The Nation stands appalled by the brutal murder of Sarah Everard - made worse by the fact that the accused is a police officer; and that the whole thing was just so public. “She was just walking home.” Her death has also highlighted the dreadful level of violence against women. 85,000 women experience some form of sexual attack every year; in the year to March 2020, 207 women were killed and 9 out of 10 killers were men. These figures are a dreadful stain on our society.
Yet is there not something quite wrong about the way that Sarah’s sad death has become ‘politicised.’ Those people who walked slowly past the bandstand on Clapham Common during the day on Saturday - including the wonderfully understated Kate, Duchess of Cambridge – were showing their grief in a very real way. That must have been some comfort to the bereaved family. That is in sharp contrast to those who then chose to congregate for a Covid-spreading mass meeting in the evening, including some well-known activists who tried to make speeches, and who provoked the police into the four arrests they felt they had to make. The Police action is worthy of investigation; but so may well be the motives of those who were arrested.
I spoke in the Second Reading debate of the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill on Monday (welcoming the fact that at least two out of three demands in the Ellie Gould case are included in the Bill); but was frankly disheartened by the way that some speakers were using Sarah Everard for their own ‘virtue signalling’ reasons; and by the way in which they tried to conflate the police action at Clapham Common with the clauses in the Bill seeking to prevent disorderly protests. They tried to argue that these provisions – for example preventing emergency vehicles being blocked, keeping Parliament open for MPs and a variety of other very mild upgrading of existing laws - were somehow so outrageous as to trump all the good things the Bill does. They also absurdly argued that the maximum 10 years sentence for destroying war memorials was higher than the penalty for rape (wrong - that is up to 27 years); and that the Bill did not mention ‘Women’. True - I thought legislation had to be gender neutral these days. The sentence for murder applies irrespective of who the victim or the murderer were.
All of that is absurd virtue signalling. After all, even if it were true, would that really justify killing off a bill which does so very much that is so very important in keeping us all safe from violent crime? I was disappointed that despite their posturing, Labour and the Lib Dems chose to vote against a bill which would do so very much to limit violence against women. I know that many of my Labour friends were deeply embarrassed at being whipped to vote against such a worthwhile bill, and only did so because they knew that they would lose. Hardly a very principled way of making the law of the land! It may well count against them in the forthcoming Hartlepool by-election.
I spoke seven or eight times in the Commons on Monday one way or another, and long for proper full physical presence to be reinstated. Zoom cannot replicate the presence and influence brought to bear on Ministers by a physical appearance in that cockpit of democracy, the Chamber of the House of Commons, where egotistical self-righteous posturing is quickly called out.
The whole area - the Nation - were repulsed by the tragic and brutal murder of young Ellie Gould in Calne, on 3 May 2019. Our hearts went out to her brave parents both at the time, and since then watching them – together with a group of Ellie’s school friends - campaigning for a toughening of sentencing for crimes like this one in several detailed ways. Mr and Mrs Gould have been clever, consistent and determined in their campaign and lobbying. They have been into Parliament several times; we had meetings with Priti Patel as Home Secretary and Robert Buckland as Lord Chancellor; we even had a chance meeting with Theresa May and a brief chat about it all; I have asked questions in the Commons, written letters on their behalf, and have had very many private conversations with the Government Law Officers about it.
And this week we saw the very positive results of it with the publication of the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Second Reading may be as soon as next week, followed by all the other stages in both Commons and Lords; and all being well it should become law with the Queen’s signature by the end of this year. I hope that her family and friends will be proud and pleased that they have achieved what can - at least in part - truly be described as ‘Ellie’s Law’, and which will for all time commemorate her sad death.
It will play a role, I hope in deterring others, and indeed in duly punishing murderers for their crime. Amongst many other very welcome proposals, the Bill will put into law very much of what the Gould family, and Ellie’s school friends were seeking. Seventeen-year-old murderers like Thomas Griffiths will be treated more like adults, especially when they are convicted after they have turned 18; and there will be no automatic mid-term review of their sentencing. Apart from anything else those ‘Reviews’ put the victim’s family through a further great deal of trauma.
One point which is not in the Bill is the change in the rules of premeditation which we sought. A criminal using a weapon which he finds at the scene of the crime (as in Ellie’s case) can use that fact in mitigation, and thereby achieve a lower sentence. The Goulds and I cannot really understand why that fact should make any difference. Murder is as culpable, irrespective of where the murderer found the weapon. The counter argument comes from organisations representing abused women, suffering from domestic violence, who may well grab a knife or a bottle in self-defence. Should their sentence really be as serious as that for a premeditated murder? I wonder if some middle way could not be found using the ‘self-defence’ mitigation? These are matters which the Lord Chancellor tells me he will consider further, although that will not be in time for inclusion in this particular Bill.
Overall, the Lord Chancellor has listened carefully to the points the Gould family and I made and is changing the law of the land as a result. I think that they can be proud that from the appalling tragedy of Ellie’s murder comes a very significant and worthwhile change in the Criminal Justice Law.
There was a bit of a reminiscence of the Military Repatriation ceremonies down Royal Wootton Bassett High Street on two occasions this week. (Can it really be ten years since the town was honoured with its ‘Royal’ soubriquet to mark its respects to our fallen servicemen and women?).
On Tuesday it was the sad funeral of dear Mr Enam Chowdhury. Enam was the proprietor of the first-class Ganges Restaurant in Bassett High Street. He played a central role in the Bassett Community - especially with regard to the Rotary Club and other charities. For example, he very often gave use of his restaurant to various local groups for fundraising activities; and more recently he had been highly active during previous lockdowns delivering meals to those who were vulnerable or shut in. Is it not ironic and tragic that he himself was then struck down by Covid, and after some weeks in a coma, sadly succumbed to this horrible disease.
His hearse stopped behind the old Town Hall on stilts, and across the road from his beloved restaurant; and the people of Royal Wootton Bassett - led by their Mayor and Deputy Mayor and by the Lord Lieutenant, Sarah Troughton, and me - paid our respects to this much loved local hero.
Then on Friday we will similarly be paying our last respects to that other local hero, Chris Wannell. I will tell you about it next week. Both Enam and Chris were pillars of the community, and without breaching any protocols or confidences I can now let you know that I was hopeful that both would soon have been recipients of some national honour to mark their huge commitment to local people. It is a shame that it could not have been before they were so sadly taken from us, but it may be of some little comfort for their families and friends to know that the Nation was slowly moving towards some suitable honour for them. We will remember them, and we will honour them both in our memories.
Who cannot welcome the glimpse of the end of this nightmare which the Prime Minister’s Road Map offers us. I was given my ‘jab’ by Dr Sanjeev Popli at the outstanding Yatton Keynell GP’s surgery last week joining so many thousands of my constituents. Its looks as if all age groups will be done before the summer; and that as a result of that and of the sharp reductions in infection, hospitalisations and deaths, we really can start to look forward to a gradual lifting of the unwelcome restrictions on our lives. It cannot come too soon, although we must not rush it. Schools are back next week, and then step by step we can start to move towards some kind of ‘normality’ on 21 June. (Perhaps sooner if vaccinations and pandemic figures keep moving in the right direction.)
So as we mark the passing of two dear friends and pillars of the community in Royal Wootton Bassett, we must also do what they would have wanted us to do - to focus our minds not on the past but on the future. Both Chris and Enam were optimistic, cheerful people working for the future of their community. And so must we all.
A local journalist was asking me about Chris Wannell’s lovely funeral last Friday. I read that great poem which so aptly described Chris’s indomitable spirit, Don’t Quit by Whittier. I blubbed a bit but managed to get through it. How wonderful to see the historic fire engines down the High Street. The journalist asked, “why it was that Chris was so popular in the town?” “The main reason,” I opined, “was simply because he was such a nice chap. Never had a bad word to say about anybody; always cheerful; couldn’t walk down the High Street without stopping to speak to dozens of people. Cheerful, jovial. Just a thoroughly decent fellow.”
It is not for me to enter into the mind-blowingly boring minutiae at the heart of the battle between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. But looking in dispassionately, what is pretty plain is that there is massive animosity between them and amongst their supporters; that the SNP are in possibly terminal turmoil and will pay the price for it at the ballot box. Even Scots opposed to independence may well have been voting for them in recent years because they seemed competent and able. This very public spat has undermined that confidence.
Equally I know nothing of events at the Palace, nor at the Harry and Meghan Southfork in California. And I don’t want to know either- these matters should be private whether you are a Royal or a commoner. I suppose I will reluctantly watch the Oprah Winfrey interview out of a kind of morbid curiosity. But rather like their Uncle Andrew’s interview with Maitlis, or indeed the Prince of Wales’s interview with Dimbleby all of those years ago, one thing is for sure - no good can come of it.
It just doesn’t do to use one’s fame and celebrity to trot out one’s private grievances on prime-time television. Or at least if you do, you cannot then complain about the ‘intrusive’ nature of the modern media, since it was in fact you yourself who invited them into your life in the first place. Truly hoist by your own petard. The bullying counterclaims are deeply worrying. But they too should be dealt with behind closed doors, not least to protect the victims from further stress. Both sides should take a lesson from that distinguished and hugely discrete old gentleman, the Duke of Edinburgh, suffering in silence in hospital.
Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, who is a thoroughly nice bloke as well as a hugely competent one, seems to have pulled off a bit of a miracle with his Budget. He has extended the various Covid protections, ensuring that families and businesses can see the crisis off. He seems to have set the scene for very reasonable growth coming back into the economy in a remarkably short time; and he has given fair warning of tax rises to come to start to pay off the vast debt which the Pandemic has created, without frightening the horses in the meanwhile. It’s a deft and imaginative piece of work.
Maybe I am just simplistic. But why can’t people, especially those in public life, just be nice to one another? Why can’t they do what they believe to be right in the nicest possible way without doing each other down? Why can’t they take a leaf from the Duke, whose watchword for the best part of 100 years has been ‘duty’. Rishi Sunak must have heard the poem at Chris’s funeral: “So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit; It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.” We are nearly through this thing now, so let’s stick with it, and let’s try to remember that we are all in it together.
We are all longing for ‘life to get back to normal…’ We’ve had enough of lockdown, shops closed, events cancelled, isolation, boredom. We think back to how it was before Covid and can’t wait to recreate our old lives. It’s perfectly natural - we have all been though a tough time; many of us are still in it. We long for the ‘good old ways of the good old days.’ I have been using up part of my Covid inertia watching ‘Foyle’s War’. There’s just something about it - the old cars, thick suits and overcoats, fedora hats; funny old buildings; everyone calling people ‘Sir’. And Honeysuckle Weeks, Foyle’s driver and aide must be a highpoint. At this fiftieth anniversary of decimalisation, who over 60 can avoid a bit of nostalgia about ten bob notes, half a crown and a tanner? Please put a penny in the old man’s hat. Wasn’t life great back then?
Well… not really. What about the rat-infested bomb sites; life expectancy about 65, so many of our friends and relations buried in foreign parts; what about the threat of nuclear war; what about the disease and poverty that was rife? Do we really long for those things, or is it just the smoke-filled station in Brief Encounters?
The imminence of recovery thanks to great British expertise of lockdown and vaccination should urge us all to put nostalgia behind us and start to plan for the future. We can now dare to hope that in a month or two, sometime after the renewal of Easter perhaps, we really can expect to emerge from the gloom into the weather getting better, the lambs frolicking in the fields. So now must be the time to give some careful thought to what we want our lives - and Britain as a whole - to look like when it’s all over. Do we really want to go back to where we were 12 months ago just now? Or may this not be a moment to welcome so much that has happened in Britain over that time?
Zoom, Teams and video messaging were something out of science fiction; yet now they are enabling families (and businesses) around the world to reconnect in a way they could not have imagined. Meetings in village halls used to attract two or three people, yet now they are becoming vibrant (although beware Handforth Parish Council and Jackie Weaver, bless’er.) I miss getting letters, and still religiously use the Royal Mail for my constituency correspondence and to write to every eighteen-year-old. But can I really justify the 66 pence postage? (Thirteen shillings to send a letter- it used to be a penny!) And anyhow, is a letter through the post really the best way to speak to the younger generation? Perhaps not. Social media has such a lot to recommend it. I am sad about our high streets and do what I can to help preserve them; but online retail and Amazon have become an everyday part of our lives - do we really want to reverse that? Working from Home used to be a luxury for a privileged few. Now it is increasingly universal with side benefits of more leisure time, less commuting and stress and pollution; more time for outdoors and sports and above all for families. Do we really want to go back to ‘Working Nine to Five’ and the daily commute?
We are all longing to ’get back to how it was’. Of course we are. Human beings are instinctively conservative. We like things like they have always been. It’s a healthy instinct. But embracing the best that technology in particular can offer must be central to our route out of Covid and post-Brexit. We have so much to offer the World- as individuals and as a nation – and if we approach the brave new world in the right way, we really can make sure that these changes and others are truly for the best.
Nostalgia mustn’t become what it used to be…
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.