“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.
We enjoy a bilateral style of Parliamentary democracy in this country. One political party is elected to power by virtue of a majority in the House of Commons, and the other other becomes recognised as “His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.” It’s not a consensual committee. The Government governs, and the Opposition’s job is to ‘hold them to account’ by scrutinising what they are doing, by pointing out the weaknesses in our arguments; and then ultimately seeking to persuade the electorate that they would form a better government. Our unwritten constitution demands a robust Opposition keeping the governing party in check and offering the electorate a real choice. It is disappointing when that does not happen.
I am always ready to admit that the Government gets things wrong. We Tories have no monopoly on correctness, no God-given right to rule the Nation (although we have done so for about 80% of the last 100 years or so). And there ought to have been plenty of ‘open goals’ for Labour over the last few months- the economy, standard of living, last knockings of Brexit; personality turbulence within our party. Labour should be knocking spots off us; they should be 30% ahead in the polls; their leader overwhelmingly popular. That was how it was in 1995 in the run up to Tony Blair’s landslide victory. A quick comparison with now bodes ill for them. The lead they scored in the local government elections a few weeks ago of 8% would not translate into an overall majority at the General Election. It would most probably mean some kind of hung Parliament. Keir Starmer lays an egg at PMQs every week, both by choosing the wrong topic to run with, and by delivering his attacks in such a nasal and dreary way.
Seeking to topple a Home Secretary because, it is alleged, she asked her civil servants if she could have a one-to-one speed awareness course rather a group one, is absurd. As Tory grandee Sir Edward Leigh commented “scandals in the old days used to be about sex, about corruption; it was about illegal wars, the selling of honours.” ‘Speed awareness course gate’ barely features on the scandal Richter scale, yet the Shadow Home Secretary is focussing all of her efforts on it. That’s a token of how little they have to say on the great events of the day. And the wrecked SNP and insignificant Lib Dems barely show up at all.
The ’Stop Oil’ protestors were meanwhile (rather illogically) disrupting that great green event, the Chelsea Flower Show just down the road from Parliament perhaps having more impact on the body politic than poor dear Keir Starmer. I was delighted that the winner was Wiltshire-based charity Horatio’s Garden, who provide gardens for hospitals, especially for those with spinal injuries in memory of Wiltshire schoolboy Horatio Chapple who was so tragically killed by a polar bear in Svalbard a few years ago.
So Parliamentary life continues largely untroubled by HMLO. I am chairing the committee to consider the detail of the massive Energy Bill – 4 three-hour sessions a week- so far without votes of any kind. We’ve been having a little more trouble from the non-Tory majority in the House of Lords who are tinkering with our legislation. But then again the Commons accepts very much of what their Lordships propose, and just ‘ping-pong’ those things on which we feel strongly as the elected House. The Procedure Committee spent three hours quizzing the Party Chief Whips, the Leader of the House and the Speaker on the thorny issue of proxy voting for those with disabling medical conditions; and then we quietly rose for the Whitsun Recess and time to contemplate these great matters of State back in our constituencies.
Good democracy demands stronger opposition than we currently enjoy. Come on, Labour: Brace up and do a better job of it.
The customary hustle and bustle of Parliamentary life has seemed hushed this week. Labour were on a one line whip, so we had no votes at all in the week (for the first time I can remember). The controversial Bills are all churning through their Lordships’ processes, so we at the Commons end of the Palace will get very busy again shortly.
Or perhaps it was just like that lovely clean feeling the air seems to have straight after a heavy summer rainstorm. Last weekend was a turmoil (and a rainstorm) for most of us. The Local Government Elections on Thursday involved hundreds of thousands of people up and down the country knocking on doors, delivering leaflets, telling at polling stations and so much more. I did as much as I could to help my Conservative friends in Cotswold District Council, who ran a brilliant campaign securing 44% of the vote, despite sadly losing a couple of longstanding and dedicated Councillors, to whom I pay tribute for their commitment to public life.
The Coronation, its build up and aftermath was, of course a huge success in every possible respect. The 7500 soldiers on duty; the hundreds more who got them ready for it, and the multiple trains which shipped them into Waterloo Station; the staff at the Royal Mews and Knightsbridge Barracks; the Police and security people, and hundreds and hundreds of others who made the whole thing such a great success. Penny Mordaunt has to have been one of the greatest stars- holding that sword up for 2 hours in her beautifully designed costume. Yet even more endearing is the very modest way in which she accepted the universal acclamation- diverting the praise away to the military and all who took part.
Simultaneously over the long weekend, local businesses were benefitting from the 250,000 people who attended the 3-day Event at Badminton- another brilliant occasion involving many hundreds of people of every kind. It is said to be the largest spectator attended sporting event in the world; and we should be proud of that, alongside other major local gatherings like WOMAD near Malmesbury. And then on Monday so many people took part in a celebration of volunteering and self-help to mark the Coronation.
We are a nation of people who do stuff. I remember seeing Rishi Sunak make a clever point at one of his leadership rallies in Wiltshire. The audience were standing. He asked people to sit down if they were: Councillors, candidates, party activists. (Many did). But then he asked those who were local volunteers; who helped run youth services of all kinds; who were involved with Rotary, Round Table or Royal British Legion; volunteer firefighters – you get the idea. By the end of it there was not a single person left standing. We Brits get involved, help each other, volunteer in a million ways.
That is what makes us such a great Nation- our readiness to put our backs into causes, or politics, clubs and societies; to lend a hand to those less able than ourselves, to organise the committees, sell the raffle tickets, turn out on rainy nights in November to support the WI. The events of Coronation weekend reminded us all of that great British sense of duty and engagement so personified in the hard work of HM the King and every member of the Royal Family.
Sometimes one’s week is filled with great events of State. Sometimes it’s pretty much local constituency stuff raised in Parliament. This week’s been a few little campaigns and events.
I have for a year or more been fighting a battle on behalf of homosexual soldiers sailors and airmen who were court marshalled, imprisoned, had their rights, their dignity and their pensions removed for no reason other than their sexuality. Homosexuality was legalised in 1967; but it remained an offence in the Armed Forces until 2001; and many of those injustices have still not been addressed to this day. So inspired by an outfit called Fighting with Pride, Labour MP Luke Pollard and I have been doing what we can to make the Government listen. In answer to my oral Parliamentary Question to Defence Ministers on Monday, they indicated that there would be an announcement shortly; and all the hints are that we are winning this little battle to right what is without doubt a cruel injustice. I was able to bring Fighting with Pride up to date on it all at a breakfast on Tuesday.
I sent much of Tuesday in St James’s Palace taking part in the Chief of the RN’s Sea Power Conference, but also fitted in meetings about Space which is very important in this area- especially around Corsham; and took some constituents to a talk about Venture Capital before a formal RN dinner.
With the PM overseas, PMQs was taken by Oliver Dowden and was a pretty lacklustre event followed by meetings about the Committee of enquiry into the Arctic environment which I am currently chairing, a talk from the St Helena Government about the environment at the other end of the world; and a dinner with Bristol-based MBDA whose Storm Shadow Missiles are now going to be deployed to Ukraine. My military connections are sometimes useful locally as well. I was glad to help a Ukrainian lady refugee staying in Calne who had discovered that her 20-year-old son- whom she had not seen for two years had joined the Ukrainian Army and was coming to the UK for his training. She was naturally desperate to see him, and I was glad to pull a few military strings to make such a visit happen. I hope to join them for the reunion.
On Thursday I took part in a very good ITV West debate (broadcast around 10PM, so precious few viewers) about the renters bill (about which I have some concerns), farming (the PM’s Farm to Fork Farming Summit), and the local government election results (our vote in the Cotswolds went up from 39% to 45%, albeit we lost some very good Councillors). Thursday evening saw me at another dinner- this time for the so-called “Cirencester Society in London”. It’s a 1701 formed charity designed to help local causes and apprenticeships. (All right, James. All very worthy, but too many dinners, ed.)
Saturday sees the Freedom of Malmesbury being granted to IX Supply Regiment from Hullavington’s Buckley Barracks (I have been asked to present them with the “Malmesbury Medal”), and a musical evening near Tetbury.
None of these things are of huge earth-shattering importance, but I hope that they will mount up in aggregate to a fair week’s work doing what I can for local people and local causes.
“Small things but mine own.”
Tomorrow’s Coronation will be a magnificent affirmation of the Constitutional role of the Crown at the heart of our democracy. A few hundred yards from the Chamber of the House of Commons, His Majesty as Sovereign will promise to maintain the rights and dignities, the very ‘sovereignty’ of Parliament. Until the overthrow of King Charles I, the Sovereign ruled by absolute authority derived from God- the divine Right of Kingship. The people, as represented by Parliament, increasingly fought for their right to govern themselves. And they cut the King’s head off as a rather graphic way of making their point. They then rapidly came to realise that dictatorship of the kind exercised by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Parliamentarians was in fact a great deal worse. The Constitution has grown and developed over the intervening centuries and is now as close as you can get to a finely balanced Parliamentary democracy, with the Monarch as the largely symbolic Head of State.
I had rather a Royal week. In a Radio 4 World at One interview On Monday I spoke against the clarion call for His Majesty to apologise for slavery and Britain’s role in it. Counter intuitively I argued that an apology risks reducing our culpability; that it would ‘let us off the hook’; and that reparations in the form of aid going to deprived communities in the Caribbean was a more practical alternative.
On Tuesday evening I had a privileged ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse of the massive military effort which is going into the Coronation. Many thousands of troops arrived by train at Waterloo Station, resplendent in bearskins and red tunics. I spent the night watching the full dress rehearsal for tomorrow’s ceremonies, and being briefed on the logistical and security plans for the day. We do these things so very well, and I am sure that the vastly complex parade will go without a hitch. A little bleary-eyed I was at a breakfast the following morning to help plan a campaign for the outrageous injustice of gay soldiers who were cashiered and court-martialled for their sexuality as recently as 2001. Even worse, those wrongs have not until this day been righted. I will fight long and hard for them just as much as for the thousands of military I had witnessed overnight.
I had the honour of being presented to both King and Queen when they visited Parliament on Wednesday for a reception in Westminster Hall where for a thousand years or so Monarchs have met their Parliamentary subjects. Both Majesties asked me about the Parliamentary boundary changes which will be implemented at the next General Election when I will hope to become the MP for Highgrove. Both King and Queen have longstanding and deep links to this part of the country.
The local government elections on Thursday seemed tawdry by comparison. It was a very bad night for we Tories (it always is at these mid-term elections), but it was less of a triumph for Labour than they would have hoped, and by no means guarantees success at the General Election next year. There is something particularly unworthy about the self-congratulatory smugness of the Lib Dems who held onto Cotswolds District Council. “Winning here” is their slogan- well: so what? How about some commitment to real service akin to that amply demonstrated by the Royals.
What elections should be about is not “winning here” which is a selfish and self-regarding piece of boastfulness, so much as “serving here.” The Coronation, and the commitment of our armed service men and women are the epitome of public service- service to the people. That is a much more noble and distinguished ambition.
© 2022 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.