James GRAY   Conservative MP for North Wiltshire

Weekly Column

Local Amenities

Stephanie Millward from Box was the cause of some teasing 10 years ago now, when I met her at the entrance to Parliament, and escorted her arm-in-arm down to the Terrace. Some of my jealous MP friends refused to believe that this glamorous young woman really was a constituent in to see me about MS matters. Since then, of course, she has become a great local hero, most recently winning two swimming gold medals in the Rio Paralympics. That feat was marked last week with the opening of the Springfields Community Campus in Corsham, and the renaming of the swimming pool after Stephanie. (She was heading off to London afterwards to collect her well-deserved MBE).

It is a mark of the huge success of Wiltshire Council that under the very able leadership of another MBE, Baroness (Jane) Scott of Bybrook they were able to find £16million to spend on the Community Campus, and that they are trying to find the funds to do something similar in other towns across Wiltshire. (I lobbied Jane and her Deputy Councillor John Thomson hard on behalf of Royal Wootton Basset and Cricklade, both of whom are in negotiation over their campuses). Amongst other things, Wiltshire Council brought all six local authorities who used to govern Wiltshire together into one, and amongst other savings got rid of a very large number of redundant buildings. Local Government have a great deal of power to make sure that council taxpayers’ money is spent sensibly in ways like this, and Wiltshire Council certainly do so.

The vibrancy of our High Streets needs more than just well targeted spending. We also need to keep our business rates under control if we are to allow high street shops to thrive. I have been lobbying Chancellor Philip Hammond for them, and for riding schools locally who are also facing sharp business rate rises. At very least I hope that any necessary increases will be phased in sensitively.

And we must not allow our market towns and villages to sprawl. I have reacted strongly to the renewed planning application for hundreds of houses and a supermarket at Marsh Farm just outside Royal Wootton Bassett (as well as several around Chippenham). The Council really must not allow it, nor the Planning Inspector. It would ruin the High Street in this little town, whose very global fame comes from the activity down its High Street. You only need to look at a few other local towns, who have allowed out of town shopping. Their High Streets look like ghost towns, populated largely by charity shops, mobile phone shops and travel agents. Don’t let Bassett get like that.

Local authorities have great powers and duties – taxes, planning, economic development. In an area like this it is vital that they use those powers to retain as well as enhance and improve the wonderful town and village environment, which is why we all came here in the first place. If we wanted to live in Swindon or Bristol, or their lookalikes, then presumably that is exactly what we would do.

The Military Covenant

We have 15,000 serving military personnel here in Wiltshire, 15,000 dependents, and 54,000 veterans; we have umpteen military bases including Lyneham, Hullavington, Colerne and Corsham here in the North of the County; and of course we have the largest military training area in Britain on our doorsteps at Salisbury Plain. So a very real part of the culture and way of life in Wiltshire is determined by the military.

The military covenant- the bargain that society strikes with our soldiers sailors and airmen and women, was perhaps epitomised by the 167 times the people of Royal Wootton Bassett turned out to honour the  345 service people whose bodies passed down their High Street. We ourselves would not do some of the things that we ask of our service men and women, and so we promise to look after them and their families in every way possible. That is the Military Covenant which this Government passed into law in 2011.

That’s why (as well as through personal interest) I spend such a large part of my time in Parliament on defence matters. I am a member of the Commons Defence Committee and Chairman of their sub-committee currently looking into defence matters in the Arctic; I am Chairman of the All Party Group for the Armed Services and Chairman of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust; and recently became Patron of the excellent charity which sends Christmas boxes of a very high quality to our troops overseas.

All of that is why I feel so very strongly about the way in which the law currently seems to be hounding our armed forces. A soldier who commits a true crime must pay the penalty like anyone else. But the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, IHAT, which has ‘investigated’ up to 4000 soldiers, many of them accused by disgraced Public Interest Lawyer, Phil Shiner, must be stopped. There have been no convictions at all so far, a cost of £90 million, and the lives of 4000 soldiers and their families ruined for up to ten years. We will be bringing out a report on the matter next week, but I would be very surprised if it did anything other than outrightly condemn IHAT, and the MOD which sponsored them.

We risk doing something similar in Northern Ireland where various aging paras have recently been arrested for ‘crimes’ for which they were acquitted forty years ago. This is an outrage, and it must be stopped. There is something of an amnesty for terrorists under the Good Friday Agreement, yet we seem determined to harass these distinguished old soldiers. Soldiers have to do things on the battle field which we civilians can only imagine. They must be left to get on with their very difficult jobs without fear of civilian prosecution for the rest of their lives.

The Military Covenant demands that we look after our soldiers and their families. It should also protect them from unreasonable criminal or civil legal actions for years after their service. They carry out orders to protect us. We must now protect them.

Trump, Erdogan and Brexit

Parliament’s at its best when debating great matters, on which members of the various political parties take different views. The two-day Second Reading debate on the Article 50 Bill was one such. We had finely argued, yet passionate speeches from both sides. I was glad that we endorsed the will of the people by agreeing to the Triggering of Article 50, but also glad that we had a full and reasoned debate on the matter.

That happened despite the sheer vitriol and anger sparked by a variety of events the previous weekend, as a result of which I received some weird emails, including allegations that my Party and I were Nazis, little better than Hitler, and hinting at physical violence against my (largely innocent) person! This is surely not the British Way?

I thought that the PM did extraordinarily well in Washington. A close working relationship with the USA is absolutely essential for the future of our Nation, and like it or not Mr Trump was duly elected by the people to be their President. He talks arrant nonsense on a whole variety of subjects, and some of his actions and statements are downright obnoxious. His banning of all passengers from certain countries, and seeking registration of Muslims, for example, is stupid, unworkable and despicable in equal measure. His sexism and racism is wholly unacceptable. Yet I am glad that Mrs May led the world in seeking to open dialogue with him and to lead him in the right direction. (Both physically in the Rose Garden and metaphorically, for example over NATO).

There are some elements of Mr Erdogan’s Turkey which are almost as unattractive to gentle western liberal minds. Yet let us not forget that they are members of NATO, and that the £100 million BAE contract to design and build fighter jets in Turkey is an important contribution to the UK economy. We need to persuade Mr Erdogan away from some of his racist tendencies (against the Kurds in particular) and embrace him in the West rather than driving him into the arms of Russia or China, or worse the Jihadi extremists who might well benefit from any possible descent into civil war.

None of that should have led to the extreme rudeness, vile language and physical threats of some of the pro- EU emails I have received over the weekend. People may feel strongly about Brexit, they may dislike President Trump, or indeed Mr Erdogan. But surely they could do so in the intelligent spirit of reasoned debate which we saw in the House of Commons on Tuesday and Wednesday. One thing we are really good at in this country is a spirit of sensible democracy, of easy-going discussion, of passion expressed in modest language. That forms the very basis of the democracy which we are advocating in the rest of the world. Some of my correspondents seemed unaware of the irony that their emails decrying trump or Erdogan or Brexit were almost as obnoxious as the very things they were seeking to decry.

Let us lead the world - set an example to Trump and Erdogan if you like – by the very reasonableness of our disagreements; by our ability to reach a conclusion which may not please all of the people all of the time, but which is generally recognised to be the will of the majority, always securing the rights and views of the minority as well. That has always been the British Way. Let us preserve it and espouse it around the less civilised parts of the world.

Tide in the affairs of men

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune;… On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures...” Shakespeare could have been writing about the last week in international affairs, Trump and May, Gove and Farage substituting for Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius, Brutus and Cassius. The people have spoken and like it or lump it we have Trump and Brexit, and now we must ‘take the current when it serves.’

 I very much welcome the PM’s powerful speech on Tuesday, laying out in the clearest possible terms both the procedure for Brexit (quick Article 50 Act now, full debate and vote after the negotiation is completed, some degree of ‘transition’ to avoid a cliff edge) and its content (no internal market, partial customs union, end of ECJ, yet continuing good relations with the Continent of Europe.)

I also take much less exception to President Trump than many. Of course he is vulgar and sexist, unpredictable and rude, and those are sins we should not forget. But his clarion call ‘America first’ is exactly what the people want. ‘Britain first’ seems to me a perfectly laudable aim, and at the heart of Brexit. And his excesses will be curbed by the Washington machine, just as surely as were Obama’s.

What’s more there may well be an unexpected conjunction between Trump and Brexit. His (relatively mild) protectionism opens the door to an immediate trade deal (and cultural and other ties) with an independent free UK of the kind which the PM described. We can do so, simply because we will no longer be hampered by the competing interests of 27 other nations spread across a huge continent. We can argue for terms which are of benefit to us here in Britain, to our businesses and people; and we need pay little heed to Romania, Lithuania nor Luxembourg as we do so.

NATO becomes an ever-more important element of the defence of our Realm, and we must pay attention to Trump’s reluctance to continue subsidising the defence of Europe. We must all now step up to the mark and pay for our own defence if we are to keep the USA, without which NATO and any pretence at self-defence is finished. I am glad that we in Britain, together with France and Estonia, have achieved the NATO 2% of GDP target; but that should be an absolute minimum, not a target at all. At the height of the Cold War, only 30 or so years ago, we were spending 5 or 6% of GDP on defence. So again we must turn Trump’s perfectly legitimate self-interest to our own good by persuading other NATO members to fulfill their obligations.

There is a huge tide behind us this week. We must seize the opportunity, surf the wave, be bold. That will indeed ‘lead on to fortune.’

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