The pared-down version of the State Opening of Parliament was a shame in a way. No-one loves the Guards bands, the Household Cavalry, Her Majesty in her magnificent state coach, more than me. We had to make do with a few people in funny uniforms, and a handful of members of the Lords and Commons.
Yet in a way the much-reduced pomp and circumstance may counter-intuitively actually reinforce the constitutional importance of the event. The ceremony of Prorogation marked the end of the first session of Parliament after the General Election, and this was the starting gun for the second. The Head of State comes to Parliament to let us know what Her Government will be doing in the year which lies ahead. She announces proposed legislation to members of both Houses, but financial matters only to we Commoners. (We don’t let their Lordships get anywhere near the dosh side of things.) The Gracious Speech, of course, is written not by her, but by civil servants (which the pedestrian language may hint at); and I always admire the way the Queen manages to read it out without even the slightest smirk at some of the announcements she has to make. We then take away the list of Bills, spend 5 days debating it and then vote on it next Tuesday. Our approval of the speech gives the Government the green light to bring forward the Bills, which after due process go back to HM for her final approval.
There is some very good stuff in this year’s speech. Some of it (Environment Bill, Police and Law and Order Bill) is carried over from the previous session. Much of it is new and welcome. We simply have to do something about these dreadful prosecutions of our soldiers who carried out their orders in Northern Ireland 50 years ago. I will be watching that very carefully. Some parts of the three animal welfare bills are to be applauded, although they will need careful scrutiny to avoid unintended consequences. After all we in the UK already have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world.
I am instinctively unhappy, however, with two proposed bills. The Planning Bill risks taking the right to decide on development away from local people in favour of pre-set goals and targets. If not handled well, that not only has a negative effect on local democracy (Neighbourhood Planning, for example, becomes redundant); it also risks allowing large amounts of development across our green and pleasant England in a way which I for one wholly decry. So I will be seeking to scrutinise/amend the planning bill, as will a good bunch of my Conservative MP colleagues. That alone may make the Government have to think again on some of its elements.
I am also uneasy about compulsory ID cards for voting. I am not aware of much voter fraud; and it would have to be in very large numbers to influence the outcome of any particular election. The good old way that we have always done it seems to me to work very well. Everyone has a right to vote whether or not they happen to have some kind of ID with them at the time; and I would not want to lose that age-old right. This sounds a bit like an unworkable and bossy solution to a problem which does not in reality exist
So as always there will be elements of the 30 or so major Bills we are bringing in over this Session with which I will not agree. And the great strength of being a backbencher is that I can do so - and if necessary, vote against the Government on some of them, without let or hindrance. I have always prided myself on my independence of mind, and commitment to doing what is right for the people of North Wiltshire whether or not that happens to coincide what the Government may be planning. That mildly buccaneering freedom of thought and of action will - as ever - be my lodestar.
I once went round the terrifying assault course at the Guards Depot at Pirbright. (Thankfully no record exists as to how I fared at it!) One particularly nasty obstacle was a line of semi-submerged stepping stones across a filthy dirty and freezing cold swimming pool, carefully spaced so that unless you hit the first stone at full tilt, and sprinted over, you’d land up in the drink.
Political life is a bit like that – hit the first stepping-stone at full speed and keep up the momentum all the way across. Boris won the Brexit referendum; toppled Theresa May; won the subsequent leadership battle; won the General Election with the first decent majority in 25 years; is close to defeating Covid without apparently wrecking the economy; has weathered a few storms in his personal life; and now seems to have done better in these mid-term elections than any Prime Minister in living memory. Phew!
The by-election victory in Hartlepool is of course spectacular. More than 50% of the vote; a 16% swing in our favour; the Tories securing almost double the Labour vote. No matter which way you look at it it’s a shattering blow for the Labour Party and Keir Starmer, the reverberations of which will be with us for a very long time. Hartlepool has been reflected in similar results in the local government elections across the Labour heartlands and elsewhere.
We will hear more over the weekend but if these early signs are anything to go by, it’s been a spectacularly good election for the Tories, a disaster for Labour, with the minority parties- greens, LibDems and so on barely featuring. I remain concerned about Scotland where an SNP majority (which is possible) might well lead to another Referendum, although I am beginning to think that only then will my fellow Scots come to realise what a catastrophic economic collapse there would be in an independent Scotland. Perhaps only when they are teetering on the edge of the cliff will they pull back from it.
I am confident that here in Wiltshire we will see very little change. We should now thank those who have served and are standing down, congratulate those newly elected and thank everyone who stood unsuccessfully (for the part they played in maintaining a decent democracy).
When the dust settles; Brexit behind us, lockdown is a dim memory, the economy bouncing back; that’s when Tory hegemony in local and national government must allow a decent period of peace and quiet. We need to settle down, get on with the less spectacular but vastly more important business of running Britain and doing what we can to help with peoples’ everyday lives. People of all sorts, of all political persuasions and none; and for the first time in 50 or 100 years, people from every corner of the country.
These elections and the history of the last 5 years or so has given we Tories a great opportunity. Parliament and Government must return to normal after 21 June, and then get on with the day-job. We’re teetering on the last of the submerged stepping-stones; and one last leap will get us back to dry land.
It is hard to believe that the BBC has apparently received more complaints about their in-depth coverage of the Duke Of Edinburgh’s magnificent 80 year service to our Nation than about any other topic in television history. 120,000 people all told were so dismayed that they had missed the latest episode of their favourite soap opera that they took the trouble to make an official complaint.
That does of course mean that 66 million people or so did NOT complain, and indeed stand resolutely in awe of this great man. I was glad to have the chance to pay my own respects in Parliament on Monday, particularly highlighting three elements of his long and very varied life. First was his Royal Naval and Maritime service. HRH even helped to design the Royal Yacht Britannia; so I suggested that a fitting legacy would be a new multi-purpose Royal Yacht named perhaps “Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.” Second, I touched on the Duke’s visits to South Georgia and Antarctica, and his commitment to wildlife and the environment; and third I spoke of his most enduring legacy - the 6.7 million youngsters from 130 countries whose lives have been transformed by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme.
The ‘D of E’ was the boyhood inspiration of Wiltshire explorer Sir David Hempleman -Adams who was eventually summonsed up to Windsor to be appointed a Trustee of the scheme. “It’s a great Honour and a Privilege” he said to the Duke. “No its not- It’s a duty. Make sure you know the difference” was the characteristic response. His 100-year life of dutiful service should be an inspiration to us all. HRH’s sheer dogged devotion to duty- the 22,000 solo engagements which he carried out over the years plus vastly more than that in support of Her Majesty; the tens of millions of people whose lives he touched (a survey indicates that 25% of the population of Britain, or about 15/20 million people had either met the Duke, or been present at an event with him.)
By contrast, I was never much of a David Cameron fan, and he seems to have made a total fool of himself (or worse) over his links to disgraced financier Lex Greensill. Is it not such a shame that a political career which began with such gusto and promise should have foundered on the Coalition with the Lib Dems, a failed negotiation with the EU, a botched Brexit Referendum Campaign and now this brewing scandal over money. How are the mighty fallen. The glittering prizes melt if they get too close to the Sun.
HRH the Duke of Edinburgh had every glittering prize- more medals and honours and dignities than you can imagine. He had every piece of wealth and privilege anyone could possibly want, great houses, a yacht, a Royal train, Queen’s flight- you name it. But it was all as nothing to the great man by comparison with that one word- Duty. He did what was right by the Nation, by his family, and above all by Her Majesty the Queen.
So it is good that we pause for a week in our busy lives to pay tribute to a man who can be such an inspiration to us all in so many aspects of our everyday lives. I am looking forward to attending Friday’s service in Salisbury Cathedral to honour the great man; and indeed to watching the funeral on TV on Saturday. Those who care about the BBC’s coverage could instead spend some time learning from his dedication and commitment to duty.
It is surely no coincidence that the Labour Party (and their new-found friend - if previously sworn enemy- Dominic Cummings) are doing their best to throw mud at the Government and the PM in the few weeks before the ‘super-Thursday’ elections on May 6th. There’s a lot at stake. Around 5000 councillors will be defending their seats, or challenging the incumbents; the control of 145 local councils in England is up for grabs (and the political control of your local council is probably as important in your everyday lives as the Westminster Government- roads, schools, planning, social services and the council tax needed to pay for them. Conservative Wiltshire Council does a first-class job of it.) There are elections for 39 Police and Crime Commissioners (Jonathon Seed is your man); there are Mayoral elections in all kinds of places; there’s a by-election in Hartlepool, elections for the London Mayor and 25 London Assembly seats; and dozens more in Wales and Scotland.
So it’s hardly surprising that political passions are running high. And it is a healthy part of democracy that candidates fight their corners to allow the electorate to make up their minds about who will be best qualified to run their (local) lives. But Labour and the (more or less invisible) Lib Dems nationally and locally must not allow those perfectly reasonable political debates to become nasty and personalised over issues which have no bearing of any kind on the bodies being elected.
Sir James Dyson, for example, has pointed out the absurdity of the claims that his text exchanges with the PM about Covid ventilators last March was somehow or another improper. Thank goodness the PM was pulling out the stops to procure ventilators; swapping texts with senior industrialists in that effort may be unconventional- but it was all about getting things done. In the end, Dyson did not make any ventilators (at a cost to them of £20miliion); and anyhow the suggestion that this was all because he is a large Tory donor is simply nonsense. I remember, for example, Gordon Brown as Chancellor coming down to Malmesbury to open the new Dyson factory.
Similarly, I have no idea how the refurb of No 10 was paid for but am certain that all of the rules were carefully followed. Nor do I really care. The taxpayer paid not a penny for it (although arguably, perhaps they should be paying to maintain the official residence of the head of Government); so the only matter at dispute seems to be whether or not the PM properly declared any possible loan from the Conservative Party towards these costs. The wallpaper in No 10 may amuse the London media but it is of minimal concern in the real world of these elections.
Then there are ridiculous claims about some reported remark indicating that the PM was ready to sacrifice lives in favour of keeping the economy open. What drivel. And what desperately low steps some people will take to try to discredit their political opponents.
So let’s get away from all these guttersnipe personal attacks and focus on the big issues- the Pandemic here and around the world; Russia amassing its troops on the Ukrainian border; and your local services and how to pay for them. These are the matters on which you can opine in the ballot box next Thursday, when I hope (and am confident) that Wiltshire as a whole will once again return a Conservative administration and a Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner.
My wife will tell you that it is rarely indeed that I admit to anything other than absolute certainty on any issue of current affairs. (Is that a failing, or in a Leader an asset? Discuss.) But the legitimate limitation of civil liberties in a Pandemic is causing me a degree of angst. I pride myself on being a libertarian - the state should be as small as possible, our freedoms as unfettered as possible, our rights as unassailable as possible. But what is “as possible”? I hate official bossiness; rules are there to be tested to the limit, if not actually broken.
Yet unless - in Malmesbury philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s words – life is to be ‘nasty brutish and short’, then we all accept the necessary constraints of society. Law is obvious. “Thou shalt not kill.” What about conventions? There used to be a sign on Glasgow buses “No Spitting.” When did you last see anyone on public transport spitting? (Maybe that’s why every overcrowded Glasgow bus had the ‘p’ scratched off). There used to be a sign in every train loo: “Gentlemen lift the Seat”. Was that an instruction or a definition? “Do as you would be done by” is (unenforceable) prerequisite of a decent and civilised society.
So what about Covid passports, then? They will be as essential for overseas travel as they have always been. Indonesia will continue to require proof of vaccination against polio; the Philippines, for meningitis; Brazil, for yellow fever. That is their right, and if you don’t get the necessary vaccine and carry a certificate in your passport then you won’t be let in. At the other end of the spectrum is the US, vehemently against any sort of vaccination credential system.
Domestically it may be different. If I go to a football match or a cinema or even a church service; if I travel on the underground or pack into a supermarket without social distancing; then I want to be relatively certain that I will not get Covid as a result. That of course means a degree of discrimination in favour of those who have had the vaccination or can otherwise prove that they are no kind of risk. OAPs would be welcome at rock concerts, but teenagers would not. A bit rum and certainly ‘ageist.’
What about workplaces? What about those who cannot be vaccinated - pregnant women, for example. And if, for very good reason the State does not provide some kind of guidelines, or a piece of paper, what is there to stop an employer, or a publican, or a theatre manager keen to secure sufficient bottoms on seats to make the production commercially viable inventing their own? Are we really going to force theatres into bankruptcy to accommodate those who can’t or won’t, or haven’t had their vaccination? Do our freedom loving instincts really trump the pub owner’s viability?
On the other hand, any state-run scheme would be plagued by privacy, security and political problems – not to mention legal ones, with ECHR Article Eight privacy rights, GDPR and the Data Protection Act all in play. Vaccine passports might even be ‘racist’ if more black people than white were excluded from events. Not only that, but how useful would vaccine passports be anyhow if a vaccinated person can still carry the disease? Maybe mass lateral flow testing may be the solution, even if that too has myriad problems associated with it.
We don’t want our return to normality to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’; but how many of our rights and freedoms are we ready to sacrifice in order to prevent it? I will have to make up my mind before any such passport scheme meets a vote in the House of Commons. (The SNP threatening to vote on this purely English matter may well push me toward a libertarian rebellion on it. Whips to note.)
At all events, I hope you my constituents can see why I am so torn on the issue.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.