Cynical quasi-sophisticates love to mock ceremonial. “Silly old men in tights dressed up as playing cards; why does the Mayor wear robes and a chain, and what’s the Town Crier for? All that old fashioned stuff makes us look un-cool and out of date.” You know the sort of thing. I’ve enjoyed three such occasions this week. A slightly pared-down State Opening of Parliament (no carriages, no cavalry) was only slightly grander than the Calne (on Monday) and Royal Wootton Bassett (on Thursday) Mayor-makings.
I was glad to see Tony Trotman (re-) elected as the 188th Mayor of Calne in an election by show of hands which would not have been unfamiliar to the first mayor in 1834. The Town Crier’s the same; Councillors’ robes, the Mayor’s regalia - all in the splendid old Calne Town Hall. Then at Pat Farrow’s lovely event in St Barts Church in Royal Wootton Bassett on Thursday, we were reminded by the Mayor’s Chaplain, Canon Jane Curtis that the Mayor’s job is to “preserve the customs and traditions” of the town. ‘Hear, Hear’ say I. She must “safeguard the Rights and Freedoms of the townsfolk; and her red robes remind us that she must be ready to shed her blood in order to do so.”
Now of course all of these things are great spectacle; they form the fabric of English history. But they are far more than that. Government at local and national level would otherwise be grey men in grey suits scribbling laws in a civil servant’s office which would be invisible and therefore largely unaccountable. The Constitution of the UK works so well not only because it is unwritten (and therefore flexible); it also works because we have devised visible symbols for it. The great maces; the cap of maintenance (what’s it for?) the Sword of State and the Monarch’s Crown- the Mayor’s chain and the Swordbearer’s mace; these are all baubles, fripperies. Their true significance may be lost in history, but they nonetheless remain very real symbols of the authority of the Monarchy, Parliament, the Town Council.
Uniforms are important- we respect the policeman, not because he is Fred Bloggs, but because he wears a recognisable uniform; we know where we are with the armed services because of their outward appearance; we like the clergyman to be in her robes on Sunday, and a clerical dog collar during the week; the doctor wears her stethoscope around her neck as a badge of office. The farmer wears his overalls, wellies and flat cap for practical reasons, but also because that’s how it is done; the lady in the cheese shop has her white coat and her hair under a hygiene net. The excellent and courteous staff on Chippenham Station are easily recognisable in their uniforms, complete with whistle and baton for waving off the train. That is how they derive their authority to tell passengers and train drivers alike what to do.
You even expect the MP to be out and about in a suit and tie, and I generally try to live up to that expectation. This weekend as well as the ceremonial, I attended a meeting in Wiltshire Golf Club outside Bassett, was in Noremarsh School to talk about Antarctica, attended the 80th anniversary service of the RAF’s arrival at Lyneham, spoke at a public meeting about Solar Farms in Lea, and held surgeries in Purton and Malmesbury amongst other things. At all of them, I hope I was recognisably ‘The MP.’
So I openly admit to liking ceremonial, history, the ancient traditions which we Brits so religiously maintain. But those things also have a very practical purpose- delineating who does what and why in society; marking off the politico from the policeman; differentiating the Mayor of Calne from that of Royal Wootton Bassett; making a doctor look like a doctor. Lets not knock it- just enjoy it and respect its symbolism.
It was fun to spend a couple of hours on Friday morning at that outstandingly good Special Needs school, Springfields Academy in Calne. I was with the Squirrels Group - 5 and 6 years old - and was much impressed by all I saw. They knew all about Big Ben and were keen to show me round the excellent outdoor facilities which they can enjoy. Springfields specialises in Autistic people, who can be amongst the most challenging (and the most rewarding) of any school students. I salute the wonderful work which the committed teachers do and was glad to hear of their satisfaction at every little improvement in every single pupil.
There was a real contrast between that dedication and commitment, and the ‘spin’ over the local government election results I had to listen to on the car radio on my way home. It was certainly not a good election for we Tories- at least not in London, although we look like having increased our seats here in Swindon. It was a good night for Sinn Fein (and I worry about the end consequences of their likely victory); Labour and the Lib Dems were little better than holding steady, which is a poor result for a mid-term election, especially after the difficult time we have been having lately. So it really was not a triumph for any of the Parties.
But to hear Sir Keir Starmer, Sir Ed Davey and our Chairman, Oliver Dowden, on the radio, spinning like tops, you would think that it was a great night for all of them. I feel sorry for those hard-working councillors (of any party) who have lost their seats, very probably through no fault of their own. I congratulate those who have won. But I have to say that I find it hard to get too worked up about it either way round. I happen to think that Conservative run councils (like Wiltshire and also Swindon) offer better services at a more affordable Council Tax cost. But I daresay there are some perfectly competent Labour run authorities too. And please don’t tell my Whip, but a good number of my friends are Labour Councillors, and indeed Labour MPs as well. They are decent people wholly committed to serving their electorate, often doing so with precious little thanks or recognition to show for it. So I thank them all.
If truth be told, I am not a terribly party-political person. I hanker after the days when local government was strictly non-political (as many of the town and parish councils in this area still are), those elected being committed simply to doing the best for their local people, no matter what their political views may be.
Everywhere I go I find the same thing- dedicated and kindly people giving up their time and their money to run a whole spectrum of local groups and societies and services. The Guides, Brownies and Scouts; the Air and Army Cadets; Churches of all kinds; St John Ambulance, school governors, those who run the Royal Wootton Bassett Carnival; these and a thousand more like them are just committed to the wellbeing of their local area, to helping local people; and to having a good deal of fun while they do it. It is of these people that Community is truly born.
Councillors of all kinds- County, District, Town and Parish do a great job, no matter what their politics might be; they alongside the kind and dedicated teachers and assistants in Springfields Academy in Calne, and volunteers of all kinds throughout the area, are the people who use their energies and expertise to make this a thoroughly decent place to live our lives and bring up our families. I salute and thank you all.
I absolutely understand and sympathise with your fury and disappointment that the PM and Mrs Johnson and the Chancellor of the Exchequer as well as a number of civil servants have now been issued with Fixed Penalty Notices because of their attendance at a surprise birthday party in the Cabinet Room. Those who make the rules are more than duty bound to obey them; and it is infuriating that at a time when many people were enduring heart-rending separations because of the rules, people in No 10 were apparently ignoring them. It is also a matter of grave concern that the PM is the first in his office to have broken the law, albeit inadvertently. So I do understand and have every sympathy with so many constituents’ concerns and anger.
However, the PM has offered a humble apology and paid the £50 fine on a Fixed Penalty Notice for this offence from which there is no criminal record. The offence was a small surprise party in what is, after all, his private house as well as a working environment. Are we really saying that at that time no-one should have met up with their family for a brief birthday party in their own house? Rishi Sunak had not been invited and just got caught up in it when he arrived for another meeting.
We must await the outcome of the Met Police investigation into any other offences as well as Sue Gray’s final report into it before we rush to judgement.
A separate but allied matter is whether or not the PM knowingly misled Parliament. Thanks to today’s Labour Party motion, which we are not opposing, that consideration will now be passed to the House of Commons Committee of Privilege after the investigations have been completed, and Sue Gray’s report published. That Committee will consider whether or not the PM (or others) committed any offence under Parliamentary rules and procedures. If there are further FPNs or other revelations in the days to come, or if Sue Gray’s report changes that view, then we will all reserve the right to change my stance on the matter.
In peacetime the delivery of this solitary FPN might have led to calls for the PM’s resignation. But it would be a disaster for the Ukraine war if it happened right now. For example: supposing Putin were to use chemical weapons or worse in the forthcoming Donbass campaign, it would be absolutely essential that we should have a strong, resolute and experienced PM ready to act decisively. A lame duck PM in the midst of a three-month leadership battle would be unlikely to respond in that way. We need strength and determination against Putin, not weakness and vacillation which would be the consequence of any kind of precipitate resignation. The rest of the World would simply not understand our further destabilising the situation by engaging in a leadership battle over the issue of whether or not Boris Johnson attended a birthday party in his own house. Nor could we contemplate a General Election and the political turmoil which it would bring.
So I accept the Labour Party’s motion that requires the Privileges Committee to consider whether any further action needs to be taken, and that they will start their enquiry when they are in receipt of the Met Police’s charges (if any) and Sue Gray’s final report. That seems to me to be a pretty reasonable request, and I will therefore be making no further comment on Partygate until that time.
I was delighted to find my name amongst the MPs ‘sanctioned’ by Vladimir Putin yesterday and will wear it as a badge of honour. That a foul, murdering dictator like Putin should dislike me, or seek to attack me in some way, is good news indeed. I am a sworn enemy of his dictatorial regime, and of course would do whatever I could to end its wickedness.
We must not, however allow our determination to stop Putin to develop into some kind of general Russo-phobia. I was horrified to hear from a friend of mine with a Russian name (whose family were in fact expelled many years ago and settled quietly in a modest UK housing estate) that his children had been abused and bullied in school just because of their name. I have travelled to Russia many times and have many Russian friends. They are a kindly, warm-hearted people; and we must not allow the mad excesses of their tyrannical President develop into some kind of general hatred of them all.
Ukraine is an independent nation state, and none of her sovereignty or independence can be taken away as Russia have tried to do. Self-determination (by the whole of the Nation) must be one of the most fundamental of all principles of international law. Incidentally, please do not believe the bogus ‘referendums’ which Putin may well use to justify illegal occupation of the Donbass, Crimea, perhaps even Georgia, Moldova, Transnistria or Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Hitler used a similar argument of self-determination by the German speaking people of the Sudetenland to justify its invasion.
So I welcome the strength and clarity of Liz Truss’s Mansion House speech when she called for Putin to be expelled from every corner of Ukraine. It is hard to see how that will be achieved in the short term at least; but a clear aim of that kind sends a powerful message to the Kremlin. They have been astonished both by the unanimity of the International community in condemning this illegal invasion, as well, of course, by the stoic determination and bravery of the Ukrainian people.
But there’s another reason why I support the Foreign Secretary’s robust and outspoken approach. Intelligence is emerging from the Kremlin of the beginnings of a move towards some kind of Palace coup against Putin. (Changes in Russian regimes always occur by violent means.) However, before you instinctively welcome that, be aware that the plotters are said to be the FSB (former KGB) and generals, potentially rebelling against Putin not because they dislike what he has done, but because they believe he has been too soft on Ukraine and her allies (like the United Kingdom). They would like to see the war very much escalated into a full-scale assault on the whole of Ukraine, very probably elsewhere as well. And they would not hesitate to use weapons of mass destruction to achieve their wicked war aims. These are the powerful elements within the Russian Regime at whom Liz Truss’s speech was, I would guess, directed. They must be made to realise that we will simply not tolerate any escalation of that kind in Ukraine, or against any NATO member state.
We may hate what we see on our screens every night; but we should be aware that it could be a very great deal worse if we do not demonstrate our determination and singlemindedness to the other wicked Kremlin oligarchs. Weakness in the west is exactly what they are seeking. Appeasement never works.
My delight at being ‘sanctioned’ by Putin will, I hope, send my own little personal message of defiance.
I had the great privilege -as Chairman of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust- to visit the magnificent aircraft carrier and RN flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth last week. Alongside her sistership, the Prince of Wales, she is the largest and most powerful ship ever built by the Royal Navy. The flight deck of comes in at an enormous four acres and will be used to launch the fearsome F35 Joint Strike Fighter fast jet, 40 of which can be accommodated on board. The ship’s two propellers weigh 33 tonnes each and the powerplant behind them generates enough power to run 1000 family cars. As you would expect, she has state-of-the-art weaponry and communications systems, as well as five gyms, a medical centre and enough wardrooms and messes to feed the 2000 or so people on board.
I was particularly pleased to visit the chapel, where I had forgotten that the cross on the communion table had been donated by my family. It had been on the wartime battleship, King George V, and very fitting that it should now have found its way to this new flagship.
My Father would be very proud. It’s a token of commemoration both of my Father who served through the war and afterwards as a Royal Naval Chaplain, and of all of the brave men who gave their lives serving on King George V.
The Queen Elizabeth is now on 5 days’ notice to sail, and who knows what may lie in front of her, especially at an awful time like this. Perhaps there is some symbolism somewhere in this little cross at the heart of the mighty vessel as we remember the Resurrection.
A very Happy Easter to you all.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.