Just yesterday when I wrote this week’s Column I commented on a serious matter in the Westminster World - whether or not the current Covid-inspired arrangements were or were not good for Parliamentary democracy. That now seems a petty consideration by comparison with the developments overnight in America.
It is simply inconceivable that in an advanced democracy thousands of thugs supporting the losing side should think it reasonable to invade Capitol Hill and seek to disrupt the smooth transition of power. The Republicans demonstrably lost the election, reconfirmed by the unheard-of loss of two Senate seats in Georgia. The Democratic party, for good or ill, now control both the Senate and House of Representatives as well as having a duly elected President. So be it. That’s democracy for you.
What comfort it must be to corrupt dictatorships round the world to hear ‘The Leader of the Free World’ apparently incite his disappointed followers to seek to disrupt that very democratic process. By any standard of decent governance anywhere, it’s an absolute disgrace, and President Trump will leave office under a cloud of shame.
The Global Covid crisis (and the UK figures announced yesterday are horrific) demands at least good sound governance to deal with it - governance which the people respect and accept even if they dislike it. That principle seems to have broken down in the United States and it must be restored.
In our own little way, we here must make sure that Parliamentary procedures and practice equally deserve the respect of the electorate as a whole. Government must be seen to be fair and decent and strong. That’s why I am so keen to be certain that the Westminster Parliament behaves and is governed in a way that all of the people accept, even if they dislike it. If it does not, then we risk undermining the whole basis of decent Parliamentary democracy.
It is quite right that Parliament has been recalled for a second time in this Christmas Recess to pass Lockdown Number Three into law. It is right that these things are scrutinised and approved by Parliament, not just by the Government. MPs must have a chance to raise specific questions about it all with the PM and Ministers, and this Recall is their moment..…. Sort of
For in a positively surreal way, the note from the Chief Whip recalling us all coincided with another note from Mr Speaker pleading with us all not to come back. It was a positively Alice in Wonderland moment. To be fair, the Leader of the House has now changed the rules with regard to remote participation in debates and statements, so that we can all have our say from home or our constituency offices. MPs have to log in electronically, ask for a chance to speak on a particular Parliamentary event; the names are selected at random by a computer and, if you are lucky, your name comes up.
However, perhaps because it can be done electronically, vastly more MPs than ever before are putting in to speak. It was 350 or so for the debate on this Lockdown. The PM’s Statement, the Statement on Education under Lockdown and then the substantive debate on the laws needed to make it all happen, all took place between 1130 AM and 7 PM including speeches from both Front Benches. So very probably no more than a hundred MPs were able to take part. And anyhow a time limited two minutes reading out a pre-prepared statement to one’s computer on the kitchen table hardly fulfils the highest standards of Parliamentary debate.
Not only is the debate pretty stilted, to say the least; but we are also effectively prevented from voting in person on the matter being debated. For a month or so at the start of Lockdown 1 we had a perfectly workmanlike remote electronic voting system. But the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg did not like it, perhaps out of concern that it would become a permanent fixture, and abandoned it. For a time it was only possible to vote in person in Parliament, but of course that cannot really be justified now that we are asking everyone else to stay at home. So they have brought in a ‘proxy’ system which in essence involves us handing our vote to the whips who vote on our behalf. I understand that the Government Deputy Chief Whip, for example, now holds about 250 votes.
I am afraid that, perhaps in line with so much else right now, the Parliamentary system is wholly unsatisfactory, and it cannot be allowed to continue. I am glad to serve on the Commons Procedure Committee which looks after these matters (or at least advises the Speaker and Leader, who may always ignore what we say). We are already turning our thoughts to how the Commons should look once the Pandemic is over. We are considering the elements of a proper Parliamentary debate; how to re-educate MPs who may have got a bit slack about the whole thing over Lockdown; and how to make the best use of some of the innovations we have seen as a result of the Pandemic.
The Commons is Surrealist, Alice-like for now. We must take steps to make sure that after the Pandemic is over we recreate it as the finest debating and decision-making chamber in the World. We more or less created Parliamentary democracy. We must now restore it.
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.
You could well be forgiven for breathing a hearty sigh of relief as Big Ben bonged for Midnight on 31st December. 2020 has been a strange year for all, a really grim year for so many. People of course have suffered terribly from the Pandemic, through illness or even death of their nearest and dearest. Businesses have gone to the wall; jobs lost. So many of the events that we love have been cancelled; life has been at best ‘on hold’, for some a disaster. We would certainly not want to go through 2020 again.
Yet if you survived 2020, is that not so much better than not having survived it? And while there has been much to complain about, can we not also be glad over some parts of it. We must preserve the Covid-inspired humanitarian community spirit which we saw in so many ways during the year. Many people have escaped from the Rat Race to work from home, spend more time with the family and rediscover some lost hobbies and passions. We have done so many things that we have long meant to, but never got around to. Our health and to a degree our stress-reduced mental wellbeing have much improved, our exercise levels have increased.
And are we not lucky to live in such a lovely area as this? Many of us have gardens; those that do not are a stone’s throw from the countryside, historic villages, lovely country pubs (while they were open!) Spare a thought for those who may life in a tiny tower block flat in some great city; squashed in with umpteen bored children; facing a loss of livelihood, quite possibly a loss of physical or mental health. We may have had our little problems over the last twelve months; but let us think of the so many who are vastly worse off than we are.
As we approach the New Year, let us be glad that Brexit is done and dusted. I fought and campaigned for it for most of my political life and rejoice in the freedom and opportunities it will bring. But even those who were opposed to Brexit - and I honour their view if disagreeing with it - will be glad that it is all over and that we can get on with normal political and national life. The Pandemic is raging as we speak, and we may well be facing some very difficult times for a couple of months or so. But who would not rejoice at the imminent arrival of the vaccine (especially the Oxford Astra Zeneca one - Britain Is leading the world with it), and the likelihood that the Spring will bring a sharply reduced infection rate, and the beginning of the end of the Covid nightmare.
It’s been a bad year for many, a terrible one for some; and a pretty crummy one for most of us. But let us just be glad that we have got through it, and that there is a real prospect of better things to come. So I truly wish you all a Very Happy, Healthy and Successful 2021.
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.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.