Was it really only three or four days ago that I reported my optimistic hope of a preserved Christmas, the Pandemic’s end thanks to the vaccine, and a probable Brexit deal within a day or two? Just as well that I added a few caveats to my predictions.
I now write on the darkest day of the year- 21 December, the Winter Solstice- facing as we do a total Lockdown in the South East of England; and a sudden reduction of the festive season here in Wiltshire from five days to one. We have woken up to a new strain of the virus so virulent that its spread is out of control (albeit no more serious in medical terms than the old variant); to the highest spike in new cases since the Pandemic began and the likelihood that it will get worse before the vaccine saves us all; to the French (bless them) blockading Dover for at least 48 hours with resulting road freight chaos; to little sign of a Brexit agreement; and to all of our Christmas plans being disrupted if not wholly ruined. Rarely can the Winter Solstice have witnessed a bleaker time in our national history.
It seems to me astonishing that at a time like this Parliament has not (yet) been recalled. Surely it is only right that we MPs should be able to speak up for our constituents. It may not be very convenient; it may wreck our own personal plans for Christmas; but I for one would be happy to sit through for the sake of scrutinising what the Government are doing with regard both to Brexit and to Covid. The House last sat on Christmas Day in 1656, at least partly because the Cromwellian Puritans thought Christmas was a pagan (or a papist?) festival. So the Commons met as usual to transact business - by coincidence the Second Reading of a Bill for holding a Sheriff’s Court in Devizes. All 18 Wiltshire MPs were present, representing perhaps 50,000 people, by comparison with today’s 7 with a population of 750,000! If we could do it then we can do it now, and I call on the Government to recall Parliament with no further delay.
Yet we must not slip into the scaremongering panic language of some parts of the media. Christmas has not been ‘cancelled.’ Wherever we are and under whatever difficult and sometimes sad circumstances we find ourselves, we still celebrate the birth of Christ more than 2000 years ago, and the warmth and decency which it means for us all, whatever our own personal beliefs may be. Might it not be symbolic that at this, the worst of all possible times, the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in our night skies comes close to replicating the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ hesitating over the stable in Bethlehem? Similarly, the ancients who built Stonehenge actually celebrated the Winter Solstice more than the Summer one, as it heralded the end to the cold and hunger and darkness and was a signpost to the return of light and plenty, warmth and happiness.
So in these hardest of times, I wish you all the happiness that Christmas can bring to you and your families and friends. Be as merry as you can; rejoice at the Star of Bethlehem hovering over the low Wiltshire horizon and all it means; and join the Wiltshire ancients round Stonehenge looking to better times to come.
The House has risen for the Christmas Recess. But two great questions hang in the air.
The negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement with the EU are beginning to sound a little more hopeful. If an agreement is reached by Friday this week, then it is likely that the House will be recalled in the early part of next week, and will work through to Christmas to scrutinise what has been decided (all 1000 or so pages of it), and either vote to pass it into UK law or, at least theoretically, to turn it down.
However, if an agreement is reached after Friday, the Recall seems likely to be around 30th of December, which strikes me as leaving worryingly little time for proper scrutiny of what has been decided. If no deal at all is reached, then then the House will not be recalled, leaving the consequential arrangements to the Government, with Parliament scrutinising what has happened when we get back on Tuesday 5th January.
Of all of those options, by far the best seems to me to be an early draft agreement, with Recall on Monday 21st, after which we can sit as long as may be necessary to give due consideration to it (leaving aside Christmas Day itself which must be sacrosanct), and also allow the House of Lords to have a view.
After all, the details being negotiated may well affect us all in almost every aspect of lives for a generation and more to come; so it is our duty to make sure that the professional negotiators, and indeed the PM, have got it right. We all want a deal. We want to see an end to Brexit- just to get it done. But that must not allow us to take our eye off the ball and agree to something which we may come to regret. We must not sell out our fisheries; nor must we be stuck to future EU laws on employment or the environment; and these matters must not be adjudicated by the European Court of Justice. Too great a concession on any of those matters would not be acceptable to the majority who voted to leave the EU. Like any divorce, a clean break is best.
The other part of the Cloud of Un-knowing, of course, is Covid. I am glad that the Government have stuck by their promise to allow us all some kind of limited Christmas festivities. Not only is it one of the most wonderful and significant parts of the year; but also had they not done so, it is probably unlikely that some of us at least would have observed too draconian a regime. Covid Constraints must be Consensual if they are to work. So I am glad that Christmas is going ahead, but I also hope that people will be as modest and careful as they can be to avoid a massive third spike and resulting lockdown in January. This new strain of the disease seems to spread alarmingly rapidly; and we simply have to arrest its progress.
At a time like this predictions are barely worth the paper they are written on. But I profoundly hope that we get a reasonable Brexit FTA as soon as possible, that we scrutinise it as best we can and pass it into law before the 31st January deadline; and that we have a Happy, if modest Christmas, enabling us to emerge from Covid soon in the New Year. If even part of that happens, we will have good reason for celebration.
I (perhaps reluctantly) supported the Government on Tuesday evening in bringing in the new Tier system, despite plenty of siren voices beseeching me not to do so. I am particularly concerned about pubs and hotels, many of which are facing a bleak winter. And when I was showing my new Private Secretary Jenny Fleischer round the patch on Thursday, I was surprised how many pubs had opted to stay shut, substantial meals or not.
My reasoning for supporting the Government was very straightforward. According to the Secretary of State for Health’s latest Covid-19 Situation Report for the South West, the fact is that rates are rising quite sharply in rural Wiltshire. Purton, for example is (surprisingly) one of the worst hotspots in all of Wiltshire at least partly thanks to long term care homes in the area; while neighbouring regions such as South Gloucestershire and Bristol are in Tier Three – the highest level of restrictions. Both Swindon and Wiltshire hospitals are reporting increasing admissions. So I do fear that the restrictions even in very rural parts of Wiltshire really are necessary if we are to combat this virus and especially if we are to allow some slackening off over Christmas. I believe the Precautionary Principle applies here - if we act, we hope to avoid a likely disaster. If that disaster is imaginary, then we pay a price for it, but a lower price than we would pay if the predictions turned out to be true and we had not taken the appropriate actions. After all, if as a result of my vote hundreds of my constituents became infected, seriously ill or died, then I would not be able to look myself in the mirror.
What’s more, we have the vaccine to look forward to shortly, and I for one am very hopeful that life may well be starting to return to normal by about Easter. Pfizer and BioNTech's announcement that the vaccine they have been developing appears to be 90 per cent effective in preventing COVID-19 in participants was most welcome news. The Government is facing a massive logistical exercise in getting the vaccine out; and it will without a doubt take many months altogether. But it will be done, and we will be able to look back with thanks and gratitude to all of those who made it possible. In the words of the Royal Wootton Bassett motto, “We Honour Those Who Serve.”
I am especially concerned about the elderly, the sick, the bereaved or the lonely, who may well be facing a bleaker time than expected thanks to all of this. Our hearts go out to them and their families. All of the fuss which some people are making about what they can or cannot do with various branches of their families must be a bitter sound to those who have no families to fuss about. So, it may be a small thing, but if you happen to know of anyone who would feel a little better if they got a Christmas card from their local MP, then please do let me know with a name and address, and I will see what I can do. (I have quite a few left over from previous years which might be deserving of a good home.)
I will use any profit I might get from the sale of my new book, Wiltshire to Westminster - a collection of these columns stretching back all told to 1997 (but heavily edited I assure you) – to pay for the postage. So if you are kind enough to order one (and an early order will make delivery by Christmas possible), then you can also know that it is going to a good cause. Details are on my website, jamesgray.org.
Times are tough, and we are by no means through the worst yet. But the figures do seem to be levelling off, the Lockdown does indeed seem to have worked, and the early delivery of the vaccine, and its promised efficacy is something to look forward to. But we have to be strong until then and abide by the rules, difficult as it may be for all of us.
It may not be the Christmas season we hoped for but let us help each other through it as best we can, and things will be looking brighter with the New Year.
My chess playing ability being at best schoolboy level has not lessened my enjoyment of the brilliant TV series, Queen’s Gambit. The young orphan overcomes all kinds of difficulties to become a Grandmaster. Part of the charm of the programme is the very fact that I don’t have much clue about the Ruy Lopez Reversed, nor even the Scholar’s Mate. I am glad that there is something called three-dimensional chess. I really have no idea what they are doing, but I am full of admiration for the way they are doing it. I know that it is complex and important and way beyond my own comprehension.
So are the Brexit talks stalling? Is it all game playing to allow us to claim a victory- for example over fisheries – to cover up some major concession over, for example, the level playing field? Is Michael Gove’s triumphant agreement over the Northern Irish border central to the mainstream Brexit negotiations? Or is it on a different plane? Is it all just a question of a Mexican stand-off, or the Sicilian defence? Who knows?
Meanwhile, we welcome the first anti-Covid vaccines, and hope that we may be seeing the beginning of the end if not the end of the beginning. But it will still take huge self-discipline by us all in the meantime, especially over the Christmas break. Tier 1, 2 or 3, lockdown, herd immunity, PCR, Antigen and antibody tests, track and trace. It makes the Queen’s Gambit look pretty simple.
Small Business Saturday reminds us of the crucial necessity to safeguard our economy. Is it heading for a 1930’s style stagnation and collapse, or will it be a sharp V-shaped downturn and recovery of the kind we saw after Lockdown 1? Somewhere in the Bank of England there is a 1949-vintage machine called the Moniac, or financephalograph, which uses water flows and hydraulics to mimic the UK economy. You pour water into the ‘growth’ funnel, let some out from the ’inflation outlet’; a waterfall represents unemployment, or some such. Set the whole thing up and let it run and you can work out which little bits to tweak for the best economic outcome.
Balancing the health of the nation and saving lives with the economic health of our high streets is a delicate matter to say the least, and it won’t be over for another six months. I hope the financephalograph is up to it.
Meanwhile President Biden looks secure, although not if you listen to President Trump, and Britain’s relations with our oldest and best ally may need tweaking; President Putin seems to be testing nuclear weapons in a very worrying development, the threat from Islamicist terrorism has not diminished, and Climate Change may well make the rest of it simple by comparison.
Chess openings may be standard, albeit with a thousand variations. The endgame is the totally unpredictable, intuitive, skilful bit leading to either stalemate or checkmate. Right now, there are some pretty complex simultaneous three-dimensional chess games nearing the endgame: Boris Johnson vs Ursula van der Leyden, Michel Barnier vs Lord Frost, Whitty and Valance vs Rishi Sunak. The next few weeks will determine who is the grandmaster, and who the schoolboy chess loser.
In the chaos and confusion which is today’s world, sometimes you are just reminded of what really matters in life. For me, it was the birth (at 6 AM) on Tuesday morning of my first grandchild, Frederick Evelyn Gray Barker. At a moment like that, somehow or another, nothing else matters.
Pandemics will come and go, the economy and spending review will sooner or later seem ancient history; little local matters like Dominic Cummings (good riddance), Priti Patel (who I support), Christmas bubbles (to which I am very much looking forward) - all of these things disappear into distant perspective by the arrival of this new little life.
My daughter, Olivia, gave me the great news by video call just a few seconds before I was due to chair the Environment Bill Committee, and I was glad to be only slightly out of order by announcing the birth when the little fellow was only 3 hours old. He can put the Hansard extract up on his nursery wall!
It was only then that the true importance of the Bill we were discussing came home to me - long after we are all gone; long after these political squabbles disappear under the waves; when little Freddie is 80 years old as we go into the next century; what we were discussing in the Environment Bill - one of the most wide reaching and radical reviews of our environmental laws and regulations in a generation - will still be of huge importance. This Bill is truly not just for now, not even for our children, but for our children’s children. So I hope that one day little Freddie will be pleased that his birth was announced during the Bill’s passage through Parliament. Olivia should be anyhow - she is a committed conservationist and environmentalist.
Two days later Rishi Sunak had to give the Nation notice of some of the worst economic figures in generations as a result of the Pandemic. We are in the midst of an unheard-of economic crisis, and its effects will be with us for a long time to come. I welcome the various steps the Chancellor has taken to try to minimise its consequences in all of our lives. But we all know that everything ultimately has to be paid for one way or another. I very much regret, for example, the reduction in spending on Overseas Aid (although I was always opposed to it being written into law); and of course, I am sorry about public sector pay (except for the NHS) being frozen. But the Chancellor has to find the money from somewhere; and no source of funding to pay for the Pandemic is going to be popular.
The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement is doing what it can to protect people’s lives and livelihoods. The fact is that there has been a sheer collapse in the economy, that unemployment will increase and people will feel the consequences in their everyday lives in so many ways. But what Rishi Sunak announced was designed to see us through the worst of it. It already has. Had we not had furlough, for example, from last March, we would be facing a far worse catastrophe than we are. So we need to plough on through it, pay the price, but try to keep the pain to its minimum. Keep our heads down. Battle through the storm and look to better times to come.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.