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.
I instinctively dislike all change. And I especially dislike changes to my constituency boundaries. There is no corner of North Wiltshire which I do not know and love; and I have represented most of it for 25 years. Like it or lump it most people know me too.
However, population movements over the last ten years or so have resulted in wide variations in the number of voters in Parliamentary constituencies. Very many MPs presently represent only 60,000 voters, some others as many as 100,000. (North Wiltshire is about 72,000.) So by law, independent Boundary Commissioners have studied every constituency, and have made proposals which will mean that (leaving aside the Western Isles, and the Isle of Wight), every MP will from the time of the next election represent between 69724 and 77062 voters. That seems only right and proper; but it does mean some very uncomfortable changes in Constituency Boundaries.
In the South West as a whole, for example, we go up from 55 to 58 MPs, and here in Wiltshire and Swindon we go from 7 to 7.5 MPs with a new cross-border constituency being created with Gloucestershire. My constituency border moves north, so that I will hope to represent places like Lechlade, Fairford, Cirencester, Kemble, Tetbury, Didmarton and so on tacked on to the north of my existing patch. To make the numbers work, I lose Royal Wootton Bassett and Calne, and a number of villages, which grieves me greatly. Royal Wootton Bassett has been the heart (physically, politically and emotionally) of my area for the 25 years I have been your MP, and it will be a great wrench to lose it (to the Chippenham constituency.)
There are a number of other anomalies in the Commission’s final proposals, which I am still lobbying to get changed. There is no logic in Box and Colerne being stuck on to the top of a new constituency which comprises Melksham, Devizes and Bradford on Avon; it would much more logically remain in my seat. And a bizarre line has been drawn moving the Quemerford ward of Calne into East Wiltshire with which it has little affinity. These and a number of other minor adjustments can still be made, and I urge those who will be most affected to let their views be known to the Parliamentary Boundary Commission. (Details and procedure can easily be found on line.)
Overall, my initial thought was that Wiltshire and Gloucestershire sit uneasily together. I was reminded by some that Malmesbury and Tetbury are only a couple of miles apart yet took different sides in the English Civil War. Those with even longer memories told me that whereas Wiltshire was in Wessex, Gloucestershire was part of the ancient Kingdom of Mercia. So they are very different in many ways. But they do of course also have a great deal in common, not least that they are located in the South Cotswolds, which is to be the name of the new seat.
Not only that but sitting in Malmesbury Abbey one day contemplating these matters, I was reminded that it was King Athelstan (who is buried there) who first united Wessex and Mercia; and that my role would be to emulate his great diplomatic success in doing so. Its not a question of “Wiltshire taking part of Gloucestershire” nor vice-versa. It’s a merger of two very similar places on an equal and comfortable basis. Perhaps one day I should change my name to James ‘Athelstan’ Gray.
‘Celebrating’ is a good thing to do, and we seem to be multiplying occasions for it. Birthdays (mine is on Monday- no cards or presents, thank you all the same); Christmas; births and marriages. All are worthy of celebration. Halloween now seems to be a joyous celebration as does the ritual burning of Guy Fawkes on 5 November. We even celebrate someone’s long and happy life at their funeral. Should we really be ‘celebrating’ Remembrance Sunday, so much as ‘marking it’. “Celebrate good times c’mon…”
Why then, is it that we tend to despise “celebrities” so much, especially ‘B-Listers’ and those desperately trying to escape the jungle. We admire a ‘personality’ – some like David Attenborough even become National Treasures. We long for leadership and role models; but we dislike pompous self-regard, are always keen to ‘knock people off their perches’ and strongly respect those who are ‘down to earth, common-sense sort of folk.’ We tend to resent the cigar-chomping billionaire as he swishes past in his Rolls Royce. “What gave him the right to be so rich?” we ask; unlike our American cousins whose reaction is “if you work hard, you too could have a gold-plated Cadillac.”
Some of these mixed emotions are becoming ever more commonplace in Parliament, and politics, and may be harming respect for our Parliamentary democracy as a result. Matt Hancock plainly thinks he’s a ‘celeb’ and warmly deserved being chucked out by the Conservative Party. What a plonker. Those who self-importantly lord it over each other are asking to be brought down a peg or two, and there are plenty of sacked ministers around who prove it. They should remember that the people you see on the way up are the same ones you will see on the way back down again.
However, the cult of the personality –‘celeb politics’ - seems to me to have gone too far. It increasingly looks as if we are not so much interested in what the new PM, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Home Secretary are doing from a policy perspective to deal with the very many major problems which confront them. Instead we are increasingly concerned about their personality, their background, their perceived failings or foibles. It’s a Strictly Come Dancing approach to great National matters of state, with routine instant phone-ins adjudicating on whether or not the Budget has got it right; or what we can do about the migrant crisis.
We need to get back to the old concept of a five-year Parliament, during which the Party in Government do what they have to do - some of which may well be unpopular with some or all of the electorate; and who will then be judged at the following General Election as to whether or not overall they have got things right, or at least get them more right than the other lot. Let’s get away from Celebrity Big Brother, get you out of the Come Dancing jungle; and get back to long, cold, intelligent consideration of policy and politics. Ours’ should be a carefully considered, modest and sober profession. Celebrity (and too much celebration) undermines it.
Are policemen really getting younger, or is it just that we are getting older? Some very dear friends gave me the most wonderful birthday present - two pencil sketches by an Illustrated London News artist who happened to be in the Commons Gallery on Churchill’s last day, 27 July 1964. In one he is sitting listening, and the other shows the great man walking out of the Chamber for the final time -after 64 years’ service.
My friend Sir Peter Tapsell reminisced about how- as the junior whip- it was his job to look after Churchill after PMQs one day. He took him down to his usual seat in the Smoking Room, plied him with a brandy and a cigar, and tried to make conversation - about the War; about brick-laying; about the Royal Navy. Not a squeak emanated from the old man until after an hour he rose to his feet, fixed (merchant banker) Tapsell in the eye, grunted “Never trust a banker” and shuffled off…... Those were the days.
What a contrast with my colleagues Matt Hancock making a fool of himself in the jungle, Gavin Williamson being exposed as an alleged bully and Labour’s Matt Western accusing Jeremy Corbyn of ‘being senile.’ Are these childish playground antics new, I wonder, or are we just getting older and less tolerant of them? History will tell.
Remembrance Sunday reminds us of true greatness and self-sacrifice. As well as Remembrance services in Calne and Royal Wootton Bassett, I was glad to plant a cross in the Speaker’s Garden of Remembrance. It was especially in honour of my predecessor Captain Victor Cazalet who was the MP from 1924 to 1943 when he was killed in the General Sikorski air crash in Gibraltar. I have been asked to serve on the Speaker’s Advisory Committee planning a National Arboretum memorial to MPs and peers like Captain Cazalet killed serving their King and Country. Like those whose bodies passed through Royal Wootton Bassett, they obeyed their orders, suffered terrible privations, injuries both physical and mental, and in so many cases gave their lives. “Greater love hath no man…’’
Remembering those great people who sacrificed their lives for the greater good of the Nation perhaps puts current day shenanigans into perspective. Remembrance tide invites us to try to follow their example, to lift our vision above the horizon, to do what is best for the greatest number. Politics should not be about Party, most definitely not about self. It must be about the Constituency and its people and about truly serving the Nation. Churchill- and those who gave their lives in the wars - should set today’s politicians an example of service and self-sacrifice. We who are lucky enough to have avoided wartime military service and have lived into middle age and beyond salute the young men and women who served and died.
At the going down of the Sun and in the morning, we will remember them…..
In most weeks for the last five years or so, I have sat down to write my update with a fog of thoughts and crises, problems and events swirling around my head. I try to vary the subject matter from week to week; but almost always immediate events dictate what the subject matter will be. It’s amazing nonetheless how often my readers question “why are you talking about x,y,z. Isn’t a,b,c more important at a time like this?”
Well, my earnest hope is that from now for at least couple of years I’ll be hard pressed to think of anything to write. I hope that politics will be dull as ditch water, that the great ship of State will steady herself and glide smoothly through untroubled waters; that Rishi Sunak and his Administration will find fair and workmanlike solutions to the myriad problems the world and the UK face; and that we can look forward to a decent period of peace and prosperity, and calm reflectiveness. Let’s hope.
I was delighted that the ‘100 supporter’ threshold for the leadership of the Conservative Party which Sir Graham Brady thought up and carried out so effectively, meant an end to blood-letting, and to navel gazing within the Tory Party. There are enough problems in the world without making it all a whole lot worse by internal squabbles.
All reshuffles produce winners and losers – the winners are convinced that their elevation to greatness has come about because of their own innate worthiness; their policy brilliance and their ability to communicate it. The losers look bitterly at those promoted above them, who they inevitably feel are not worthy of the promotion. The only real winners are those - like me – who love our jobs and seek no reward save the approval of our electorate. There’s an old army expression GOPWO - Grossly Over Promoted Warrant Officer” - usually levelled at some of our most senior Generals. There are a few GOPWOs in the new Government, but overall it is a strong and competent group of people – from a wide diversity of backgrounds. Is it not ironic that it is we Conservatives who have had three women Prime Ministers and now one of a South Asian heritage. Despite their protestations to the contrary, all Labour Leaders have been “pale, male and stale.”
So after what by any standards has been a turbulent few months; I would like the world to steady; I would like Rishi and his Government quietly to address some of the great concerns of the day; I would like them to do what must be done for the greater benefit of all of the people, even if there may be some tough and unpopular decisions inherent in that.
Sunlit uplands to come, clear blue water to get there, and a steady hand on the tiller of the ship of State.
© 2022 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.