It’s hard to remember a time when weightier- and more problematic- matters faced us. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse? I hope not.
First, the Covid figures are appalling and to all appearances spiralling out of control. It’s not just about statistics (more testing); the old versus the young; university terms; herd immunity; nor any of the other diminishing arguments which Covid-deniers are busying themselves with. No government could allow - far less cause - tens of thousands of otherwise unnecessary deaths. So I voted for all of the measures which cleverer people than me say we need to balance public health and public wealth, (albeit reluctantly over the 10 PM pub curfew, about which I have reservations.) It’s too easy for each of us to be an instant expert. What we want now is unanimity and clarity.
Second, the Environment in its widest sense was at the top of the agenda this week. The Agriculture and the Fisheries Bills both transfer laws from the EU Statute book to the UK one. Expert opinions are almost as diverse as they are on Covid, but like Covid, the Bills overall make good sense. (And I hope that I have been able to assuage the concerns of those who believe they will result in a reduction in food or animal welfare standards after Brexit; or that they will bankrupt the farmer. They will not. Exactly the contrary.) The Environment Bill itself, which is enormous and similarly transfers EU environmental directives onto the UK Statute Book, is back next week. I am Chairing the Bill in Committee, which is a pretty massive job. Every word in a 500-page document will be scrutinised, debated, amended. My job is to make sure that that happens within the proper Parliamentary procedures allowing full scrutiny, especially for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. That means I cannot vote on the matter, so please do not be surprised when you do not see my name attached to it.
Third, freedom has been central to many of those discussions- freedom to act despite Covid (but when does my freedom, for example not to wear a mask, impinge on yours by risking passing you my nasty disease?) Fish and Ag Bills are about freedom from bureaucratic interference from the EU or elsewhere; but then again, a decent environment depends on collective agreement to sensible rules and regulations. And today in Parliament we are discussing the ways in which the Security Services can use surveillance tactics which would otherwise be illegal. Is the prevention of a terrorist outrage more or less important than the right to be certain that our phones are not being tapped? A tricky moral maze that one.
And fourth and wrapped around numbers one to three is the whole question of Parliamentary Democracy. Who decides these things? How do we constrain the Executive, or give them the powers they need to defeat the pandemic and terrorism alike; and protect our farming food and fisheries and the wider environment by applying rules which individually we might well not like? And incidentally how do we finalise the details of our departure from the EU? (Expect late night sweaty summits followed by an emergency resolution just in time and no more.)
Parliament, the media and the body politic more widely have been actively engaged on debates on all four threatening horsemen. Only time will tell which of them we were able to rein back…..
I respect POTUS’s self-belief that he is leading the Nation. No-one can accuse him of being indecisive; nor of ignoring the electoral realities of a Presidential election now only 3 weeks away. It’s a strong pre-emptive bid (in bridge terms, not that I know much about bridge.) He may be going for the Grand Slam, and like all bold bids he just may get away with it. Perhaps he has only mild symptoms; perhaps the experimental drugs he has been self-administering will work; perhaps he will be 100% fit within days. But I doubt it. And if his condition worsens; and if he goes on infecting all of those around him; if he keeps on putting politics in front of public health concerns; then I suspect that he will have thrown the election away as well as his and his inner circle’s health.
Something similar applies to all of those who write to me with pleas to end Covid restrictions; to let the virus run free in the hope of establishing some kind of herd immunity (the science of which is anything but clear); to throw the elderly and the vulnerable to the wolves in the hope of preserving their own particular interests or freedoms or businesses.
Now I do have some sympathy. I am on the Libertarian wing of the Conservative Party and am concerned that some of the things we are being asked to do have not been thought through properly and may well not work. I came close to voting against the rule of six this week, on the grounds that I think children should be excluded; and I have warned my whip that I will be voting against the 10PM rule for pubs next week (that should be last orders, followed by a staggered drinking up time). It looks as if the Government are moving inexorably towards other restrictions next week; and we in Parliament must be allowed to consider carefully what they are proposing. We need a less precipitate lemming-like rush over various cliffs in the hope that this most virulent of viruses might follow.
But the notion that that instinctive wariness of needless regulation should somehow or another lead to us allowing the disease to run more or less free; ignoring the thousands of deaths which would directly result from it; hoping like anything that the NHS would be able to cope; and relying on untested theories of epidemiology; is a view with which I profoundly disagree. Doing nothing except arranging extra places in the morgue would be immoral and wicked, and I for one will never support it.
We must act responsibly; do what has to be done. Mr Trump may not be concerned about his own health; he may think it a good laugh to go for a drive-by in his hermetically sealed limo, thereby virtually for sure contaminating drivers and security guards around him; he may think that electoral success depends on a cavalier devil-may-care approach to his own disease.
But it’s not about ‘me’. It’s not about my health, my prosperity. It’s about all of us. And all decisions and actions in reaction to Covid must have at the top of the paper: “It’s not about ME; it’s about US.”
Covid Decision Time
Every change to the Covid precautions produces a torrent of correspondence. It’s a topic on which virtually everyone has a view, some better informed than others, but all expressed in pretty extreme language. How have we all become such experts on epidemiology, parliamentary constitutional procedures, libertarian philosophy and economics under a pandemic? Most of us could probably write a book about it. Some of my regulars have done.
The reality is that there are four strands to every decision about Covid.
First is the Nanny State versus Individual Responsibility debate. Yet no matter how libertarian may be one’s instincts, the reality is that many of our fellow citizens are nowhere nearly as responsible as we are. The young, for example, perfectly reasonably argue that they are unlikely to die or even be very ill, so why should they not be allowed to get on with their lives? Indeed so, but you lot will then infect your elders.
Second is the Livelihoods versus Lives debate. If current restrictions go on for much longer, the consequences for the economy may well be so harsh and possibly permanent that it will cost many more lives through unemployment, suicide, poverty and starvation than would an uncontrolled pandemic (vide Sweden).
Third is the allied argument about freedom versus dictatorship. The Social Contract dictates that we give up only those freedoms necessary for the greater good of the greatest number. We sacrifice our liberties to the State because we accept it is overall to society’s benefit. But what happens when we disagree with what the government has decided? If we are of the view that masks are a waste of time, do we just ignore the regulation that we should wear them?
And fourth is the Government versus Parliament debate. Who is really in charge here? The Coronavirus Act is pretty totalitarian, allowing HMG to do more or less whatever it wants. Its six-monthly review is due next week. Should we freedom lovers support its extension for another 6 months? I have seconded Sir Graham Brady’s amendment which would require each decision to be endorsed by a vote in Parliament. Its legislative powers are being questioned. But right now, a Zombie Parliament because of its various Covid-related procedures and the Covid Act means that people really have very little say as to what life should be like. That explains the frustration in some of their letters.
Now each of those debates is capable of clear and strong argument on either side. Yet there is no simple answer to any of them. They are the arguments which the Government, or the PM in particular, are constantly weighing up, and each decision tries to take account of them. My own view is that since just about everybody is objecting to one or another aspect of the rules and regulations, the Government have pretty much got it right with a pragmatic middle road.
The statistics - of infection, hospitalisation and death - will tell us how right they are, and also how much the general population have accepted the rightness of the rules and abided by them. The Government will not hesitate to tighten them up if not. So let’s stick with it for now in the hope they do not have to do so.
Democracy is simple. The people decide which agenda, perhaps which candidate, they like best, cast their votes and expect their interests to be looked after as a result. Those elected representatives then engage in civilised and intelligent discourse; they coalesce around a leader and form a political party; they seek to persuade each other of the correctness of their views; they may be ready to compromise for the greater good of the greater number. They are then judged on their success 4 or 5 years later at the ballot box.
There may be occasional exceptions to that at a time of National emergency, when we may agree to give up some of our rights and freedoms to an Executive Government who we trust to do the right thing and to return those freedoms to us as soon as they possibly can.
Well much of that seems to me to have been undermined on both sides of the Atlantic this last week. How can it be that as mighty a Nation as the US of A cannot do better than the pair of jokers we watched squaring up to each other like a couple of past-it heavyweight boxers barely fit enough to get over the ropes into the ring? How can it be that they are seeking votes by flinging insults at each other? What has happened to civilised political discourse?
We signatories to the ‘Brady amendment’ on this side of the pond were slightly mollified by an undertaking by HMG that – where possible - they would allow votes on any major changes to the Covid rules and regulations. But that concession was granted in a rushed 1.5 hour debate with most speeches restricted to 1 or 2 minutes. (It takes me that long just to say “Mr Speaker…”) A handful of people made a few points, and even then, only if they had been successful two days previously in a mysterious ballot. And the votes we are promised will just be in Committee upstairs, with perhaps 15 MPs present, and no likelihood of any of them ever being won by the rebels, because the whips nominate the people on the committee.
Well done, Mr Speaker Hoyle, I thought for ticking off the Government - in a moderate yet stern way (what a great contrast from that pompous self-indulgent popinjay, Mr Bercow) – for treating Parliament with contempt. You were quite right.
But its not just about Covid. That is a symptom of a deeper malaise in Parliament. The social distancing regulations and procedures are such that Parliament simply cannot operate properly. We backbenchers are really not being given an opportunity to scrutinise what the Government are doing and to hold then to account for it. Balloting for speakers and questioners days in advance kills any pretence at spontaneity.
What we have is an unhappy hybrid of a Parliament. We should ether face up to the situation, open up the Chamber to all (make use of the public galleries if you will), make us speak sitting down, wear masks; do whatever it takes, including a degree of risk, to re-establish a proper Parliament.
Or if that can’t be done, then stop pretending that we are doing it. The Government are getting through whatever they want in the sure and certain knowledge that Parliament really cannot do anything about it. So let’s acknowledge that; let’s be frank that under these conditions we really cannot run a proper parliament; let’s find a way of doing it remotely - including the reintroduction of the remote voting system which worked so well. And let’s make it plain that these are emergency provisions for the duration of the pandemic only.
Democracy demands that we act.
Our intense domestic fixation- with Covid and its handling, and with Brexit; with the minutiae of our own lives and criticisms of our perceptions of how the Government are to blame, risks blinding us to the wider world.
Yet there is an awful lot happening out there. What is China’s 200-year game plan? (That’s the kind of timeframe they think in.) What are the true consequences of their Belt and Road initiative? What are their long-term plans for Taiwan and the South China Sea? Are they likely to be an overt (or more probably covert) dominating force over the entire world within a generation? Was Covid intentional (surely not); or are they learning lessons from Covid for future use of Pandemic as a weapon of war? What of Russia? Are their cyber capabilities developing as fast as China, and might Cyber become a potent weapon of war in the near future? The Middle East seems to have gone quiet of late; and Islamic terrorism less visible; but we take our eye off that ball at our peril. Europe is going through a period of profound change- economically and politically, and not solely because of Brexit. And the outcome of the United States election in a couple of months’ time could well have consequences for us all (irrespective of which way it goes.) All of that is without touching on South America, Africa and India, large parts of which are in Covid meltdown. And over and behind it all is the ever-present threat of Climate Change, melting polar ice and weather extremes. The world is a dangerous place indeed.
The Government are nearing the end of their Comprehensive review of Foreign Policy, defence and overseas aid. There are some conclusions emerging already. I personally support the amalgamation of the aid department with the Foreign Office. Overseas aid should be an instrument of diplomacy as well as a humanitarian necessity. Then there seems to be a strong message emerging from discussions that our defence posture is out of date. Some traditional aspects of warfare (e.g. main battle tanks) may well be replaced by attack helicopters, and cyber, intelligence, special forces operations will replace more traditional infantry and gunnery skills. The Royal Marines may well see some real changes; and the Royal Navy and Air Force face deep cuts.
I personally wholly accept the need for us to reassess what our role should be in the World and alter our defence and diplomatic stance as a result. But that must not be camouflage for deep defence cuts for example to cover some of our Covid costs. That risk may alone make this the worst possible time for any such review.
Not only am I strongly committed to increasing our defence spending and strengthening our forces; (and representing an area like this that is perhaps hardly surprising); but I am also very much of the view that the only certainty in warfare is uncertainty and unpredictability; and that we put all of our defence and foreign affairs eggs in one basket at our peril.
I am spending a couple of days at the magnificent Defence Academy at Shrivenham leading 50 MPs and peers on the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, of which I am Chairman. We will be hearing from the greatest experts on all of these matters and quizzing them on it. The discussion will become faster and hotter as we near the outcome of the review. I will be firmly holding the Government to account over it.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.