North Wiltshire MP, James Gray, stood up to HM Government yesterday in the debate over the future of Burlington House, home of the Society of Antiquaries, Geological Society, Linnean Society and the Royal Astronomical Society.

Burlington House was built for the Societies, providing the foundation for success as a world-leading bodies. The central and easily accessible area, close to business and government, has been essential for the facilitation of expert debate and joint-working through the past 150 years. Together the Societies represent a unique, distinctive ‘cultural quarter’ where the common focus on public benefit means that together the Courtyard Societies are more than the sum of their parts.

In 2019, PwC completed an analysis on the contribution the Societies made to the “economic, scientific, social and cultural well-being of the UK through [their] range of activities and programmes”. The analysis concluded the total gross value of the four societies was £47,368,500 per annum.

Mr Gray spoke out in the Westminster Hall debate yesterday afternoon, stating that:

“…the Government have concluded that the building is a valuable asset that they own, and which they can therefore sell or otherwise maximise income from it. That is the wrong presumption. That building was not set up as a Government asset, which could be subsequently sold. It was set up to be the home of the learned societies.

“I would like to think that the Government will consider not bleeding the assets, which is what they are effectively trying to do, whether through rent or another way. We should not be bleeding the assets; they are cultural and historic assets and they should belong to and be preserved by the nation.

“We need a Government who will say, “This is an asset to our nation. This is an asset that we want to preserve. This is an asset that does more for our nation”.”

Historians pore over the great events of history for decades, centuries, after they have occurred and often come to different conclusions about what went wrong. Why did the Saxons lose the Battle of Hastings? (Because they did not have stirrups enabling them to fight from horseback). Was Richard Coeur de Lion the greatest king ever, or a bit of a French ruffian? And is Richard II not half as bad as Shakespeare made him out to be? Every battle is capable of close re-analysis. Every shot fired in every battle. “For want of a nail the shoe was lost….for want of a war the Kingdom was lost and all for want of a horse shoe nail.”

Brigadier Hindsight is a regular bore at most dinner parties, always ready to regale us with tales about how he’d have done it differently. ‘Lessons Learned’ enquiries in the Foreign Office and MOD are important, but rarely decisive; the Public Enquiry into Covid will probably produce its mammoth report in many years’ time. It will very probably not tell us anything we do not already know.

The reality is that in any war, in any crisis, in any Pandemic, governments, and officials do what they believe to be for the best at the time; but of course they make mistakes, sometimes disastrous ones; ones for which they sometimes pay a heavy price. Nonetheless, and with a very few exceptions, those in charge of our fates do what they believe to be right and for the best.

So Dominic Cummings’ rambling evidence on Wednesday morning will be minutely analysed. Some will use it to argue that we got it all wrong; some will use it for their own petty political agendas; some (especially Mr Cummings himself) will use it to settle old scores - most notably with the PM who sacked him and with the Health Secretary with whom he seems to have been at loggerheads.

I am sure that he is right that there really was no very coherent plan about how to handle Covid and that all sorts of wrong decisions were taken. (I remember being laughed at for calling for Cheltenham to be cancelled.) But so what? No one is suggesting that anyone was wicked, or bad, or malign, or even incompetent. Lord Cummings of Barnard Castle merely used his minutely detailed memory of the events of early March 2020 to seek to get his revenge against the PM, No. 10, the Civil Service, scientists, Parliament, MPs, the public and more or less anyone else who did not properly realise what a brilliant genius, what a natural ruler of the world Mr Cummings really is.

I fear that as one of these who strongly regretted the appointment of this slight maverick in the first place, who has been consistently embarrassed by this scruffy Herbert strutting the corridors of power; who called for his sacking after the Barnard Castle incident and who warmly welcomed his ignominious dismissal at the end of the year, none of his performance at the Select Committee surprised me. But none of it convinced me either.

It is quite right that lessons need to be learned. Listening to this self-obsessed weirdo is not a very good way of doing it. Hell Hath no fury like a Special Adviser fired……

One of the great strengths of the British political system (by comparison, for example with the US) is that the money we are allowed to spend on promoting our causes or parties is relatively small; and that all of it is openly declared.

In a general election, for example, any candidate may spend a figure calculated on the number of electors, which comes roughly to £14,000 per head. That is largely raised from ordinary supporters responding to a “Fighting Fund Appeal”; and any sums larger than £500 are routinely declared both to the Electoral Commission and to the Register of Members’ Interests. MPs declare any income they receive outside of their own salaries; and any benefit in kind which may influence their Parliamentary actions (such as overseas travel associated with being an MP). The rules for the funding of Party HQs are tightly drawn up (for example no funds may be received from overseas donors) and again wholly declareable.

The net result of all of that is that the British political system is more or less incorruptible. And anyhow, the checks and balances between Parliament, Government and civil service makes corruption of the kind which is sadly routine in other parts of the world, virtually impossible here.

That is why I think that the Labour Party’s current smear campaign seeking to prove that one or another minister has been unduly influenced by particular interest groups is very unfortunate. By saying it, the unwary believe it to be true. Angela Rayner was at it during the week, seeking to smear the PM, the Home Secretary, the Health Secretary and Lord Lister, despite the fact that their total donations received since January 2020 amount to just £4,660 for Boris and £55,586 for Hancock. Rayner’s coffers on the other hand have been working overtime. Since January 2020 she has received: £50,000 from Whaeed Ali; £1,683.21 from GMB; £47,227.58 from GMB; £1,000 from Simeon Honore; £25,000 from GMB; £10,000 from Rajesh Agrawal; £10,000 from USDAW; £25,000 from CWU; £2,000 from Mohammed Imran; £25,000 from Trevor Chinn; £10,000 from Intro Developments Ltd; £25,000 from Martin Taylor; £2,500 from Simeon Honore. That’s a whopping £234,410.79, some four times the total takins of the government figure she was pointing the finger at (£240,984).

That is all perfectly properly declared, and I am confident that Angela Rayner, who is a bit of a friend of mine, is wholly incorrupt and incorruptible. But by flinging mud around, some may well stick to the flinger.

We all need enough of this world’s goods to get our messages out to the wider public; enough but not too much. And all of it on open display to avoid not only any kind of corruption but also any suspicion that there might be any such thing.

So let’s get away from these personal smears, which merely tend to stain the reputation of the body politic as a whole, which lower the political debate to the gutter, and which are totally without foundation.

James Gray, Member of Parliament for North Wiltshire, was delighted to attend the Wedding Open House at Grittleton House last weekend. Mr Gray stated:

“It was wonderful to be able to visit the impressive Grittleton House in preparation for its planned re-opening. It is the most beautiful setting and a fitting reminder that we are on course for the lifting of restrictions on 21st June.

Venues such as Grittleton House have been badly hit by the Coronavirus pandemic and it is crucial that they are able to get up and running again as soon as possible. Vaccination numbers are ever rising, and we really must look forward to getting back to normal.

The Shipp family have a wonderful home which they have transformed into a successful events venue, but which will only continue to succeed if they are allowed to re-open their doors to the public.”

James Gray, MP for North Wiltshire and Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions was interviewed for the new geopolitical thinktank The Council on Geostrategy’s GeoStrategy360º podcast, discussing security and development in the polar regions.

A member of The Council on Geostrategy’s own Advisory Council, Mr Gray shared his view on the UK’s Arctic policy in light of the 2021 Integrated Review, defence and security in the Arctic, climate change in the polar regions and why the Arctic and Antarctic are relevant to the UK.

He emphasised the geopolitical frictions caused by climate change-related migration, as well as potential dangers posed by the new commercial opportunities in the Arctic. Mr Gray warned:

“The melting ice has produced all kinds of commercial, touristic, fisheries and mineral opportunities. All of those are huge opportunities for the world, but the moment you have wealth, you have a strategic threat.”

Mr Gray said that the UK has historically taken a hands-off approach to Arctic affairs, focusing instead on Britain’s very active participation in the Antarctic Treaty. However, that also might be changing:

“I sense that [the UK’s hands-off approach] is about to change as the withdrawal of the ice brings about commercial changes that once again give Britain a great opportunity.”

Asked what the UK can do to ensure the Arctic remains secure and stable, Mr Gray said that there needs to be less military focus on hot and dusty places and more focus on the cold regions.

Discussing the key priorities to emerge from COP26 this year, Mr Gray emphasised the need to meet Britain’s net zero carbon target without damaging its economy. He described the changes he’s witnessed visiting the Arctic over the past 20 years as “absolutely astonishing”:

“We have to balance up the need to do something with the need to maintain our economies and our business interests. For that reason I think we should use the Arctic for fisheries and tourism…making commercial use of the resources in the Arctic is very important. Preserving it as a wilderness ignores the fact that 5 million people live there and that if we don’t make use of the resources, the Russians, Chinese and others will. I think it’s important to preserve the Arctic and achieve the aims of COP26, but also maintain a sensible approach to commercial exploitation.”

With the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and the looming climate crisis, he said that people will one day look back at 2021 and 2022 as a turning point in history:

“We must now do all that we can to make sure that everything that happens in these two years is what our descendants will thank us for, rather than curse us for.”

To listen to the complete interview, search for GeoStrategy360º on your chosen podcast provider, or visit https://www.geostrategy.org.uk/podcasts/e6-interview-with-james-gray-mp/