I had very much enjoyed Lord Carrington’s Memorial Service in Westminster Abbey sitting next to a personable old gentleman, with whom I had a number of brief conversations. It was only when his assistant came over at the end of the service addressing him as “Mr Kissinger” that I became aware of my brush with true greatness! I was sorry to see Henry Kissinger’s death this week at the age of 100.
We need diplomatic greatness of his kind at a time like this- to find a peaceful solution in Gaza, perhaps by extending the very welcome current humanitarian ceasefire, and then working towards a ‘two-state’ solution. Kissinger, of course, was Jewish, having fled the Nazis at the age of 15, but he once memorably said that “were it not for my accident of birth, I might well have been anti-semitic”. (By which he meant I think that was no Zionist). It may be that it is greatness of that kind that we need now to rise above the atrocities of 7 October, and of the Holocaust of WW2 and try to find some kind of accommodation.
I am not sure that Binyamin Netanyahu has that mark of greatness- or is it just that he is stuck between the rock of politically having to demand harsh retribution for those events, and the hard humanitarian place and the overwhelming need to find some kind of long-term solution. Without being any kind of expert on Israeli internal politics, it seems to me at a glance that he is achieving neither thing very satisfactorily, and may well pay a heavy political price for it.
Here at home, the PM has taken the bold and unconventional step of asking David Cameron to be Foreign Secretary with a seat in the Lords. Cameron has the list of contacts, and the ‘grown-up’ approach which comes from many years in the corridors of International Power as PM. He has the gravitas to be a great Foreign Secretary and to help Britain punch above our weight in the Middle East, Ukraine and elsewhere. That confidence perhaps trumps some of my personal reservations about ‘Dave’ and some of the things he did as PM, not least the Brexit Referendum and its handling, and his ‘Remainer’ stance.
As a member of the House of Commons Procedure Committee, I have also expressed my very real reservations about the constitutional and political validity of having a Foreign Secretary who is not answerable to the Commons. It would mean, for example, that important statements on Foreign Affairs would routinely be made in the Lords, the Commons following along in their Lordships’ wake. That seems to me to undermine the proper primacy of the elected House, and I will be arguing for some kind of a change to our Standing Orders to allow (and require) him to appear at the Despatch Box in our House.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of my Chairmanship of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust, and the 20th anniversary of my Chairmanship of the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Armed Services; I am proud to be a graduate of the Royal College of Defence Studies, to be Patron of Operation Christmas Box and to have written several books on defence related matters.
“We honour those who serve” is the motto of Royal Wootton Bassett earned after the long series of Repatriation ceremonies when the town stood still for a few moments with heads bowed to pay tribute to those who had given their lives for their country. True altruistic public service; and it is right to honour it. I was glad to speak at the Cirencester Rotary Club last month and to welcome the Bassett Club to Parliament this week. Their motto “Service before self” says it all.
However, it is all too easy to say it, even unjustifiably to claim it for oneself. Mother Theresa and the Saints are obvious. But what about those of us in public life? Too many people idly subscribe to the the notion that “they’re all in it for themselves.” But that is demonstrably not true of people like the PM and Chancellor both of whom really do not need the salary. They are in it because of a deep-seated urge to serve their country. Like them I love my job; have a lot of fun out of it; am immensely satisfied by (parts of) it- especially my constituency work. But there are huge downsides to it too. Some people who would otherwise be good friends dislike one just because of one’s views. I am glad that 60% of the people of North Wiltshire voted for me last time round; but I am sad that that means that 40% of the people did not! We would all love to be universally popular! It’s a physically and mentally tough job; there are huge downsides for families; and my salary has not yet returned to what I was earning when I left the City of London in 1992! Most people who are truly committed and successful public servants would be equally successful in the private sector if they devoted the same energies and abilities. So it’s right that we should applaud peoples’ commitment to public service.
My friend Stephen Andrews exemplifies this notion of public service. He had a long and distinguished service in the army, culminating in a role as Defence Attaché in the Middle East. After his retirement from the army to Kempsford, he and his wife Rosemary have devoted their whole lives to public service. Stephen is a volunteer Community First Responder and carries the necessary tools and communication equipment with him at all times. He is much involved with the Fairford Surgery, is a Parish Councillor in Kempsford and sings in the church choir. He was a long standing Cotswold District Councillor until May, focussing on housing, footpaths, flood mitigation, planning, quarries, relations with RAF Fairford, and so much more. He lost his seat in the May elections, but the lady who won it from him has now stood down after only 6 months causing a by-election which Stephen is contesting. Well done him. A lesser person might have thrown his toys out of the pram, and I wish him every success in the 14 December by-Election. He and Rosemary are truly salt of the earth totally devoted to public service at a local level and I salute them for it.
At Conservative Party public meetings I sometimes ask them all to stand up, and then progressively to sit down if they are: 1. Councillors; 2. Activists/officers; 3. in the armed services; 4. support eg Rotary Red Cross, St John Ambulance; 5. Volunteer in schools or hospitals; 6. run Guides or Scouts; 7. support their local church in one way or another; and so on. There are precious few people left standing at the end. Tories are truly committed to real action helping and supporting other people; and we are right to be proud of it, to celebrate it and to ‘honour those who serve.’
The Autumn Equinox on 22 September always seems to me to be a period of turbulence- sad deaths, warfare, stock exchange collapses, high winds and storms, uncertainty and turmoil. Then last week we marked Hallowe'en, or the evening before All Saints Day. It has been disgracefully Americanised; but its meaning is ancient, (? partly pagan), and it is all to do with remembering the 'Saints' – our ancestors. In Scotland to this day they call it “Hunty Gowk” or “Hunt the ghosties.” Then we only just have time to put our “trick or treat” gear away in the cupboard for another year when Bonfire night comes rushing up at us.
“Remember, Remember the Fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot….Guy Fawkes was his intent to blow up the King and Parliament.’ Guy Fawkes and his dastardly plot (at least partly hatched in the King’s Arms in Chippenham) are commemorated not only by bonfires and fireworks whose ancient meaning has probably been lost on many; but by the King’s Yeomen of the Guard ceremonially searching the basement of the House of Lords last Tuesday – the day of the State Opening of Parliament and the King’s speech. It’s a powerful symbol of the supremacy of Parliamentary democracy within the monarchy, and every element of the pomp and pageantry (which I was able to watch this year with a wide-eyed seven year old friend), has a meaning.
Parliament is full of symbols and ceremony whose purpose is to remind our legislators and Government of both the sins and the glories of the past. As Churchill famously said in a1948 speech to the House of Commons “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” It’s good to remember- our past, our history, our traditions, our ancestors. Hallowe'en, The State Opening, Guy Fawkes alike swirl around us like this season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
Now we come to the all-important (and ever expanding) Services of Remembrance- calling to mind and honouring soldiers, sailors and airmen who gave their lives for their King and country in so many wars. By remembering their sacrifice we hope never to repeat the cause of it- although current events in Ukraine and Gaza seem to prove that each generation forgets the awfulness of full scale war all too easily.
Then after this misty period of remembrance, we finally come to mid-Winter happiness and celebration as we pass the shortest day and look forward to the return of the Sun. That was really the most significant celebration at prehistoric Stonehenge nearby in Wiltshire- the ancients looking forward to new life and warmth, in the spring.
In no time we’ll be enjoying the tinsel and mistletoe of Christmas, again perhaps forgetting that they mark and celebrate the birth of Christ; and at Easter that the eggs are the symbol of the stone rolling away from the tomb and the promise of new (we hope everlasting) life.
Equinoctial turbulence gives way to ghostly frights; then it’s misty remembrance, the return of the Sun; and then finally the joys of Christmas and the New year, when we bid farewell to all that has gone before and look forward with refreshed optimism. The year turns and we mark each stage of it with ceremony and tradition- a thoroughly healthy human instinct.
I ventured out of Parliament on Thursday evening into the milling crowds of Pro-Palestinian protestors mobbing the Old Palace Yard where only a week ago the Guards stood to attention and saluted as the King’s carriage rumbled by. Passionate and noisy they were but also very polite and courteous making way for a suit-clad and pretty obvious MP. I must have stood out like a sore thumb. One of them kindly gave me their poster. “Socialist Party. Mass United Workers Struggle to End Israeli State Terror. For A Socialist Intifada.” it read, perhaps mistakenly aligning their cause with Socialism. I wonder which part of his poster he thought I might find convincing.
I abstained on the Government’s efforts to vote down the Labour Party amendment to their motion (which seemed to me so anodyne as to make it absurd to vote against it), and then of course I supported the Government Motion to welcome the Kings’ Speech without which the Parliament could not function. Losing a motion on the ‘Loyal Address’ would result in the Government falling. Those who accuse me of being some kind of mass murderer sympathiser as a result of that vote are getting carried away with the velocity of their own hyperbole.
Suella Braverman had some sensible things to say, but she demonstrably said them the wrong way. The pro-Palestinian march on Armistice Day passed off without serious incident, and I very much support the great British tradition of protesting. The act of protesting is a good pressure valve for the passions. Suella also breached the essential principle of Collective Cabinet Responsibility and openly defied her boss, the Prime Minister, so she warmly deserved her sacking. It probably plays very well to her own agenda- right wing martyrdom, and doubtless another leadership challenge at some stage in the future.
Suella (and Priti Patel) were right about Rwanda, and the Supreme Court judgement is a disappointment. I will be supporting the PM’s Plan B. If we don’t have Rwanda or something similar how on earth are we supposed to stop these people arriving in small boats on the beach in Dover and save the millions spent on housing them in hotels? Incidentally leaving the European Court of Human Rights as many people are advocating would have no effect on this judgement which was based on UK law rather than any possible ruling from ECHR.
Meanwhile Dave Cameron has been made a Lord and Foreign Secretary. I do have worries about how the elected Chamber will be able to scrutinise what the Foreign Secretary is doing when he cannot himself appear at the despatch box. It has not happened since the days of Lord Carington and Alec Douglas-Home and is most certainly a constitutional anomaly of which I am by no means certain that I approve. Leaving that on one side, Lord Cameron certainly has the status and connections and foreign affairs experience to be a great advocate for the UK. We need it at a time like this and it is noticeable that he is in Ukraine within days of his appointment. A fair degree of chaos nationally and internationally calls for a cool head and great wisdom.
If you can keep your head when all around are losing theirs…. In no time you’ll be a Peer of the Realm, a Privy Councillor and Foreign Secretary, my son.
We have all watched recent events in Gaza with anguish, and my thoughts on it change with every piece of news.
I have been clear from the start, and maintain the view, that we must utterly condemn the appalling attacks perpetrated by Hamas and stand resolutely alongside Israel in her self-defence against some of the most brutal, well-resourced and determined terrorist groups in the World. That is Israel’s right, indeed her duty, and we must not lose sight of it.
The UK recognises the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people and supports a lasting ‘two state’ solution for Israelis and Palestinians alike. However, Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people or their aspirations; it does not support the ‘two state’ solution, preferring to seek to ‘drive Israel and the Jews into the sea’; it offers nothing for them other than more terror and more bloodshed. I therefore support Israel’s right to seek to destroy Hamas, save the hostages, deter further incursions and strengthen its security for the long term. Only after that can there be any hope of a return to meaningful negotiations towards a Two State Solution.
It is second a prerequisite that amply justified as the war is, Israel must act in every way in strict accordance with international laws of warfare, especially the Geneva Conventions and every aspect of international humanitarian law. The loss of every innocent life is a tragedy, and while acknowledging that Hamas has enmeshed itself amidst the civilian population of Gaza, and that the loss of civilian lives is a tragic consequence of every war the world has ever known, the UK Government has called on and will continue to call on Israel to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians.
The rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza is also deeply troubling. Innocent people are being bombed, dying of their injuries, starving or dying of thirst. The International community, and Israel, must do all they can to alleviate what is fast becoming a humanitarian catastrophe. The UK has promised an additional £20 million of aid and will consider further support depending on changing humanitarian needs on the ground.
However, funding alone is not enough, and I welcome the extensive diplomatic efforts the UK is making to ensure that humanitarian support reaches those who need it. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have raised the issue with the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Palestinian Authority especially with a view to securing humanitarian access to Gaza. I respect and understand Israel’s determination that vital aid should not, however, fall into the hands of Hamas and enhance their war effort. There must therefore be proper checking arrangements at the crossing points.
There have been widespread calls for a ceasefire, and the UK is working via all diplomatic channels to try to find a way by which this war, which has cost so many lives already, can be brought to a halt. However, if there was some easy way of ending it, then all concerned would welcome it. The sole exception to that is Hamas who are determined to continue their murderous agenda, having launched 7000 rockets into Israel since the 7 October massacre. The reality is that Hamas have no interest in a ceasefire. They have no interest in resolution, have never attempted to engage in a two-state solution and have made every attempt to collapse the Oslo process. Israel and the International Community have sought for decades to reason with them, but the current war is the direct product of their total intransigence and reliance on violence to achieve their ends. So while I wholly understand everyone’s longing for a ceasefire of some sort, I find it hard to imagine how that can possibly occur.
All reasonable observers and all those involved (bar Hamas), are deeply torn by a determination to right the wrongs of October 7, to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, and to provide long-term security for the people of Israel, and justice for the Palestinians. Yet achieving that noble aim is easier said than done.
In the meantime I would like to see a cessation of hostilities of one sort or another to get suitably checked humanitarian aid into Gaza, a continuing evacuation of refugees to Egypt (equally checking that they are not infiltrated by Hamas terrorists); and as speedy as possible a general end to the warfare. That last can only occur in the unlikely event that Hamas concede defeat. I have the gravest fear that that will not happen and that we will see more tragic bloodshed before the war is over. We all hate it- it turns my stomach- but what can we do to avoid it?
I promise to keep these deeply troubling thoughts fresh in my mind and stand ready to change my stance on it as events unfold. The tragedy of Gaza is on a scale akin to 9/11, or the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and its long term consequences cannot be predicted.
© 2022 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.