The House of Commons is at its very best for great State occasions. The tributes paid to Her Late Majesty on Friday were outstanding. The new PM Liz Truss, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan-Smith all spoke brilliantly, as did The Father of the House, Harriet Harman, Margaret Beckett, and so many others. I sat there mesmerised for three hours and then tucked my own planned meagre offering away in my pocket. It would have been about the Late Queen as Head of our Armed Forces; but by then everything that was worth saying had been said by others; and repeating it would have made it about me rather than about Her Majesty.
The Universal- and very genuine - outpouring of grief shows what a magnificent woman she was- loved by people of every kind, and across the Globe. The thousands of people thronging Buckingham Palace, the wall to wall media, the books of condolence; that simply moving and sincere address to the Nation by the new King. We have never seen anything like it. That is why ceremonial and symbolism are so important. The immaculate and ancient ceremony of Proclamation of the new King in St James’s Palace, and all the forthcoming events in the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey encapsulate and express our feelings in a way that we could not. These dignified procedures stand proxy for our deeply held emotions.
Meanwhile Philippa represented me at two very sad funerals in Wiltshire - The Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire’s great service in Malmesbury Abbey; and the desperately sad memorial for 30-year-old Miranda Filmer from Minety. We are sad at the passing of Her Majesty and of Lord Suffolk; but we are heartbroken at the needlessly young death of Miranda from cancer. She had so much ahead of her, so much to look forward to, cruelly snatched away.
Now I am so much looking forward to the Her Majesty’s Memorial Service in Malmesbury Abbey on Sunday; to the High Sheriff of Wiltshire, the Marchioness of Lansdowne repeating the proclamation of the new King on the steps of County Hall; to the King addressing both Houses on Monday; then it’s the processions across London, the Lying in State, and finally the funeral. These are great events of State; and they mark the passing of our beloved Monarch. Yet they are not grief-stricken. They are about giving thanks for the most wonderful life of Duty and Service to the Nation; about the passing of a grand old lady, a Mother and Grandmother.
They also signify the start of a new regime. The curious- and unprecedented -coincidence of a new Prime Minster and Administration in the same week as the new Monarch led me to wonder whether her Late Majesty had “held on” to perform her last Constitutional duty of welcoming her 15th Prime Minister; and then, her job done, drifted off to sleep in her much-loved Balmoral Castle. It is deeply sad- of course it is- but it is also a celebration of all that was great about the person; and the marking of a new start under our new King, Charles lll.
So it is not with sadness, but with gladness, that we declaim:
“God Save the King.”
I was sorry to see the death of Mikhail Gorbachev who (perhaps inadvertently) did so much to end the Cold War and destroy the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, Thatcher, Reagan… It’s the passing of a generation.
There have been a few generations since: Major, Clinton and Mitterrand; Blair, George W, and Chirac; Cameron, Merkel and Obama; then there were Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, Theresa May, Boris Johnson. They fly forgotten as a dream…
It was on 19 May 1955 at an open air rally in Glasgow’s East End that I met Winston Churchill (I was six months old at the time so can’t remember much about it.) I better remember meeting Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major; and working with Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and now..
This has been my tenth Conservative Leadership battle (all the above plus John Redwood, William Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard), and I must have known perhaps 500 Ministers of all ranks. Where are they all now?
I hope that that little personal history may put some of our current troubles into some kind of perspective. We are facing all kinds of tough times – energy prices, inflation, recession, war in Ukraine, Climate Change. The new PM, whoever he or she may be, and the new Session of Parliament starting on Monday will have some massive problems to face. I would like to see a wholly fresh Cabinet and some truly radical thinking- Conservative thinking - to come up with dramatic and sustainable solutions.
I will be perfectly content to serve behind either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak; but promise that my scrutiny of everything they do (as a free booting backbencher whose sole interest is the people of North Wiltshire) will be unrelenting. Now is not the time for complacency, for ‘steady as she goes’, for personal or Party aggrandisement. Now is truly the time for all good people and true to come to the aid of the Nation. I strongly believe that we can get through all that lies ahead of us, that we have been through far worse before and that we in Britain have the resources, the intelligence, the hard work and the history to make the best of whatever may be coming our way. But we can only do so if something of a wartime spirit prevails - cooperation, determination, inspiration and courage.
So I call on the new Administration as a whole to rise above party politics; to seek a long-term vision for our country; to rule for the many not the few; to inspire us all; perhaps to rediscover the statesmanlike demeanour of some of those great men and true. They may fly forgotten as a dream, but their legacy lives on. Britain’s greatness and prosperity is the inheritance of all of their efforts, and of generations before them too. And so it can be again.
So let us grasp the opportunity of this change of PM, whatever its history and causes, to put in place people and machinery and policies which will bear fruit over many generations to come. We in Britain have the capacity to lead the World through the various crises facing us. I hope and pray that Rishi or Liz and their Cabinets and Ministers will have the vision and determination to do so.
Most people enjoyed the old Betjeman poem I quoted last week (‘Safe Cornish Holidays before the Storm’); but one person accused me of ‘frivolity’; another thought I should not have gone on holiday at all, demanding instead that the House should be recalled (to what purpose?); someone was of the view that a Cornish holiday must be far more exclusive and expensive than an overseas one, thereby demonstrating that I was ‘not aware of the harshness of real life’, nor of the various crises facing us after the Summer. He obviously had not read the title of the poem.
The reality is that through my surgeries, constant constituency engagements and visits of all kinds and my vast mailbox, every one of which I read, I am pretty well up to speed with the realities of life. Yet hair shirted virtue signalling achieves nothing. Nor do I believe that however awful the circumstances may be one should necessarily go around with a long face berating the World and all that is wrong with it. Doing so may in fact be a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. If you are cheerful optimist things tend to work out for the best; if you are a committed gloomster, you can but expect the worst. Did you see that Andover Town Council have refused the £4000 necessary to re-appoint the Town Crier “because there is nothing much to crow about these days”. But surely a town crier like Royal Wootton Bassett’s Owen Collier’s very job is to seek out precisely those events and news which will cheer us all up.
The herd instinct is worst of all. Because everyone else seems to be saying that everything is ghastly, so must we. There is no bandwagon too gloomy for the old pundit in the corner of the pub with his “not like it used to be; gone to H… in a handcart; couldn’t run a p… up in a brewery” fake wisdom. By contrast, my own instinct is to halt and reverse the bandwagon, divert the galloping herd towards sunnier uplands and cut though the gloomy pessimism of so many pundits. I would even go so far as to argue that the worse things are the more cheerful and positive one should become. Think of ENSA, Bob Hope, Larry Olivier and Vera Lynn who cheered us all up in the darkest of days. Think of Churchill “We will never surrender…”
We don’t want to hear from Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss about what a pile of problems will be facing whoever it is becomes PM. We want to hear what they are planning to do about it; how they are going to make Britain a better place, not how ghastly it all is. I am firmly of the view that there is no such thing as a problem. Either there is a solution of one kind or another; or if you really can’t mend it, then you are just going to have to live with it. Either way round it stops being a problem. Not only that, but if you pile all your problems real or imagined up in a great heap, the less and less solvable they become. What you should do is separate your problems out. They seem much less fearsome on their own; you can think through each separately and quietly; work from the known to the unknown. Life is a great ball of insolvable tangled up string. Yet all you need to do is find an end or two and start teasing and sooner or later it will all straighten itself out.
So let us now approach the challenging times which lie ahead- the economy, climate, Ukraine, immigration, fuel prices, health, education and so much more not as a great pile of insoluble problems; but with a cheerful and optimistic spring in our (holidayed) step, as a series of matters each of which is perfectly capable of solution. As they used to say in the Army “Any fool can be uncomfortable.”
On the face of it, energy prices- domestic and commercial – look set to sky-rocket. Average domestic bills are forecast to rise horrendously over the winter (we will know more on Friday) from around £2000 for an average household to perhaps as much as £6000. The effect on Businesses is equally worrying. Add to that an inflation figure which some economists are predicting may reach 18% with concomitant increases in interest rates and you a have a perfect economic storm of a kind we have not seen at least since the 2007 banking crisis.
So where’s this all coming from? The total cost of the 320 Billion Kilowatt hours of energy which we consume in the UK was about £35 Billion in 2020; it is about £65 Billion today- close to double. Petrol was 60p a litre in 2020, it came close to £2 a litre recently before falling back a little. Crude oil is trading just under $100 a barrel; It was around $20 a barrel as recently as 2020 (but never forget it was over $100 back in 2014.).
Most observers will have a view about what lies behind all of this (although none foresaw it coming.) It’s a product of the Global economy. It’s an international shortage of oil (Saudi could pump some more if it wanted to); it’s a sharp increase in consumption post- pandemic; its Brexit (although slightly hard to see a cause and effect from Brexit); it’s from the war in Ukraine (without doubt); it’s from political weakness in the West- Macron; Chancellor Sholtz; a weak and aging President Biden; and of course political turmoil in the UK- all of these things cannot have helped. It’s the convergence of many events and influences producing a perfect economic storm.
Everyone - economists, politicians, businesses and the general public are plain that “something must be done about it”, but none seem to have much clear idea of what that should be. Those who call for energy prices to be ‘frozen’ are ignoring the reality that if customers are paying £35Billion for their energy, but the producers have to buy it at £65 Billion, it won’t be long before the energy companies go bust. The reality is that oil and gas are internationally traded commodities with a fluctuating world price. Consumption exceeds demand and the price goes up and vice-versa. There are those who argue that the UK is self-sufficient in energy (the 318 billion kwh we produce is 103% of our consumption), and that we should therefore cut ourselves off in some way from the International market, peg the prices at some affordable level and wait for the storm to blow over. But I fear that, attractive as that may sound, withdrawal from the International market is neither possible nor sensible. If crude oil is trading at $100 a barrel, then why would BP or Shell sell it in the UK for -let’s say- $20 a barrel. If they did so they too would rapidly go bust.
The likelihood is that some kind of a solution will be reached perhaps incorporating a Windfall Tax on the producers being used to lessen domestic and business bills; perhaps a reduction in VAT or green elements of the bills; perhaps an increase in production (renewable or Carbon based; how about fracking in the longer term); a reduction in consumption as a result of the higher prices; and my own preferred solution- some kind of levelling down of prices using financial instruments to smooth out the peaks and troughs in the market over the long term. In other words, perhaps our bills could increase from £2000 pa to £3000 at a fixed price over -say- 10 or 20 years. That would certainly be uncomfortable, but better than £6000. There are a variety of possible solutions, and I look forward to the new UK Administration implementing them.
Remember that unemployment is at a record low; interest rates still historically low, and medium-term predictions of growth look pretty healthy. It looks bleak right now, so it can only get better. The night is darkest just before the dawn.
What a glorious week’s holiday we had- staying a mile or so across the golf-course from John Betjeman’s Daymer Bay home and paying tribute at his grave in St Enedoc’s churchyard with the wonky spire.
In ‘Summoned by Bells’ he remembers his childhood holidays :
Attend the long express from Waterloo
That takes us down to Cornwall. Tea-time shows
The small fields waiting, every blackthorn hedge
Straining inland before the south-west gale.
The emptying train, wind in the ventilators,
Puffs out of Egloskerry to Tresmeer
Through minty meadows, under bearded trees.
Can it really be that this same carriage came from Waterloo?
On Wadebridge station what a breath of sea
Scented the Camel valley! Cornish air,
Soft Cornish rains, and silence after steam......
To far Trebetherick by the sounding sea.
Oh what a host of questions in me rose:
Were spring tides here or neap? And who was down?
Had Mr Rosevear built himself a house?
Was there another wreck upon Doom Bar?
Safe in bed, While through the open window came the roar
Of full Atlantic rollers on the beach.
Then before breakfast down toward the sea
I ran alone, monarch of miles of sand.
I felt beneath bare feet the lugworm casts
And walked where only gulls and oyster-catchers
Had stepped before me to the water's edge.
The morning tide flowed in to welcome me,
The fan-shaped scallop shells, the backs of crabs,
The bits of driftwood worn to reptile shapes,
The heaps of bladder-wrack the tide had left
(Which, lifted up, sent sandhoppers to leap
In hundreds around me) answered "Welcome back!"
And spread across the beach. I used to stand,
A speculative water engineer-
Here I would plan a dam and there a sluice
And thus divert the stream, creating lakes,
A chain of locks descending to the sea.
Sweet were the afternoons of treasure-hunts.
We searched in pairs and lifted after showers
The diamond-sparkling sprays of tamarisk:
Their pendant raindrops would release themselves
And soak our shirt sleeves. all the singing grass
Busy with crickets and blue butterflies.
Ears! Hear again the wild sou'westers whine!
It mattered not, for then enormous waves
House-high rolled thunderous on Greenaway,
Flinging up spume and shingle to the cliffs.
Unmoved amid the foam, the cormorant
Watched from its peak. In all the roar and swirl
The still and small things gained significance.
Somehow the freckled cowrie would survive
And prawns hang waiting in their watery woods.
Nose! Smell again the early morning smells:
Congealing bacon and my father's pipe;
The after-breakfast freshness out of doors
Where sun had dried the heavy dew and freed
Acres of thyme to scent the links and lawns;
The rotten apples on our shady path
Where blowflies settled upon squashy heaps,
Intent and gorging; at the garden gate
Eyes! See again the rock-face in the lane,
Years before tarmac and the motor-car.
The Padstow ferry, worked by oar and sail,
Her outboard engine always going wrong,
Ascend the slippery quay's up-ended slate,
The sea-weed hanging from the harbour wall,
Hot was the pavement under, as I gazed
At lanterns, brass, rope and ship's compasses
In the marine-store window on the quay.
Safe Cornish holidays before the storm!
That’s just how I feel as I get back to work – Drought, Leadership, fuel prices sky-rocketing; Ukraine; inflation and so much more. What an in-tray the new PM will have whoever he or she may be. And they will face it without the warm easy feel of a happy week in Cornwall behind them.
© 2022 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.