It was seventy five years ago – in 1943 in Blitz-torn London – that Martha, the Austin turntable ladder came into service. Around the same time, Squadron Leader Johnny Johnson of the famous 617 (Dambusters) Squadron was the bomb aimer on their daring raids over Germany. It was a privilege to meet Johnny Johnson and hear him speak with clarity and without notes for a good 20 minutes at an RAF 100 lunch at Foxham on Saturday. He wrote out a message for the PM for me, which I will be glad to deliver to her.
Martha the fire engine went on to take part in the Victory Parade in 1946, but then fell into a sorry state of disrepair. Then in 1975, the Chief Fire Officer in Wootton Bassett, Chris Wannell, bought her as an old wreck, and set about the painstaking task of rebuilding her. Since then, to mark the great work done by his firefighting mates, Chris has used old Martha in her renewed pristine state to raise funds for the Firefighters Charity. Not only that, but Martha also graces every kind of village fete, wedding, fireman’s funeral, Royal Wootton Bassett events, especially the annual Victorian evening.
Last year Chris Wannell was kind enough to drive me and High Sheriff of Wiltshire, Sir David Hempleman-Adams up Malmesbury High Street, bell tinging to a 3000 people crowd in the Cross Hayes gathered to witness my (ultimately unsuccessful) re-enactment of the historic balloon ascent from the same square by my predecessor Walter Powell in 1873.
Well on Thursday last, Chris’s huge contribution to the Firefighters Charity and to so many other good causes using Martha was marked by a Lifetime Achievements Award in London. After it, we were given a great Garden Party in the garden of No 10 Downing Street, with Home Secretary Sajid Javid singling out Chris and the Wannell family for special praise for their efforts over so many years.
As I said I a little TV clip attached to the event, Chris is rightly honoured not just for his service to firemen; but for everything he has done for the town of Royal Wootton Bassett, including being the inspiration behind the Repatriation ceremonies. There are few events, or institutions, in the town that Chris and Audrey have not had some part in – sharing the Mayor-ship on four separate occasions, and giving some 70 years of collective service to the Town Council, and the Town in general.
People like Chris and Audrey and their children Heather (husband Charley) and Martin, are the very lifeblood of a decent society. They give their all, not for any kind of honour or thanks; not for money or position. The same could be said of Johnny Johnson and his like. They do what they do to pay back a little to their community. They truly put the needs of others before themselves; and they are driven by a love of their country, their town and its people. You don’t get many people like the Wannells and Squadron Leader Johnson, and it is good to be able to celebrate their great public service, and to salute them for it in this thoroughly memorable way.
We voted up to 30 times last week on the Lords Amendments to the Brexit Bill. Some were closer than others. All were stressful. And in a curious way it was physically quite demanding too (not that I am complaining about it.)
The Speaker calls for a vote by shouting “Division.” Bells ring all around the Palace of Westminster, and indeed within pubs and restaurants and private flats within the “Division Bell Area”. MPs then have eight minutes to get into either the ‘Ayes’ or the ‘Noes’ lobby, after which Mr Speaker instructs the doorkeepers to ‘lock the doors’. We then file past clerks on high Victorian desks ensuring that they score our name off as having voted, and then in single file through two half closed doors outside of which stand two tellers. They count the MPs filing past, and report the result in the main chamber. It may sound an antiquated way of voting, but, incapable of corruption, or obscurity, it really works; and it gives also backbench MPs their vital opportunity to ‘lobby’ Ministers and the PM. Each vote takes around 15 minutes, so 30 would take about eight hours, which can be quite demanding.
It was a week of drama, with whips and ministers scuttling around doing deals, persuading, cajoling. A junior Minister and six Labour shadows resigned; the Scot Nats made fools of themselves with a silly stunt of storming out of PMQs which rather backfired on them. And in the end, the Government got its way, the only compromise being over what happens if a deal is not done by the end of the negotiating period. That is now being discussed by the Lords, and will be back in the Commons shortly. (Parliamentary ‘ping-pong’.)
I stopped off on a bench on College Green to ponder these matters on my way home at Midnight that evening. I let my mind wander back over the 1000 years or so of democratic and governmental history in this place. The political battles, the seismic decisions, the geniuses and the failures. I thought of the great trials - of William Wallace, Guy Fawkes and King Charles 1; the huge parliamentary battles – women’s suffrage, reform of the Commons itself, the end of the hereditary peers, the abolition of slavery, the battle over the Corn Laws; Wars, terrorism, protests, strikes; the great speeches and plots and events and troubles. What a swirl of ghosts there was around the ancient pinnacles and towers as I sat there.
It helped to put Brexit and our current tribulations into perspective. Our ancestors have been there or thereabouts for 1000 years. Yet ordinary British life has carried on throughout for better or worse; three meals a day, Births, Marriages and Deaths. Like every generation of politicians we tell ourselves that what we are doing is more important than ever before, will fundamentally affect the lives and liberties of our constituents for generations to come. Yet the fact is that we are minnows in the great sweep of history; our battles are but eddies and whirlpools in that tide. We are at best dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. And perhaps if we come to realise that we will take both ourselves and our great battles just a tad less seriously.
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.
July 5th will see the installation of the splendid new Vicar of Malmesbury Abbey, The Reverend Oliver Ross. It’s a great moment in the life of a town like Malmesbury where the Abbey still plays such a central role in the life of the town – from a churchy and a non-churchy standpoint. I know Mr Ross to be ‘splendid’ since he comes to Malmesbury having been (inter alia) Chaplain to Trinity House, of which I am proud to be a ‘Younger Brother’.
Trinity House is a great institution. It has responsibility for lighthouses and maritime aids; for training of cadets; for pilotage round our shores; and for a variety of charitable purposes - including housing and long-term care for retired seafarers. It has a magnificent HQ on Tower Hill close to the Tower of London; and it is run by 30 or so ‘Elder brothers’ and about 400 of we ‘Younger brethren.’ Founded by King Henry Vlll in 1514, last week saw our 504th annual Trinity-tide events, including an AGM at which we all remain standing (a very good way to keep meetings short), a splendid banquet, and a stroll through the streets of London, led by our Master, HRH The Princess Royal to St Olave’s for our Annual Service.
Mr Ross gave a splendid farewell sermon after 12 years as the Chaplain to the Fraternity, including the fascinating fact that the Bible contains 366 injunctions that we should ‘Be not troubled’ or similar words. That’s one for every day of the (leap) year. The service includes two great prayers of Sir Francis Drake.
“Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves; when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little; when we arrived safely because we sailed too close to the shore……. Disturb us Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas; where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of the land, we shall find the stars….”
It’s all about stretching ourselves, stepping boldly into new worlds, trusting to God and a strong light. It’s a good analogy for the new Vicar of Malmesbury; for most of us in our ordinary lives; perhaps even for us all as we venture into a post-Brexit world. Yet it’s also about seeing things through to the end. The other prayer by Sir Francis Drake reads:-
“O Lord, when thou givest to thy servants to endeavour in any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning but the continuing of the same until it be thoroughly finished that yieldeth the true glory…”
Wise words for us all in our private, and political lives. We wish Reverend Oliver Ross all happiness and success in his new role, in Malmesbury Abbey, and pray that he will have all the lighthouses and pilotage that he may need to ‘venture on these wider seas.’
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.
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA