Two great events overshadow what has by any standards been a turbulent year. The sad death of that great stabiliser, that symbol of so much that is Great about Britain, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the accession of King Charles III marks off 2022 in our history books. And a vicious land war within the borders of Europe of a kind we hoped - and promised - never to allow again carries with it all kinds of threats for the safe and prosperous future of the whole world.
A Global Recession, commodity prices through the roof as a result of shortages; interest rates and inflation soaring; the unaffordable cost of living; energy bills forcing a choice between eating and heating; climate change making itself felt in all kinds of weather abnormalities; these and so many other urgent and imminent crises make 2022 the most turbulent of years. With all of that as background, we in the UK saw three Prime Ministers, countless Chancellors and Ministers; I have lost track of how many Budgets. And the end result in what should be the Season of goodwill and festive cheer is a rash of the most bitter of industrial disputes and strikes as public sector workers and others seek to boost their incomes commensurate with inflation.
Every single aspect of the year’s turbulence (and domestic turbulence which was its fore-runner- Brexit, Boris, Covid, leadership battles, Truss) is capable of sharply differing analysis and opinion. We all feel strongly on some (or often all) of the above; and many of us are ready to express our views (as my email inbox proves). I very much welcome that. No one, no party, no international body or force has any kind of monopoly of correctness nor truly occupies the moral high ground seeking a solution to these problems. Only by discussion, by debate, can we try to find some kind of consensus; some kind of correct or acceptable outcome. Thesis and Antithesis produce Synthesis.
These Aristotelian arguments and debates are (sometimes) better informed by one or more of a variety of philosophical principles. Are we ideologues or pragmatists? Do we spend our way out of trouble; or should we seek low taxes and economic growth? Should we disarm, as the pacifist appeasers would have it; or re-arm so that we can support the brave Ukrainians in their historic battle with the evil Putin regime? Does our innate belief in a liberal western democracy mean that we cannot talk to others of a different view- Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Taliban, China, North Korea? Is ‘Jaw jaw jaw’ really possible, or are we doomed to ‘war, war, war’?
These thoughts and doubts and worries swirl around us like freezing fog as we wish each other a “Merry, Happy, Jolly, Peaceful, Prosperous Christmas and New Year”, or even more fatuously “Happy Holidays.” Yet when the sea is running; when the world is in turmoil; when we really cannot argue that we know what’s best, nor campaign for any kind of clear and decisive outcome; surely when the world is truly in turmoil, that’s the very time when we need a rock of stability; some certainties to which to tie our storm-tossed little coracles.
We all have our own personal lodestars to help us through the storms. But for me it’s the reality of the birth of Christ in the stable; of all of the important symbols and tales of Christmas. It’s a 2000-year-old guide to all that is good and stable, and holy and mystical in the world. It’s a way to lift ourselves above the mundane and the wicked, to banish the rotten and miserable, and fix our sights on something which is truly, universally, greater than all of us.
So I do wish you all a very Happy and Jolly Christmas; I hope you have a lovely time with friends and family, that you sing a few carols, enjoy the King’s speech, have the odd tipple or two. But even more important, I hope we can find that Stable and peaceful New Year.
It’s not the content of the Meghan/Harry Saga which I find dull- they have chosen to go off to be B-List celebs in Tinseltown, and good luck to them if that’s what they want. It’s not even their relentless use of the media (from whom they claim to be refugees), to attack the very heritage with which they nonetheless adorn themselves. It’s the whingeingly self-obsessed miserableness which the public is finding tedious.
By contrast, it was an honour to be presented to His Majesty the King when he came to Westminster Hall to unveil the plaque commemorating the late Queen’s Lying in State. He is the very embodiment of modest, decent gentlemanliness and of those great British sentiments- the stiff upper lip and the Dunkirk spirit.
We Brits love a bit of a crisis. The wrong kind of leaves on the line; Brr…. Britain freezes; transport chaos thanks to a few inches of snow in places. We love to complain about the weather, the football (especially that referee), the cricket scores and above all about our politicians. ‘Hell in a handcart’ must be one of the most overused pub expressions. We love a good old moan. But then something odd happens. We start to speak to one another. The lift grinds to a halt between floors; the train breaks down, there’s a crisis of any sort, and previously taciturn Brits get quite chatty and friendly; bonding together against adversity; keeping our spirits up; doing our best in difficult times. That’s the spirit we saw, for example, throughout the Pandemic and in other great national crises. Keep Calm and Carry On.
The 130 or so Albanian refugees who are being wholly inappropriately housed in the top-rated Wiltshire Hotel near Royal Wootton Bassett has united us in outrage. Why should we house these fit young men from a perfectly safe European Nation who have illegally migrated here not for political asylum but to find a better life for themselves. I very much welcome the package of measures which the PM announced on Monday designed to return them forthwith to where they came from. The Wiltshire Hotel is quite the wrong place for them, and I have made my views on the matter known in plain language to both the PM and Home Secretary.
They stand in stark contrast to the Afghans to whom we were pleased to give asylum and the 900 or so Ukrainians housed in Wiltshire alone – enjoying our traditional Christmas despite the awfulness of events back home. I had a meeting during the week with the Ukrainian Ambassador who described the truly dreadful circumstances for civilians across his country. Every single power production and distribution unit has been hit by missiles, meaning no electricity at all in this the darkest and coldest of winters; meetings can last no longer than an hour in the Ministries to allow civil servants to go home to use the loo (there’s no central water or sewerage across the country); 10 million or more are overseas, tens of thousands of their young men killed and injured, their children and women carted off to concentration camps in Russia. Their situation is truly awful, but their determination and strength of character second to none.
So it may be cold and a shade miserable here at home; we may well be worried about paying our bills, about heating our homes and getting to work; the handcart may never be far from our lips; but as at least most of us look forward to a half-decent Christmas, to jollity and puddings, a glass or two of wine huddled round our widescreen televisions watching the Kings’ broadcast; we should spare a thought for those so much less fortunate than ourselves, most especially overseas. We should occasionally remember the Dunkirk spirit and acknowledge how very lucky we are to live in this great country of ours and how much we have for which to be very thankful. Bit less whingeing and a bit more stoical rejoicing will make Christmas a truly happy time for us all.
(and women too- just quoting from Ecclesiasticus- don’t blame me.)
Memorial services in St Margaret’s Westminster (Parliament’s parish church, and part of the Abbey) are superbly well done. A magnificent building, lovely music, and the good and the great praising famous people… I was at the service on Monday giving thanks for the life of farmer and leader, Lord Plumb, and on Tuesday for Elspeth (Baroness) Howe, - Geoffrey Howe’s widow, but a very great woman in her own right. Wiltshire based NFU President Minette Batters, Baroness (Virginia) Bottomley, Sir John Major and (ex-Archbishop) Lord Carey all spoke of the huge contribution they had made to our national life and in so many other (very often very humble) ways as well. Large congregations from Parliament and families and friends (including HM the Queen Consort at Lady Howe’s service) come to pay their tributes and remember their part in the long and happy lives we were celebrating.
Mr Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, is doing a first-class job in so many ways, and with some very good new ideas. We used his house in the Autumn to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Falklands Campaign; then he initiated a Garden of Remembrance for all Parliamentarians in New Palace Yard under the splendid flag poles he has had erected. He has asked me to serve on an Advisory Committee on a new memorial at the National Arboretum in commemoration of MPs and peers, and others working in the Palace who gave their lives for their country. I am especially keen to remember Captain Victor Cazalet who was the MP here from 1924 until he died in the air crash in Gibraltar which killed General Sikorski in 1943.
On Wednesday it was a privilege to see Mr Speaker and Mrs Zelenska open an exhibition in Parliament’s Portcullis House marking the appalling war crimes of which the Russians have without a doubt been guilty in Ukraine. It’s a harrowing experience- leaving little to the imagination. But then again, it is right that we in Parliament are aware- and constantly reminded- of what is happening in Ukraine so that we can try and find some kind of a solution to it. At very least we must ensure that Putin and his cronies pay a heavy personal price for their appalling crimes against humanity.
Church Services, tokens (like the poppy), memorials, ceremony of all kinds, flags and heraldry, exhibitions, meetings- all and more could on their own have their utility questioned, in some cases even mocked. Yet it is through these visual mementoes that we sharpen our awareness of what is happening around us; and they spark thoughts and then actions to put it right.
It is right to praise great men and women and learn from and be inspired by their lives; and to note and praise great people while they are still with us, as well. Yet we must also remember Shakespeare’s ‘Wolsey’s Farewell to his Greatness’:-
“Today [man] puts forth the tender leaves of hope; tomorrow blossoms and bears his blushing honours thick upon him; the third day comes a frost, a killing frost and nips his root, and then he falls, as I do.”
Lord Plumb and Baroness Howe were not ‘tall poppies’; they were not like Icarus (or Cardinal Wolsey) flying too close to the Sun with disastrous consequences; their greatness rather lay in their ordinariness; in their empathy with people of all sorts; and with their huge labours at a very humble level. So let us now praise and take our inspiration from famous men and women - like them.
With-holding your labour is one of the most fundamental freedoms of a liberal capitalist democracy. We don’t force people to work if they don’t want to. However, the current rash of strikes seems to me to amount to more than that basic right. If they are politically motivated- designed to destabilise the Government, and presumably to achieve a Labour one instead- then they are much more questionable. Not only that, but their format and timings seem designed to hit the unfortunate private citizen hardest and to cause untold misery at Christmas. I do not believe that the majority of workers in public service occupations are comfortable with this position.
Industrial disputes should be resolved by negotiation, with striking being reserved as the ultimate sanction against an employer. The right to strike must always be balanced against the right of the general public to get on with their daily lives. It cannot be right that trade unions can, as in the case of the rail strikes, hold the country to ransom. That is why the government have announced a series of new laws on transport, including forcing the Union to put any payment offer to the workers in a secret ballot. (Labour, incidentally, say they would abolish that perfectly reasonable law- surprise, surprise, given their Trades Union paymasters)
The Government spent £16 billion – equivalent to £600 for every household in the UK – keeping the trains running through the pandemic, and ensuring that key workers could keep moving, so it is extremely disappointing that the unions have opted to carry out industrial action precisely at the point at which the railways are recovering. It should also not be forgotten that many of these workers would also have had their jobs supported and saved by the furlough scheme. Not only that, but many railway staff are already being paid far more than teachers, nurses and emergency workers. And all of them are paid more than the soldiers whose Christmases will be ruined to fill in for them.
As to the Royal Mail- we all know that we are sending fewer and fewer letters (even Christmas cards are probably down by a lot this year), so I am baffled both by why the Royal Mail believe that constantly putting the cost of stamps up to an unaffordable level will help, and why postmen and women think that striking and failing to deliver cards and parcels through the festive season will do their cause any good at all. They should resolve their dispute by reasonable discussion aimed at preserving our Royal Mail for the future.
Nurses are beloved of us all, and they are doing a magnificent job under very difficult circumstances, never more so than during the pandemic. We owe every nurse a huge debt of gratitude for the care they provide. The Government fully acknowledge that debt and have therefore honoured the recommendations of the independent pay review body with a roughly 5 per cent pay rise. Newly qualified nurses will typically earn over £31,000 a year including overtime and unsocial hours payments, with more experienced nurses on £41,000. I accept that no matter how much they are paid it will never truly reflect their wonderful dedication and care; but we also have to think about the other costs of the NHS.
The rash of strikes in these and other public sector professions may to some degree be justifiable. But they themselves produce inflation, which will get cemented into the economy and be much harder to reverse than price-driven inflation. They really should think about the greater good of the greater number; and above all, they should be aware of the consequences of their strike action on the everyday lives of ordinary people. They have a right to strike, but they should not, in my view, be exercising it.
There is something immensely reassuring about the famous ‘bongs’ of Big Ben, which have now restarted after many years of silence. My own parliamentary office looks straight out over the Elizabeth Tower (as it should more properly be known), but you can hear the bongs throughout the palace and across much of central London. (I restrained myself from correcting an American tour guide, who I heard recently describing Big Ben as the “world famous Tower of London”). Big Ben symbolises the unchanging changelessness of our great British constitution and Parliamentary rule of law.
Unwritten as it is, our constitution is the product of a 1000 years of history and, no matter who is in Government, citizens can be reasonably assured of good Government and a stable constitution. If you sat down with a clean piece of paper you would not necessarily design it as it is, but then again nor would you design Parliament as it is. Both do a first-class job.
So I very much welcomed the Supreme Court’s judgement that the Scottish National Party may not hold any kind of binding or officially recognised referendum on Scottish independence. The fact is that they had one only a few years ago, which they lost. That must be an end to it.
Sir Keir Starmer has promised to abolish the House of Lords. That may have a superficial soundbite attractiveness to it. However, hereditaries, political appointees and the great and the good in general who currently make up the House of Lords are in actual fact doing a first-class job of scrutinising the legislation which the Commons send to them and in so many other ways. You tinker with the Constitution or even worse fundamentally upset it at your peril.
The primacy of the House of Commons means that when this week I added my name to 50 backbenchers supporting an amendment to the Planning Bill which is currently before the Commons, that action had a real effect and has occasioned a fundamental rethink by the Government. My colleagues and I firmly believe that there should not be centrally set targets which dictate how many houses we should build, when and where. That should be a matter for local people through their duly elected Councillors. We have also been discussing last week’s Budget and again all kinds of backbench opinion has been brought to bear on the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The House of Lords is not allowed to consider financial or budgetary matters – a convention which would doubtless collapse if there were to be a duly elected Senate or Upper House, especially if that House was controlled by a different party to the party in Government.
Our constitution, which is the product of 1000 years of evolution, produces good legislation and holds the Government to account. The moment that you undermine that stability is the moment that good Government in the United Kingdom comes into question. The timelessness of Big Ben symbolises the iconic stability of our constitutional arrangements.
© 2022 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.