It is surely no coincidence that the Labour Party (and their new-found friend - if previously sworn enemy- Dominic Cummings) are doing their best to throw mud at the Government and the PM in the few weeks before the ‘super-Thursday’ elections on May 6th. There’s a lot at stake. Around 5000 councillors will be defending their seats, or challenging the incumbents; the control of 145 local councils in England is up for grabs (and the political control of your local council is probably as important in your everyday lives as the Westminster Government- roads, schools, planning, social services and the council tax needed to pay for them. Conservative Wiltshire Council does a first-class job of it.) There are elections for 39 Police and Crime Commissioners (Jonathon Seed is your man); there are Mayoral elections in all kinds of places; there’s a by-election in Hartlepool, elections for the London Mayor and 25 London Assembly seats; and dozens more in Wales and Scotland.
So it’s hardly surprising that political passions are running high. And it is a healthy part of democracy that candidates fight their corners to allow the electorate to make up their minds about who will be best qualified to run their (local) lives. But Labour and the (more or less invisible) Lib Dems nationally and locally must not allow those perfectly reasonable political debates to become nasty and personalised over issues which have no bearing of any kind on the bodies being elected.
Sir James Dyson, for example, has pointed out the absurdity of the claims that his text exchanges with the PM about Covid ventilators last March was somehow or another improper. Thank goodness the PM was pulling out the stops to procure ventilators; swapping texts with senior industrialists in that effort may be unconventional- but it was all about getting things done. In the end, Dyson did not make any ventilators (at a cost to them of £20miliion); and anyhow the suggestion that this was all because he is a large Tory donor is simply nonsense. I remember, for example, Gordon Brown as Chancellor coming down to Malmesbury to open the new Dyson factory.
Similarly, I have no idea how the refurb of No 10 was paid for but am certain that all of the rules were carefully followed. Nor do I really care. The taxpayer paid not a penny for it (although arguably, perhaps they should be paying to maintain the official residence of the head of Government); so the only matter at dispute seems to be whether or not the PM properly declared any possible loan from the Conservative Party towards these costs. The wallpaper in No 10 may amuse the London media but it is of minimal concern in the real world of these elections.
Then there are ridiculous claims about some reported remark indicating that the PM was ready to sacrifice lives in favour of keeping the economy open. What drivel. And what desperately low steps some people will take to try to discredit their political opponents.
So let’s get away from all these guttersnipe personal attacks and focus on the big issues- the Pandemic here and around the world; Russia amassing its troops on the Ukrainian border; and your local services and how to pay for them. These are the matters on which you can opine in the ballot box next Thursday, when I hope (and am confident) that Wiltshire as a whole will once again return a Conservative administration and a Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner.
It is hard to believe that the BBC has apparently received more complaints about their in-depth coverage of the Duke Of Edinburgh’s magnificent 80 year service to our Nation than about any other topic in television history. 120,000 people all told were so dismayed that they had missed the latest episode of their favourite soap opera that they took the trouble to make an official complaint.
That does of course mean that 66 million people or so did NOT complain, and indeed stand resolutely in awe of this great man. I was glad to have the chance to pay my own respects in Parliament on Monday, particularly highlighting three elements of his long and very varied life. First was his Royal Naval and Maritime service. HRH even helped to design the Royal Yacht Britannia; so I suggested that a fitting legacy would be a new multi-purpose Royal Yacht named perhaps “Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.” Second, I touched on the Duke’s visits to South Georgia and Antarctica, and his commitment to wildlife and the environment; and third I spoke of his most enduring legacy - the 6.7 million youngsters from 130 countries whose lives have been transformed by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme.
The ‘D of E’ was the boyhood inspiration of Wiltshire explorer Sir David Hempleman -Adams who was eventually summonsed up to Windsor to be appointed a Trustee of the scheme. “It’s a great Honour and a Privilege” he said to the Duke. “No its not- It’s a duty. Make sure you know the difference” was the characteristic response. His 100-year life of dutiful service should be an inspiration to us all. HRH’s sheer dogged devotion to duty- the 22,000 solo engagements which he carried out over the years plus vastly more than that in support of Her Majesty; the tens of millions of people whose lives he touched (a survey indicates that 25% of the population of Britain, or about 15/20 million people had either met the Duke, or been present at an event with him.)
By contrast, I was never much of a David Cameron fan, and he seems to have made a total fool of himself (or worse) over his links to disgraced financier Lex Greensill. Is it not such a shame that a political career which began with such gusto and promise should have foundered on the Coalition with the Lib Dems, a failed negotiation with the EU, a botched Brexit Referendum Campaign and now this brewing scandal over money. How are the mighty fallen. The glittering prizes melt if they get too close to the Sun.
HRH the Duke of Edinburgh had every glittering prize- more medals and honours and dignities than you can imagine. He had every piece of wealth and privilege anyone could possibly want, great houses, a yacht, a Royal train, Queen’s flight- you name it. But it was all as nothing to the great man by comparison with that one word- Duty. He did what was right by the Nation, by his family, and above all by Her Majesty the Queen.
So it is good that we pause for a week in our busy lives to pay tribute to a man who can be such an inspiration to us all in so many aspects of our everyday lives. I am looking forward to attending Friday’s service in Salisbury Cathedral to honour the great man; and indeed to watching the funeral on TV on Saturday. Those who care about the BBC’s coverage could instead spend some time learning from his dedication and commitment to duty.
The Speaker and Parliamentary authorities have done great work for 12 months or so keeping some kind of Parliament alive. It hasn’t been how I would like it and it probably isn’t even fulfilling its basic task of holding the Government to account. But last March at the beginning of the first lockdown, we really had no idea about what Coronavirus meant. Was it going to be a plague threatening the lives of the entire nation? Or was it going to be little worse than a bad bout of flu? Opinions have ranged backwards and forwards ever since. And historians will no doubt enjoy analysing what Britain got right or wrong, whether Sweden were right to try for herd immunity and why the EU’s vaccine procurement process seems to have been so flawed. (Is it not astonishing to see Germany apparently buying vaccines from Putin’s Russia? I think I might be reluctant to have that particular vaccine pumped into my veins.)
At all events, the true meaning of Easter must be one of hope. Easter Sunday and the Resurrection is the ultimate symbol of overcoming terrible times. Even nature has cast aside the filthy weather of this last winter and the daffodils and lambs gambolling in the fresh green grass symbolise an end to the past and hope for a bright future. The magnificent vaccination programme in the UK and the sharply improving figures for illness and death we all hope symbolises an end to the nightmare and a fresh start.
Parliament is on its Easter recess which ends on the Tuesday, 13 April, after which I very much hope it will start to get back to normal. My wonderful staff have been working from home for 12 months which must have been quite fun for a time, but will have got a bit boring after a while. So my plan - if the regulations permit it - is for us all to be back in the office in Parliament from 13 April.
Locally, I have not been allowed to hold my regular surgeries nor to fulfil the hectic round of visits and events which I am used to. Again, I hope that action packed Fridays and Saturdays in North Wiltshire will be allowed to start quite soon, and at all events by freedom day which, of course, coincides with the mid-summer Solstice at Stonehenge. So please do start asking me to any events that you might be planning after that time. The evidence is good enough for us to plan for the best, albeit being ready for the worst should it happen.
The worst would of course be a sharp increase in disease and any kind of further lockdown beyond 21 June. The two ways we can ensure that that does not happen are: first, by maintaining reasonable precautions, wearing masks and keeping away from each other as much as possible. Act sensibly and we can keep this disease under control, at least here in Britain. And second, with the virus apparently raging more or less out of control only 22 miles away in France and beyond, let us accept that overseas travel simply is not possible and that anyone who tries to find their way around the rules to sneak a holiday overseas is simply irresponsible and unfair to the rest of us.
The fresh start is just around the corner. So let’s not wreck it now.
With my warmest best wishes to you and yours, for a Happy Easter.
My wife will tell you that it is rarely indeed that I admit to anything other than absolute certainty on any issue of current affairs. (Is that a failing, or in a Leader an asset? Discuss.) But the legitimate limitation of civil liberties in a Pandemic is causing me a degree of angst. I pride myself on being a libertarian - the state should be as small as possible, our freedoms as unfettered as possible, our rights as unassailable as possible. But what is “as possible”? I hate official bossiness; rules are there to be tested to the limit, if not actually broken.
Yet unless - in Malmesbury philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s words – life is to be ‘nasty brutish and short’, then we all accept the necessary constraints of society. Law is obvious. “Thou shalt not kill.” What about conventions? There used to be a sign on Glasgow buses “No Spitting.” When did you last see anyone on public transport spitting? (Maybe that’s why every overcrowded Glasgow bus had the ‘p’ scratched off). There used to be a sign in every train loo: “Gentlemen lift the Seat”. Was that an instruction or a definition? “Do as you would be done by” is (unenforceable) prerequisite of a decent and civilised society.
So what about Covid passports, then? They will be as essential for overseas travel as they have always been. Indonesia will continue to require proof of vaccination against polio; the Philippines, for meningitis; Brazil, for yellow fever. That is their right, and if you don’t get the necessary vaccine and carry a certificate in your passport then you won’t be let in. At the other end of the spectrum is the US, vehemently against any sort of vaccination credential system.
Domestically it may be different. If I go to a football match or a cinema or even a church service; if I travel on the underground or pack into a supermarket without social distancing; then I want to be relatively certain that I will not get Covid as a result. That of course means a degree of discrimination in favour of those who have had the vaccination or can otherwise prove that they are no kind of risk. OAPs would be welcome at rock concerts, but teenagers would not. A bit rum and certainly ‘ageist.’
What about workplaces? What about those who cannot be vaccinated - pregnant women, for example. And if, for very good reason the State does not provide some kind of guidelines, or a piece of paper, what is there to stop an employer, or a publican, or a theatre manager keen to secure sufficient bottoms on seats to make the production commercially viable inventing their own? Are we really going to force theatres into bankruptcy to accommodate those who can’t or won’t, or haven’t had their vaccination? Do our freedom loving instincts really trump the pub owner’s viability?
On the other hand, any state-run scheme would be plagued by privacy, security and political problems – not to mention legal ones, with ECHR Article Eight privacy rights, GDPR and the Data Protection Act all in play. Vaccine passports might even be ‘racist’ if more black people than white were excluded from events. Not only that, but how useful would vaccine passports be anyhow if a vaccinated person can still carry the disease? Maybe mass lateral flow testing may be the solution, even if that too has myriad problems associated with it.
We don’t want our return to normality to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’; but how many of our rights and freedoms are we ready to sacrifice in order to prevent it? I will have to make up my mind before any such passport scheme meets a vote in the House of Commons. (The SNP threatening to vote on this purely English matter may well push me toward a libertarian rebellion on it. Whips to note.)
At all events, I hope you my constituents can see why I am so torn on the issue.
Was it really only 12 months ago that the WHO declared a Pandemic and the first Lockdown started? What a shock it all was, and how the months since have stretched out. Who would have believed that we would see almost 130,000 sad deaths in the UK, several million worldwide, that we would still be in lockdown 12 months later, shops and pubs closed, all international travel effectively banned? What a year it’s been, and we all hope we will never see another like it.
The previous 12 months had witnessed the Brexit negotiations and appalling turbulence in Parliament, the end of Theresa May and the rise of Boris, an Election (the second in two years); and a landslide victory for the Tories.
Then we had the final end of Brexit after some nail-biting last minute negotiations; its implementation and the start of our new life as a free trading country; the astonishing success of the vaccination programme perhaps highlighting how lucky we are to be free of the EU. It’s a 12 months which saw the end of Jeremy Corbyn but Labour’s disappointment with Keir Starmer; the total disappearance of the Lib Dems (can you remember who their leader is?); we saw a steady Budget by Rishi Sunak a couple of weeks ago, which was broadly welcomed by the City and the financial press alike, and some signs that the cost of Covid may not be quite as severe as the worst pessimists predicted. More recently we have had the most fundamental Review of our foreign, aid and defence policy in a generation; and now a root and branch review of immigration policy and our approach to illegal immigrants alongside genuine asylum seekers.
No-one can say that politics and public life have been dull for the last 24 months! But we’ve got through it; survived as a nation and a people, and in some ways are the better for it. What we need now is a period of calm stability. We need to see the gradual easing of lockdown, as our infections and hospitalisations and excess deaths reduce to zero; we need a total ban on travel overseas until such time as foreign countries can match our level of vaccination; we need a steady opening up of the economy; we need a return to normal life.
The overwhelming feeling is one of weariness. We have had too much excitement, too much volatility. Now what we need is stability, dullness……. The House will have finished its business soon after Easter, when we will Prorogue prior to a new Queen’s speech on 11 May. I hope that it is stuffed full of dull, worthy, uncontroversial (if important) bills which will make Britain a better place to live, but which will quite frankly bore us all silly. I want news bulletins to be packed with something other than politics and Covid.
We now need to steer the ship of state into clear blue waters, recover from our seasickness, give the crew a bit of shore-time and then we must put the old girl into dry dock for a welcome bit of refitting.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.