The shock and sadness and bereavement when someone dies can sometimes risk blotting out all that was so good about their lives. So it is with my dear friend, Chris Wannell of Royal Wootton Bassett who died on Monday.
The words ‘Wannell’, ‘Wootton Bassett’ and ‘Fire Brigade’ are so intertwined as to be inseparable (despite the fact that Chris was from Chippenham by birth.)
There is almost no aspect of the town of Royal Wootton Bassett with which he - and his dear family, Audrey, Heather and Martin - were not involved in one way or another. He was a Town Councillor for 40 years, Mayor not once but twice (as was Audrey), he was a District Councillor, the inspiration behind the sad Repatriations of fallen service people through the town, Chairman of the local Scouts, a founder member of the Carnival Committee, involved with the Rotary Club, St Bartholomew’s Church, the Christmas Lights, Wootton Bassett Academy, the local Conservatives, of which he was a staunch and stalwart member, and in so many other ways. There was not an inch of Bassett which he did not love with a passion. “Cut me open,” he used to say, “and you’ll find ‘Bassett’ engraved on my heart.”
Chris was a lifelong fireman, rising to become Officer in Charge of the Bassett Fire Station. He saved countless lives and property and went on to make a huge contribution to the Fire Fighters Charity with his beloved historic fire engine, ‘Martha’ – who had given service in the Blitz. Martha was a well-known figure throughout the area, raising money, bearing coffins of deceased firemen- of which Chris’s own coffin will be the latest as it is borne down the High Street -attending steam fairs like that in Castle Combe where I joined once for a memorable ride. Chris and I drove Martha down into Castle Combe village accidentally to a stage where we could not do a three-point turn. “Drive her round by the Manor House”, he said, and we got some great photos without being done for trespass. Chris well deserved the Fire Service Charity’s ‘Lifetime Service Award’ which he won in 2018, followed by a Garden Party in No 10 Downing Street.
Chris was no stranger to Parliament. I remember he and his great friend George Scarrott of the Bassett travelling showman’s family coming up to give evidence to the Commons about how to keep travelling fairs on the road. They shared a bedroom in a local hotel - and each complained to me separately about how much the other snored. Now Chris and George will be enjoying a pint of 6X in the Five Bells in the sky reminiscing about old times.
Chris was an absolute pillar of the community of Royal Wootton Basset in every way, and he will be greatly missed by his lovely family, but also by his so many friends, among whom I am proud to be counted, throughout Royal Wootton Bassett and the wider community.
As we bid Chris a fond farewell, let us remember a Good Life Well Lived.
Captain Sir Tom Moore’s was indeed a ‘life well lived.’ It is sad to see him go - of course it is. But then again, his achievements of the last twelve months are in a way a good end to a long and happy life. It was his grit, and his enthusiasm and his dry humour that appealed to us all; and I suspect that he died a very happy man surrounded by his family.
Captain Sir Tom must also have been pleased by the news of the very successful start to the delivery of the vaccine in the UK. All residents of care homes, and most care home workers, 80% of the vulnerable over-eighties, some 10 million people so far, and every prospect of a significant proportion of the population by the Summer. It really is a phenomenal achievement- of commercial good sense by buying decent quantities well in advance, albeit taking a risk that they might not work; of logistical planning; and of mustering a volunteer army. I am especially proud of the St John Ambulance, of which I am glad to be a Commander, who are training up and deploying 30,000 volunteers in the effort. Top marks to my friend Sir David Hempleman-Adams, explorer and former High Sheriff of Wiltshire who has undergone the rigorous St John training, and is jabbing arms in Bristol as you read this. I wonder if his patients know who he is?
By comparison, EU countries are furious that their own slow-moving and bureaucratic approach of purchasing the vaccines collectively has meant a much slower roll-out across the Continent. The Germans in particular are furious; and Ursula Von der Leyden’s absurd attempt to block the Irish Border in retaliation, followed by a swift reversal of the idea, just makes the EU look silly. Having said which, even sillier is the spokesman who justified this about-turn by commenting that “only the Pope is infallible”- perhaps not a particularly happy analogy to use with regard to Protestant Northern Ireland.
We’ve been a month in lockdown now, and I hope that you are getting through it. Parliament is barely operating, with MPs being encouraged to work from home. I have been doing what I can remotely and have to admit to beginning to feel a bit ‘Zoomed-out.’ Zoom could be self-defeating if everyone seeks to justify themselves by yet another zoom briefing.
I walked four miles last weekend (not bad on two tin hips) and was especially glad to see so many families out for walks, skateboarding, ponies, all of course carefully maintaining social distancing from others exercising round Great Chalfield. It’s tough for so many people - of course it is. But the figures really do seem to be indicating that the Lockdown is working (leaving aside the worrying new variant spotted in Bristol and Liverpool), and that vaccine and lockdown together with better weather from March onwards really should signal the end of it. We all hope so; and if we rigorously stick by the rules, no matter how boring that may seem, then we are all making our own little contribution to that happy day.
The late and great Captain Sir Tom would be proud of us and doubtless exhort us all to yet greater efforts.
What do Ted Heath, Theresa May and Donald Trump have in common? Their reluctance to give up the levers of power and influence with a good grace must be just about the only thing.
Along with most of the world, I breathed a sigh of collective relief as we saw the end of the mad, bad, vulgar, self-obsessed Trump, and the arrival of the mild and apparently wound-healing Joe Biden, and the glamorous and highly competent Kamala Harris. They are taking on a tough job, but we all – of whatever our personal political inclination - wish them well in it. And well done to Vice President Pence for behaving in a more gentlemanly manner than his ex-boss and turning up at the important and symbolic Inauguration Ceremony.
Why Theresa May should have thought that a good moment to launch an (entirely unjustified) attack on Boris Johnson’s apparent lack of “moral government” is reminiscent of her equally foolish and ill-timed description of her own party as “The Nasty Party”. Does she not remember Ted Heath’s years of grumbling at his much-disliked successor, Margaret Thatcher? Is she not grateful that David Cameron has said not a squeak about her own disastrous premiership? Has she no loyalty to her own Party, or does self-disappointment over-ride it?
On the other side of the World, you may not have noticed an event in Mongolia – an independent Republic surrounded by those great dictatorships, China and Russia, whose Parliamentary system is based on Westminster’s since we were the first nation in the world to recognise them after Soviet times. The Mongolian Prime Minister and entire cabinet resigned this morning because their only Covid patient so far died being transferred between two hospitals in the Minus 25 degrees Celsius weather wearing only plastic hospital slippers. She died, apparently, not of Covid but of pneumonia. (There may be more to this story than meets the eye!) What a brave and honourable move.
Incidentally I hear very good things indeed about the roll-out of the vaccine in both Calne and Malmesbury, and the charm and efficiency with which is being achieved. So my thanks and congratulations to all of the professionals responsible.
I too stuck my neck out this week - rebelling against a three-line whip to vote in favour of Lord Alton’s amendment to the Trade Bill which aimed to stipulate that we should not trade with countries guilty of genocide. The 33 Tory rebels had China in particular in mind, and the fate of the Uighur people, who do indeed seem to be victims of genocide. Lord Alton may have erred by giving the decision to the courts, and it may well be reworded to make it a Parliamentary decision instead; but the principle remains the same, and I have no shame over my little rebellion. (Bang goes my knighthood- again!)
Politics should be about doing whatever you think is right, no matter what the consequences. Donald Trump and Theresa May could both take some lesson from the honourable PM of brave little Mongolia.
Most of us live where we live in North Wiltshire because we like it like it is. Or at least I presume that if we did not - if, for example, we craved the hustle and bustle of the city - then we would go and live in Bristol or Swindon. The reality is actually the opposite - more and more people want to live like we do and would give anything to come and live in North Wiltshire. The moral question at the heart of all planning is: “Do we have some kind of obligation to allow them to do so?”
Wiltshire Council are starting the long and tortuous process of trying to decide what the County will look like through until 2036. It’s what is known as the Local Plan, and it lays out the broad parameters of planning into the future. For reasons known only to themselves, the County are proposing to provide some 5000 more homes by 2036 than the Government is asking for. That will mean a real change in the way a large part of our area will look. It will mean houses, roads, infrastructure, employment land. Do we really want it?
Wiltshire has concluded that Chippenham, Trowbridge and Salisbury should take most of the extra housing needed (Swindon is done separately), so I guess that we should be glad that Malmesbury, Royal Wootton Bassett, Purton, Calne and Box will be relatively spared unreasonable over-development as a result. The first step towards achieving their housing targets looks like a new by-pass to the East of Chippenham, swathing through unspoiled countryside. Do we need a new bypass? Not really - there’s a perfectly good one to the West of the town. Nor must we be bribed by the £75 million the good old Government is shelling out for this road. It’s a bribe, because with it comes 7500 houses. That’s a new town the size of Calne, double the size of Malmesbury. It will mean 20,000 or so extra citizens of Chippenham; it will mean 10 or 15,000 more cars trying to weave their way to the supermarkets to the west of the town as well as to the station and motorway.
Now we do need some low-cost housing for local people. And no doubt some will be rather reluctantly provided by the profiteering developers. But most of the houses will be lovely three and four bed houses designed to attract well paid commuters. Our population and employment is currently more or less in balance, so why do we need all these extra houses? They are houses for people who do not presently live here. So why, you may well ask, are we planning to wreck a great patch of countryside in order to block up our roads with thousands of cars, overstretch our schools and surgeries and infrastructure, in order to provide nice houses for people from elsewhere? There’s no reason that I can think of.
The new road will sweep down from the Wavin roundabout (its already more or less completed from the Morrisons roundabout), round Abbeyfield School and the football ground, then across the meadows to the Lackham roundabout. Any land inside that curve will then be fair game for the developers - including large amounts of unspoiled farming and recreation ground.
Add to that a wholly unnecessary and hideous solar farm down beyond where the road will cross the A-4, and you land up with significant urbanisation half the way to Calne. If we allow either we will risk ruining the very fine environment which all of us who live here love so much.
So now is the time for action. Take up cudgels on behalf of our countryside, our quiet market towns and villages and stop the onward march of philistine developers. Letters, petitions, protests, judicial reviews. Let’s go for it. Let’s keep North Wiltshire how we like it - green and pleasant.
The excesses which are marking the end of the Trump era in the United States are symptomatic of something wider - the total failure of good governance. Decent government is all about making choices, taking decisions between or amongst competing interests and pressures. It’s about how you best use scarce resources for the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s about how you look after the weakest in society while not necessarily disadvantaging the better off or more competent. It’s about balancing off the short-term against the medium and long term; about ignoring popularity in favour of statesmanship while always being conscious of the fundamental electoral foundations of good democracy. It’s a complex business; which is why governments get things wrong from time to time; why they change course on occasion.
Trump, dictators of all kinds, ignore those delicate balances and sensibilities being certain that they are always right. He has taken it to absurd lengths by denying the undeniable fact that he lost the Election. It’s like Chemical Ali (or 'Comical Ali' as he turned out to be) broadcasting Saddam’s triumph as the American tanks rumbled into Baghdad.
Some of my Covid correspondents exhibit some of the same characteristics. There are the conspiracy theorists (QAnon and the Illuminati); there are the extreme deniers “Covid does not exist; it’s a figment of someone’s imagination; it’s no worse than a dose of flu”; there are the anti vaxxers ; there are the extreme libertarians who object to face masks and lockdowns; there are those with clear (if often incorrect ) views about the best way to roll out the vaccine; about how their military expertise from many years ago gives them expertise on testing regimes and how to make them work. It’s amazing how many expert epidemiologists and logisticians there are around; and astonishing how much their proven expertise so often fundamentally differs from the next correspondent with equally sound credentials.
The fact is that defeating this Pandemic is not a matter of conviction, nor of dogmatism; it’s a matter of flexibility, quick thinking determination to meet the enemy on its own ground and deploying whatever resources may be necessary. It’s the virus that’s in charge. It changes, mutates, flares, and the Government has to be ready to change its approach accordingly.
The fact is that we are in a straight race. It’s Virus Versus the Vaccine. We have to get enough people vaccinated before the virus overwhelms the hospitals. There are some signs that Lockdown may be starting to work - certainly in London and the South East with infection figures levelling off just a bit. Sadly, hospitalisations and deaths lag behind by perhaps a couple of weeks, so we will not see their peak until February, by which time substantial numbers of people will have been vaccinated.
So we have to hold our nerve. Strain every sinew to get the vaccine out. Observe the rules to the nth degree - avoiding if possible all human contact for another month or so. In everything we do we must presume either that we are asymptomatic and therefore a potential spreader, or that the person we are meeting may be. Either we or they have Covid and we must treat each other with all due respect as a result.
Trump is ignoring the realities of life. We must not do so.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.