I instinctively dislike all change. And I especially dislike changes to my constituency boundaries. There is no corner of North Wiltshire which I do not know and love; and I have represented most of it for 25 years. Like it or lump it most people know me too.
However, population movements over the last ten years or so have resulted in wide variations in the number of voters in Parliamentary constituencies. Very many MPs presently represent only 60,000 voters, some others as many as 100,000. (North Wiltshire is about 72,000.) So by law, independent Boundary Commissioners have studied every constituency, and have made proposals which will mean that (leaving aside the Western Isles, and the Isle of Wight), every MP will from the time of the next election represent between 69724 and 77062 voters. That seems only right and proper; but it does mean some very uncomfortable changes in Constituency Boundaries.
In the South West as a whole, for example, we go up from 55 to 58 MPs, and here in Wiltshire and Swindon we go from 7 to 7.5 MPs with a new cross-border constituency being created with Gloucestershire. My constituency border moves north, so that I will hope to represent places like Lechlade, Fairford, Cirencester, Kemble, Tetbury, Didmarton and so on tacked on to the north of my existing patch. To make the numbers work, I lose Royal Wootton Bassett and Calne, and a number of villages, which grieves me greatly. Royal Wootton Bassett has been the heart (physically, politically and emotionally) of my area for the 25 years I have been your MP, and it will be a great wrench to lose it (to the Chippenham constituency.)
There are a number of other anomalies in the Commission’s final proposals, which I am still lobbying to get changed. There is no logic in Box and Colerne being stuck on to the top of a new constituency which comprises Melksham, Devizes and Bradford on Avon; it would much more logically remain in my seat. And a bizarre line has been drawn moving the Quemerford ward of Calne into East Wiltshire with which it has little affinity. These and a number of other minor adjustments can still be made, and I urge those who will be most affected to let their views be known to the Parliamentary Boundary Commission. (Details and procedure can easily be found on line.)
Overall, my initial thought was that Wiltshire and Gloucestershire sit uneasily together. I was reminded by some that Malmesbury and Tetbury are only a couple of miles apart yet took different sides in the English Civil War. Those with even longer memories told me that whereas Wiltshire was in Wessex, Gloucestershire was part of the ancient Kingdom of Mercia. So they are very different in many ways. But they do of course also have a great deal in common, not least that they are located in the South Cotswolds, which is to be the name of the new seat.
Not only that but sitting in Malmesbury Abbey one day contemplating these matters, I was reminded that it was King Athelstan (who is buried there) who first united Wessex and Mercia; and that my role would be to emulate his great diplomatic success in doing so. Its not a question of “Wiltshire taking part of Gloucestershire” nor vice-versa. It’s a merger of two very similar places on an equal and comfortable basis. Perhaps one day I should change my name to James ‘Athelstan’ Gray.