… but not a drop to drink. Water is rarely out of the news these days. Sewage pollution, hosepipe bans, flooding, leakage, prices, and now Thames Water’s financial troubles. Water is what makes life possible on our planet. We use about 14 billion litres of it every day and will need 4 billion more by 2050. Storm overflows (partly thanks to Climate Change) have been largely responsible for recent unacceptable sewage pollution in our rivers and sea. Our Victorian-era sewage network would wrap around the world two and a half times and it plus much of our water supply network is in dire need of rebuilding. It will cost £50 Billion by 2030. Ending sewage outflows altogether would cost an estimated £150 billion- more than the annual NHS Budget.
We all agree that that work needs to be done. But the great question is: who is to pay for it? The water companies must bear the greatest burden; and if that means lower shareholder dividends (and lower senior executive pay packets), then sobeit. They have had a pretty good time over the years, and now may be pay-back time at least for some of them. But if they are to do what is required of them, it will also mean sharply increased water bills, which none of us want.
Thames Water (and perhaps others) are facing a huge financial crisis. They need to attract investment if they are to carry out the necessary works; yet they cannot do that without reasonable profit forecasts. It may be necessary for the Government to take them back into some kind of caretaker arrangement while they restructure. But there must be no talk of ‘nationalisation’. Government ownership would not reduce the £50 Billion needed. It would simply mean that taxpayers bear the entire burden rather than all water users. And if sewage systems were competing for Government funds with schools and hospitals, I know which would win.
Anyhow, privatisation has actually been a huge success- bringing billions into water, albeit apparently not quite enough. We have made progress over the years. We have superb rivers, lakes, wetlands and coastlines, as well as 85% of the world’s rare chalk streams, many right here in Wiltshire. Last year 93% of our bathing waters were classified as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, up from 76% in 2010. Supply interruptions to customers have decreased five-fold and leakage has been cut by a third since privatisation. Pollution in our rivers has significantly reduced. There is now 80% less phosphorus and 85% less ammonia compared to 1990. And the Government’s Plan for Water brings forward radical ideas to go further. Amongst a whole array of policies, it promises £1.6 billion to help tackle storm overflows. It calls for new homes to be designed to make better use of water. And it tackles every source of pollution from run-off from roads and fields, to banning harmful chemicals and unnecessary use of plastic. Zac Goldsmith’s resignation letter is 2 pages of praise for our environmental achievements of the last few years, followed by a bitter personal attack on the PM. More to this than meets the eye, methinks.
I used to spend my holidays in an old Scottish ‘Hydro’ – a spa hotel effectively - where there was a strict ban on alcohol, and whose motto “Ariston men Hydor’ is the Greek for ‘water is best.’ (You’ll also find it above the entrance to the Pump Rooms in Bath.) If only it was that simple…..
The Conservative Party has always been a ‘broad church’- espousing the views of a very broad spectrum of opinion and all kinds of people across Britain. Indeed we are at our best and most successful when we are pragmatic and non-ideological. But we do coalesce around six broad principles which, at a time like this, I thought it might be worth reiterating.
We believe in freedom – freedom of the individual to do whatever they like, so long as it does not impinge on other people’s rights and freedoms. We dislike regulation, bossiness, the nanny state. People should be allowed – and encouraged - to ‘get on with it.’ We trust people and institutions to do the right thing, relying very often on good manners and sound common sense rather than rules and regulations. Socialists, of course, believe the opposite- that the state knows best and should boss us about in every possible way.
We believe in a free market economy; in capitalism and the pursuit of profit. Profit is a good thing, which incentivises people, and attracts investment. Without it (and growth) capital will head for more profitable hills. Central to a free-market economy must be a taxation regime which is fair, but as low as it can possibly be. We should allow people to make up their own minds about how they spend their own money. People need decent jobs and a fair level of pay. Socialists, of course, hate profit, hate the markets, and still believe in State ownership if at all possible. They believe in high taxation to pay for all sorts of giveaways and promises. The state should do less, and therefore need less money to do it with.
We believe in keeping our people safe - in society and from overseas threats. That’s why we accept the rule of law but expect it to be as ‘light touch’ as possible. We expect our Armed Services, and our Diplomatic service to have the resources they need to protect our shores, (resources which in my view are currently too small).
We believe in supplying those essential services which the citizen deserves - the NHS, schools, roads – but recognise that we cannot devote the whole of our national income to those things, and that therefore compromises in the level of service must be made. People need and deserve excellent education for their kids, long term care for their old folks and a decent house to live in. But the State should be a workmanlike Ford Fiesta, not a Rolls Royce. We encourage people to find alternatives or supplements to the State. 615,000 pupils currently attend the 2600 private schools in the UK. 7 million of us have private healthcare insurance. Some roads and bridges which would not otherwise be provided by the State have tolls to enable them to be built. Private investment in public goods is welcome, not to be discouraged as would the Labour Party.
We believe in looking after those who are not able to look after themselves - the sick, the elderly, the unemployed, disabled people. Society provides a safety net; the only discussion must be how high that safety net should be and what part the private, voluntary and charitable sectors should play in that caring function, thereby relieving the state and making better provision than HMG might afford.
We believe in respect - for our great old institutions - the Royal Family, Armed Services, Churches, Universities, Parliament and politics. And we respect people of all kinds - our elders and our betters; and people of every possible description, every race, every religion.
Those six principles are at the core, the very heart of what it means to be a conservative; and it is my view that they chime with the instinctive core beliefs of the British people as a whole. We must return to them; and then the people will return to us.
Being an MP gives one a ‘locus’ to engage in related but outside activities. So it was this week:-
Monday. Recruiting session for next years Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, of which I am chairman. A total of 64 MPs and peers from all sides of the House will spend a minimum of 15 days with one of the armed services. 300 or so over a 5 year Parliament probably means that half of all MPs have some military exposure. I also (coincidentally) chair the All Party Group for Armed Forces who lay on high level briefings. The two bodies mean a very real understanding of the MoD in Parliament (and, I think, vice-versa.) Going to war must be one of our gravest responsibilities, so at least having some idea of what it means is of huge importance.
Dinner in Lords for AFPS sponsors, which Mr Speaker attends as our newly-appointed Vice President. He has a great enthusiasm for military matters and is in every way a first class Speaker. (Comparisons with predecessors are never very helpful.)
Tuesday (and Thursday): Continue to chair detailed line-by-line consideration of massive Energy Bill. My role is just to ensure fair debate and proper consideration of the bill. Complex procedural wrangles makes me glad of a ‘learned clerk’ by my side to keep me on the right track. Clause 73, sub-clause (f) delete ‘if’ and insert ‘but’ occasions a 30 minute speech from Shadow Minister. Government brings in vast quantities of amendments and new clauses showing how poorly drafted bill was in the first place.
As a ‘Younger Brother’ (I am very pleased with the ‘Younger’ bit of the title), spend an evening with Trinity House who have responsibility for lighthouses, maritime training, pilotage and a host of other shipping related matters. Set up by Henry Vlll in 1514, Trinity House still makes a vital contribution to British pre-eminence in seafaring. Long (and private) chat with Princess Royal who takes Trinity House very seriously.
Wednesday: Breakfast with Council on Geostrategy group, to whom I am advisor. Strategic director of Foreign Office speaking. Not very impressive These people tell you what’s as plain as the nose on your face, but very rarely predict anything. PMQs is dull as ditchwater. Have trouble staying awake. Procedure Committee in afternoon very concerned about a proposal to suspend MPs from Parliament if they are accused of sexual or physical abuse of any kind. What happened to ‘innocent until proved guilty’? The Environment Committee is quizzing George Monbiot and others about food security and the environment. Find myself more or less on my own in preferring food production to hideous solar energy production sites. (They are not ‘farms’). Two votes defeat Labour Opposition Day motions; dinner with chums in Members’ Dining Room.
Thursday. Government have not issued report on historic mistreatment of LGBT soldiers which was promised for today. Shame. This is ‘Pride Month’ so an oral ministerial statement would have been appropriate. Took my ‘Rainbow’ tie in specially. I like being counter-intuitive.
Weekend: Reception and dinner in Tetbury area; surgeries in Calne and Royal Wootton Bassett; big lunch party at home. Cut the grass and deal with in tray in the meantime. Relatively relaxing weekend after rather a fraught week, albeit one without a discernible theme to it. I love the diversity of Parliamentary life.
It is perfectly true that I supported Boris Johnson- in these Columns and elsewhere - as PM and Leader of my Party, as the Commanding Officer of my Battalion, as the man who secured a record majority in 2019, who delivered on the people’s clear instruction to leave the EU, who fought the Pandemic, and supported the brave resistance of the Ukrainian people amongst many other great achievements. But I always did so with a caveat- that that support was unless and until I heard evidence to the contrary from Sue Gray or from the Privileges Committee.
I am not one of those who will now attack Harriet Harman, Sir Bernard Jenkin or the rest of that Committee nor their report. You don’t shout at the referee just because he has awarded a penalty against your side. They are the properly appointed body tasked with investigating complaints that the PM lied to Parliament; and in one of the clearest reports I have ever read they concluded that he did -on many occasions; and they accordingly handed down a penalty second only to that meted out to Keith Vaz for offering drugs to prostitutes. They are the properly constituted referee and so any lover of our Parliamentary democracy must now fully accept the conclusions to which they came.
Yet widening our gaze a little, we have the last Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn banned from his own party for apparent anti-semitism; we have the longstanding First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon arrested presumably on suspicion of corruption (which makes the current SNP leader the only one never to have been arrested- so far); the last President of the United States faces multiple court cases, at least some of which might result in a prison sentence of up to 20 years, despite being the current hot favourite for the Republican nomination for the next Presidency; the last President of France is in deep trouble and President Berlusconi of Italy (he of the Bunga bunga parties) is dead, and apparently universally mourned across Italy. Tumultuous times on the International political scene indeed.
But beyond all of that we have a full-scale ground war within the borders of Europe and one of the most unstable international landscapes for decades; we have resultant food price inflation, sky-rocketing interest rates, and a world economy struggling to recover from that and from the after effects of a Global Pandemic; we have 1000 people including many children drowning in a desperate attempt to reach the EU for economic sanctuary; we have a host of domestic problems in need of urgent attention (as there always will be.)
So do we really care whether or not Boris ate a birthday cake; are we really fussed about whether or not he should get a pass allowing him access to the staff cafeteria? Are we concerned about someone called Nadine Dorries throwing her toys out of the pram because she failed to get the honour she (and only she) believed she deserves. Are the finer points of the honours system - baubles for princely acolytes - our main topic of breakfast table controversy; are we really bothered about the finer details of Harriet Harman’s report; are these the things that people care about in the real world? I think not. Personality politics of this kind get us nowhere.
So I will most certainly not be voting against the Report on Monday; but nor will I be taking part in the childish playground party politics of name-calling and hero destruction in which the anti-Boris camp are engaged. After much thought I have therefore decided on a principled abstention - not through a lack of decisiveness; but because both sides of the argument -the mud-slingers and the Boris acolytes alike- are bringing the body politic as a whole into disrepute. There is too much going on in the real world for us to be engaging in such childish naval gazing.
I hope that this will be my very last Column on the subject of Boris. His new platform- as a vastly paid Columnist in the Daily Mail- means that we have not heard the last of him; but he will not be back in Parliament. So we say ‘good bye’ to one of the most turbulent, dramatic, dynamic and exciting series of political episodes in our lifetimes. Some will do so with a feeling of ‘good riddance’; others with a deep nostalgia, and a regret for what could have been.
“Do you have to go to London often,” is a question I am asked with astonishing regularity- “er, Yes. I am a Member of Parliament and Parliament’s in London, so I am there Monday to Thursday most weeks.” The exception, of course, are the Recesses – currently a week marking half term, or more properly Whitsun. Whitsun is the seventh Sunday after Easter, and coinciding with Beltane, the pagan celebration of Summer's Day, it marks the beginning of the summer half-year. It was one of three holiday weeks for the medieval villein. How appropriate for we MPs!
It’s a week in the constituency for all kinds of meetings and visits. For me, for example, it was a fascinating visit to Malmesbury’s Sweetman and Bradley steel company (most of whose workers live within walking distance of the factory); lunch in Grittleton, political supper club in Purton, a variety of meetings to plan the new Constituency (to be called South Cotswolds), surgeries in Cricklade and Malmesbury, planning meeting in Crudwell, the opera at Shipton Moyne and so much else.
Yet it’s also an important moment to catch up on the backlog, clear the decks, read and write and think, and generally take stock. The whirlygig of activity which is the Parliamentary week rarely allows cool thought and strategic reflection.
I am very fortunate to represent such a wonderful, beautiful, relatively prosperous and happy Constituency. It’s convenient for London (MPs from Cornwall or Inverness spend a huge amount of their time just travelling to and from Westminster). It’s a ‘safe’ Conservative seat (although I never allow complacency nor any kind of arrogant presumption over what the electorate may think). And it’s a thoroughly wonderful place to live one’s life. Like my parish minister father before me, I love my constituency work, and find it very fulfilling and satisfying.
Yet, unlike some of my colleagues, I also love my Parliamentary life, my leadership of military interests, my involvement with the environment and Polar Regions, and the role I play as one of the Speaker’s Panel of Committee Chairmen and on the Procedure Committee. I try to say something or another in Parliament most days – main Chamber or Westminster Hall, or perhaps in a committee; and I do my best to mention North Wiltshire or some part of it every time I am on my feet.
All of that; but I also support a Party which I passionately believe will always (especially now under the very capable Rishi Sunak) do the best for the people, albeit not necessarily always achieving that noble ambition. Conservative instincts and beliefs are both mine, and I think the majority of people in North Wiltshire. I support free speech, our great institutions, a liberal market economy, less government, minimal bossiness, low taxes (post-Pandemic they are too high); coupled with a real concern for those less fortunate than ourselves. The poor, the needy, the ill or bereaved- they need more care than the prosperous and healthy, which is perhaps why I maintain and enjoy my constituency surgeries so much.
So the Whitsun Recess has given me a chance to ponder anew how much I love both aspects of my job, and how fortunate I am to have it. It also reminds me that I am here to serve the people who sent me there- and to renew my commitment to doing so. I relish the hard work which lies ahead- in London as well as in Wiltshire.
© 2022 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.