I am not a great believer in New Year’s resolutions whose shelf-life is usually shorter than it takes to tell. But I do very much like this seasonal moment to clear the brain, look forward, make plans, lay out our strategy for the twelve months which lie ahead. In politics and public life we have had 20 years on a rollercoaster of political excitement, turbulence, shenanigans.
Just think what we have been through – wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the banking crisis; Gordon Brown (remember him?); David Cameron and the Coalition Government; Nick Clegg (now in California earning squillions from Mr Zuckerberg at Facebook); the Brexit Referendum and its counter-intuitive result; Cameron’s resultant fall from grace; the toxic and tumultuous Brexit negotiations which stole Teresa May’s reasonable 2015 majority in her disastrous 2017 General Election; the minority Conservative Government propped up by the DUP then split down the middle, causing Theresa’s defenestration; Boris’s election to leadership and his pledge to Get Brexit Done causing civil war and amongst other things 21 of our own MPs being expelled from the Party; Boris’s triumphant victory in 2019 against Jeremy Corbyn (another name from history); Brexit getting done (more or less); and then Covid. Phew! What a time it’s been. So now may well be the moment to steady the ship; for cool, calm reflection; for planning, for reorganisation; for a relaunch of our National life. Here’s a taste of a few things I would like to see in the year ahead.
Here in North Wiltshire, we are very fortunate. We have a strong local economy, very low unemployment, some great businesses; we have a lovely environment - market towns and villages nestled in the Wiltshire downland; we have first class schools and hospitals, decent enough transport networks. There are always problems, but overall, our lifestyle is pretty good by comparison with many parts of Britain, and most certainly by comparison with life in most other parts of the world, where in the words of Malmesbury boy, Thomas Hobbes, life can often be ‘Nasty, brutish and short.’
Of course we must not be complacent. We can indeed look forward to good growth in the economy, which is already back at pre-Covid levels; but we must beware of inflation and the higher interest rates which might accompany it. We must maximise the post-Brexit benefit of International trade and do all we can to help exporters. Energy costs (and supply) are worrying and may well contribute to a cost-of-living hike in the Spring. I hope that the Government will counter-balance that threat by tax cuts - perhaps especially in the heating and energy area. Not only that, but the high streets and small businesses which are the lifeblood of our economy are looking a little sad as we see more and more out of town (and on-line) shopping. (Why do supermarkets have to be so ugly?) I am deeply worried about the planning system which seems to allow more or less unfettered new building everywhere you look in this area; Neighbourhood Planning is routinely trumped by national policies, and the net result is the thousands of houses we see being built all around us. That is coupled with insensitive commercial development (who on earth allowed that empty monstrosity of a warehouse at Junction 17?). Farming is facing changes thanks to the end of the CAP, which I welcome. But we must make sure that domestic food production is encouraged as well as enhancing the farmer’s role as guardian of the countryside.
So as your MP I must be constantly alert to threats of all kinds to our pleasant way of life in this lovely and prosperous area.
Nationally, the battle against Covid may be showing glimpses of hope. The Omicron variant is spreading like wildfire; but it seems to be much less unpleasant than Delta. We should be proud of the UK-developed vaccines; and their magnificent delivery by a host of professionals and volunteers. I want to see an end to Covid, and a return to as near normal as we can as soon as possible. Governments are far too bossy, too interfering in individual liberties. National crises demand leadership and centralised control; but power must be returned to the people as soon as it can be. People are grown-ups; and we are at our best when we are left to get on with it - whether that be in business, farming, schools or our private lives. Governments should be as small as possible, and in general trust the people to do what is right and sensible.
Our National life needs some attention too. The Mother of Parliaments has been downgraded through Brexit and Covid, and we must restore her primacy. (P.S. I will NOT be voting to rebuild it at £20 Billion and with 20 years eviction. Let’s patch it up as best we can.) We need to secure the Union by showing what an economic catastrophe independence would be for the Scots. There are failings in the machinery of Government which cannot be ignored - from the top at No 10 right down through the crucial relationship between Ministers and civil servants. I can think of a few personality changes I personally would advise if I was asked! The House of Lords needs a look at; and some elements of the honours system have gone awry. The overweening power of multi-nationals especially in the media and social media areas, needs curbing. Democracy demands that Parliament and Government (not the courts nor the media) are supreme and enabled to carry out the will of the people.
Some of our public services are creaking. Despite ever more billions being spent on it do you really think that the NHS is working as well as we would like it to? How do we improve educational opportunities, especially in more deprived areas? How can we rebuild the infrastructure - roads, railways, factories - in the North of England and elsewhere? Perhaps rather in the way that Michael Heseltine rebuilt the London docklands so very successfully. We should spend less on HS2, but more on local linkages (Corsham Station?); we should straighten out pinch points in our road systems without further invading our countryside. And we should be rebuilding schools and hospitals, surgeries and public spaces as much as we possibly can. We really do need to ‘level up’- to bring those areas in the Midlands and North which have historically been poorer up to the level of health and prosperity we enjoy in the South East and West of England.
Internationally we should be very concerned about Russia, whose 200,000 troops on the border with Ukraine must be very worrying by any standards (even if only sabre-rattling); and China is hardly less threatening to Taiwan; fundamentalist Islamic terrorism is by no means defeated, and an economic collapse in Afghanistan, could well be the birthing pool it needs. Then a billion people go to bed obese in the world today; while another billion go to bed starving. It is hardly surprising that an estimated 200 million of them are currently afoot – fleeing warfare, starvation, poverty for the prosperity which they can now see so easily on their computer screens. Mass migration must be cured at source - in their home countries rather than by a sticking plaster in Calais. Climate Change is a contributory factor; and we must make Cop26 work - but we must do so without bankrupting ourselves in the process. Our battle with Climate Change must be truly sustainable. Africa and the Middle East remain a crucible of international disturbance; but so is Bosnia on our own doorstep, where violence is by no means impossible within the next twelve months.
These and so many more are the issues with which we must now grapple. For so many years we have allowed ourselves to be diverted- by internal wranglings and national navel-gazing. We are more interested in the colour of the wallpaper in No 10 and the definition of a party than we are about finding solutions to some of these intractable problems. We have become small minded, introverted; trivialised and mediocre and now is the time to raise our vision for the future. Now is the time for leadership, for statesmanship; for belief in Britain and what we can do for the rest of the world. I wish you all the very best for a Happy New Year.