The fact that my In-tray is evenly split between correspondents outraged by the slightest infringements of our freedoms to restrain the spread of Covid, and those who are outraged by the increasing freedoms we are now enjoying as being irresponsible and spreading disease, misery and death, probably means that the Government are getting it just about right.
The infection rate is deeply alarming, so I will be avoiding nightclubs (what a fearful deprivation of liberty), wearing a mask when it seems sensible, but increasingly doing what I can to return to normal over the Summer Recess. A large photograph in today’s Daily Telegraph shows a number of us mask-free for the final PMQs yesterday. We are perfectly well socially distanced, and the Chamber was baking hot, so I thought a mask-free moment sensible. The picture has occasioned outrage from some.
The Ping-demic is causing huge and unnecessary disruption. If we have 100,000 new cases a day which seems likely, and if they have been in contact with - let’s say - 20 people before they were diagnosed, then 2 million people a day will be ‘pinged’, 14 million a week, or the entire population in less than a month. This cannot go on. A tiny handful of those ‘pinged’ have tested positive, so I really do think it sensible to move to a testing regime rather than this pretty random contract tracing programme. (I hate Apps anyhow.)
Then again, it seems to me only reasonable that the proprietors of nightclubs, perhaps football matches and other large gatherings will want to be reasonably certain that those attending their event are free of the disease. A certificate of ‘two jabs’, or proof of a negative PCR test is the only way they can be certain. The true libertarians are outraged at the resulting ‘Covid passport’, ignoring the fact that we need all kinds of vaccination certificates to travel to all sorts of parts of the world. It seems to me not unreasonable that if we want to do certain things, we should have to prove that we will not infect other people at the event.
We are not through this thing yet, so while I welcome the final removal of compulsory Lockdown, and the resulting greater freedom for the individual; we must still be very careful in everything we do. Numbers of those in hospital and sad deaths are lower than when infection was last at this level back in January, largely thanks to the superb vaccination programme. So the spread of infection is worrying, and we must do what we can to control it; but its consequences are much less severe than in previous infection surges.
Let us all therefore take reasonable precautions and behave sensibly and with good manners and concern for others. But for Heaven’s sake let us avoid the mildly self-righteous extreme Covid battlers, who would have us imprisoned for ever. We need our ‘Get out of jail free card’. And if not now, then when?
If you love freedom, you also have to accept the responsibilities which come with it, and its corollary - risk. So after 18 months of accepting rules and regulations which no normal liberal democracy would even think of accepting - lockdown, work from home, wear masks, no socialising and so on - surely now is the right time to embrace the freedom which will be ours from next Monday. We also have to accept the personal responsibility to act sensibly thereafter.
That also implies risk: that there will be a sharp increase in infection; hospitals will once again fill up; and there will be sad deaths. We can but hope that the superbly successful vaccine programme (84% of the population now jabbed at least once) has broken the direct cause and effect link between Covid and Lockdown. I will be wearing a mask out of courtesy to others in enclosed spaces, or where people might be nervous; but I will otherwise be doing all I can to shake off the shackles of official rules and seek a return to ‘normal’. For example, I had my first physical ‘surgery’ last weekend thanks to the boldness of Malmesbury Town Hall, and I call on my other usual venues to reopen in time for the surgeries properly to recommence in September. (Details on my website, www.jamesgray.org). And in the few days left before the Summer Recess, I will hope that Parliament starts to return to something like normal.
In similar vein I feel uneasy about the ‘Food Strategy’ which Mr Dimbleby is proposing. It would in theory mean that everyone pays £120 a year more in order to be dictated to by those who think they know better. Surely it should be a matter for education rather than taxation. More taxation on fatty and sugary foods merely hits those who love them hardest. Will you really give up your early morning Frosties because they cost a few pence more? I think not. I don’t approve of cigarettes (although I do enjoy an occasional cigar); but I am certain that people should be allowed to smoke if they choose; they can drink, even to excess, and their hangovers will be the best training against doing so next time; they can risk their lives in dangerous sports. These are our freedoms, our rights. They were hard won, and we must now fight to get them back.
The whole purpose of the planning system is to constrain our freedom. The planners dictate what we can build and where and when. Yet they also listen to the voters as has been demonstrated this week by their abandonment of the ghastly Eastern by-pass round Chippenham, and the 7500 houses which it would have meant. It would have been an outrageous invasion of the countryside. The people rose up against it, and I congratulate the Council for binning it. The new proposal - a Southern bypass which will link the A350 at Lackham to the A4 at Pewsham makes good sense. I am worried about the 4000 or so houses which will still be needed to pay for it, but at least it will form an exterior boundary for the town. We give up our freedom to build; but we also trust our elected bosses to listen to our reasonably expressed concerns on the matter.
Free and open liberal democracy, which we are so lucky to enjoy here in the West, means liberty to do what we want, except where we voluntarily give up that freedom for the greater good of the greatest number. Democracy is about finding where that line lies between freedom, responsibility and risk.
Parliament and Government are different things. You might think that obvious, but it’s amazing how many people confuse the two. Government does things, the House of Commons gives them the power to do so, and then we and the House of Lords scrutinise what they do. The Judiciary meanwhile are fiercely independent of both, and the Monarchy provides the invisible glue that holds the whole thing together. That is the great British Constitution in a nutshell. It’s the product of 1000 years of evolution; and it’s the best in the world.
A group of Ministers run each Department of State, with civil servants doing their bidding but at the same time constraining their political overlords. ”That would be very courageous of you, Minister; perhaps even unwise”, as ‘Yes Minister’ hath it. Secretaries of State have collective responsibility within the Cabinet; they empower the PM, but they also constrain what he can do.
That entire delicate infrastructure of checks and balances makes the British political system the least corruptible in the world. No-one has ever offered me a bribe. But if they did they would be wasting their money since (unlike members of the US House of Representatives), I have absolutely no powers of any kind. Moreover, no individual minister can do anything without taking all of their colleagues, and indeed the thousands of civil servants in their department with them.
That’s why personality politics sits so uneasily with the British system. We all ‘love’ or ‘hate’ Boris, or Priti Patel, or Dominic Raab or Rishi Sunak. That’s the soap opera part of modern media-run British politics. Who’s up, who’s down? What did Boris have for Breakfast? Did you like Carrie’s (rented) wedding dress? These things are fun, but they are the flimflam of government and politics.
As it happens, I can tell you what Boris had for breakfast this morning, since I shared it with him – a very good bacon butty and black coffee under a marquee affair in the No 10 Rose Garden. It was a privilege to be one of six or so backbenchers invited in for breakfast and to let the PM have our views on how things are right now - and he got plenty of that. Chesham and Amersham, levelling up, HS2, housing and planning, Covid and lifting the remaining constraints; overseas travel and putting Mrs Merkel back in her box; UEFA officials swanning through the Covid restrictions. How refreshing it was to have the ear of the PM for an hour or so.
But then again, because of the balance of powers, there is in fact precious little he could actually do about most of the matters we raised with him. He can influence, of course; he can seek to persuade his colleagues to do something; he can explain what they are doing in the media. But he is only Primus Inter Pares - first amongst equals.
Just to be a bit soap opera for a moment, I happen to be a great fan of the PM. He has his faults - which amongst us does not? “He who is without sin should cast the first stone…”But he gets things done; he speaks in a very real way for ordinary people who may feel remote from the M-25 liberal elite who normally run Britain. That, I think, is why the Tories did so well in the Hartlepool by-election (and maybe Batley and Spen shortly as well); but did so badly in Chesham and Amersham. Boris is truly an icon amongst so many people who can see beyond some of his external failures to the strength which lies behind.
We don’t need a President in this country with executive powers; we need a non-Executive PM who can pull the great machine together and produce a country which is overall best for all of the people in it. I believe that Boris does indeed have those indefinable characteristics which make that possible.
Yesterday’s Batley and Spen by-election near miss may well be further evidence of a fundamental shift in the tectonic plates of British political history.
Blair’s glory days of 1997 (418 Labour MPs by comparison to today’s 202) must seem a distant memory to Sir Keir Starmer, nursing his wounds and preparing to see off a leadership challenge from hard lefty, Angela Rayner. Labour’s hegemony in Scotland is all but destroyed (41 seats reduced to just one, and a wipe out in local government). And Tory victories in a whole slew of ‘Red wall’ seats across the North of England and Midlands, including the unheard of mid-term by-election victory for the Tories in Hartlepool and coming so close in Batley and Spen must mark a new low point in Labour’s history. They are ten or more points behind in the polls when, after 11 years of Tory Government, they ought to be riding high.
So what is going on here? It seems to me - and political predictions come with an automatic self-destruct mechanism to prevent readers smirking when they are wrong - that Labour have outlived their usefulness. They have lost their Unique Selling Proposition, as the advertising men call it. For a century, their role (as they saw it) was to represent working people; to uphold the virtues of Socialism; to fight for a big state against over weaning capitalism; and to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. Yet some of those ideas are now simply outdated. Working people are all aspirant middle-class people now, and the flat cap and muffler trades union comrades of old Labour look antique. If you are an aspirant climber in society; if you care about having enough funds for outstanding health and education; if you realise that a strong economy is a fundamental must-have; if you live in a decent house in a some pleasant suburb somewhere, then you are hardly likely to vote Labour. In other words, the question before the House is: “What are Labour actually FOR?” I really find it hard to say.
The final demise of a political party has, of course, happened before. The Whig Party existed for the best part of 200 years (twice as long as Labour) and ruled supreme from 1714 until 1783 leading historians to describe the period as ‘the Whig oligarchy’. Yet by about 1850 they disappeared altogether and were never heard of again.
The Liberals formed governments for much of the following 70 years yet disappeared by the 1920s when they were replaced by Labour as the main opposition to the Tories. By the 1950s they were winning as few as six seats at general elections (it’s eleven today), and apart from notable by-election victories, their only moment of greatness came by forming the 2015 Coalition. How they must now rue that day.
My personal instinct is that the whole British political landscape is undergoing some pretty fundamental changes, and the disappearance of Labour may well be part of it. Like Twain, they would no doubt protest that “News of our death is greatly exaggerated.” On behalf of some of my very good friends on the Labour benches, and as someone who firmly believes that we need a strong Opposition, I very much hope it is.
Easy – if sloppy - thinking denigrates a nation’s achievements. “We’re the sick man of Europe… It will never be the same again…. We’re a third-rate nation now…” You know the kind of thing. There’s always some old bore at the end of the bar mumbling about it.
Yet this week we have really started to show our colours on the world’s stage. Everyone seems to agree that the G7 meeting in Cornwall was a great success- from a social, diplomatic and even Cornish standpoint. The PM and Carrie had real status amongst the world’s leaders, and we should be proud of them. That President Biden took time to stop off at Windsor Castle to celebrate the Queen’s 95th birthday is a mark of great respect (although why he thought it diplomatic to liken HM to his Mother is anyone’s guess.) We took our place at the NATO Summit proud of being the second largest member after the US, and the only Nation in the world who until now has paid 2% of GDP on defence and 0.7% on overseas aid. (At 0.5% we are still the fourth largest donor in the world.)
Despite the sad necessity of extending Lockdown until 19 July, we can still be proud of leading the world in our vaccine programme (which would simply not have happened had we still been a member of the EU); only as a result of beginning to beat the disease here can we now look to providing the world with this British-invented and (largely) manufactured vaccine. And I was so glad to see our world-beating Oxford scientists being recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.
Meanwhile we should celebrate the fact that the Free Trade Agreement with Australia is the seventieth we have so far agreed (and the first negotiated from scratch) post-Brexit, the total value of the trade being about £1.4 Trillion. We are once again becoming a great trading nation in our own right, and we should be proud of it. There’s a long way to go, of course, and many a wrinkle to be smoothed out, starting with Northern Irish sausages. How dare President Macron seek to describe Ulster as a separate country from the UK? It’s as much a part of the UK as Brittany (despite its name) is a part of France.
All of these events and more mean that we are able to stand proud alongside the greatest nations in the world. We are the masters of our own destiny. We control our own currency and economy; we make our own rules. We are freeing ourselves of the shackles of European bureaucracy, leaving behind the mediocrity, the lowest common denominator which the EU is forced to be.
We now have our moment in history - once again to be a true International Leader. So let’s cast aside the habitual British syndrome of ‘doing ourselves down’. No-one admires false modesty. Let’s salute these great early achievements; and thank and congratulate the ministers who are achieving them.
Britain must once again be Great.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.