely they should at least be glad that it will happen - albeit an unregulated two years later than hoped. More work is needed on the Irish Border, and our borders in general (perhaps in this modern world we don’t actually need them?) It’s a bit glacial (some of the glaciers I saw in South Georgia are moving quite a lot faster than Mrs May), but it’s all going in the right Brexit direction. At the heart of the Brexit debate lies our wrestling with identity- are we British or European? Is it possible to be both?
Our outrage at the despicable poisoning of two British citizens, albeit of Russian background, in Salisbury, and of the accidental poisoning of DS Nicholas Bailey (and we rejoice at his release from hospital) is only partly about law and order. Plenty of people are sadly murdered or attacked, and we hear little about it. Our outrage over this incident comes from the fact that it was done by nerve gas; and that it was done by Russian agents operating on our territory. ‘In Cathedral Salisbury of all places? Who do these Russkies think they are?’ So we welcome the expulsion of 23 of their spies, and no doubt more from other European countries, not necessarily because they are bad people (although they may be), but because they are foreign agents. It inspires a sort of John Buchan outrage in the English breast.
The same applies to the idiotic decision to allow our lovely new blue British passports to be published in France, despite the fact, inter alia, that the French will not allow their own passports to be printed overseas ‘for national security reasons’.’ Reverting to the good old blue British passport was an important symbol of British independence of mind, which is somewhat weakened by depriving local company De La Rue of the contract in favour of a Franco-Dutch printer. What can Ministers have thought they were doing? I have written to Home Secretary, Amber Rudd to ask that she reverses this demonstrably silly decision.
The important thing about the Falklands War all those years ago, was not just that the Argentinians had invaded a pretty depopulated couple of islands in the South Atlantic. It was that they are British, and that the people living there wanted to be British. Sir Rex Hunt fighting to defend the Governor’s house, where bullet holes still adorn the walls, before marching out the front door head held high having donned his full Diplomatic uniform was a great moment. Pride and honour even in defeat. And the Para having yomped 95 miles from San Carlos to Port Stanley with the Union Flag flying from his radio aerial is one of the great images of all time. The Chief of the General Staff, whose wife is from Wiltshire, made a fine speech along similar lines in Parliament last week, and I’m delighted he has now been appointed the new Chief of the Defence Staff. The Falklands may be 8,000 miles away; but they are very much British, the people are very much Britons, and it is their right to determine that that is the case.
We should not be ashamed of these things, nor of our pride in Wiltshire, or Royal Wootton Bassett, or our street, or our home. These are the things which define us as proud human beings. They may call me a ‘Little Englander’ or a ‘Provincial Wiltshireman’. I will wear both insults with pride.
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA