There can be few things worse in this world than the death of a child. The loss of four in a wicked murder – as happened in Greater Manchester last week – means untellable agony for all of their relations. Am I being totally unChristian in hoping that the terribly burned Mother may never wake up from her coma? I always well up a bit at the last verse of “Away in a Manger”. “Bless all the dear children in thy tender care; and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.” Is there an echo somewhere there of the huge Victorian infant mortality? It’s a tragic Victorian message in amongst the trees and tinsel.
The Christmas holidays bring a welcome time of peace and respite after what has been a turbulent political year. A General Election about which the least said the better it will be; constant Leadership speculation; and of course the Brexit negotiations. The World remains a dangerous place indeed, although an expansionist Russia, unstable North Korea and the Daesh threat in Iraq and Syria seem to have calmed a little in recent weeks. France and Germany both have political uncertainty to come in the New Year; and President Trump remains as unpredictable (to say the least) as ever.
Yet amongst all of that, we should be thankful in this country, and in this area. The economy is stronger than ever, unemployment at a historic low, the Stock Exchange at an historic high. Interest rates remain as low as ever, and inflation hardly merits a passing worry. We have the best schools and hospitals in the world; our transport systems are never free from grumbles, but actually in international comparison terms are pretty good. Life in Britain – and especially in North Wiltshire- today is pretty good by comparison with so many parts of the world.
So perhaps Christmas may be a time to turn away from all that is wrong with the world, and to try to think positively about so much that is so good in it. The birth of a child brings a tear to any eye. All of the hopes for the future, the unsullied purity of the new born baby is one of the most precious of all moments. A dear old friend of mine, a retired Gurkha Colonel used to rush off to see any new-born, and insist on getting their bootees off to inspect their tiny, perfect feet. “All through my army career I had to inspect the awful, smelly, blistered feet of my soldiers. That’s why I love babies’ feet so much.”
It’s the same with new-born animals. Our two old dachshunds, Lollipop and Minx, mother and daughter died within a few days of each other and my old horse, Mr Kipling, in November. They were all old and had a good life. Sad to see them go, but not tragic. (And don’t tell her, but I’m getting Philippa a puppy, or maybe two, for Christmas to replace them.) We all look forward to the sight of new-born lambs gambolling in fresh pastures in only a month or two’s time.
“Wrapped in Swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. …. And Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart….” If only we could keep the innocence, the sweetness, the purity of the Christmas story all through the year, the world would assuredly be a better place.
So, after a turbulent year, I can do no better than to wish you the peace of the Christ child for all the year that lies ahead.
And a thoroughly merry time as well, I very much hope.
The litmus test for a really sound deal is that it leaves both parties vaguely dissatisfied. I am delighted that we have completed the tortuous Phase One of the Brexit negotiations (and welcome the fact that we got at least some concessions from the Europeans). Phase Two should be a great deal easier, not least because the European countries know very well that they need tariff free trade with the UK more than we need it with them. Theresa May must be ready to pay ‘hard ball’ with them to remind them of that sheer economic reality.
I feel perfectly happy about the mutual arrangements for EU and UK citizens, which is entirely logical. The continuing role for the European Court of Justice for eight years may be a symbolic blow for the Remainers. But it is at the discretion of British judges and will be used in only a very few marginal cases where UK law cannot decide what is right for EU citizens in the UK. The £39 Billion price, of course, is huge. But it will be paid over a very long period, and the £13 Billion net which we pay to the EU today will quickly gobble it up. And I welcome the absence of any ‘hard border’ with Eire, which would anyhow have been wholly impractical. So far so good.
But I am concerned by the meaning, effectiveness and long-term consequences of the [‘Regulatory equivalence’] which was necessary to achieve the Northern Irish solution. If it means, as some have interpreted it, that we will forever accept EU regulations, then we are in effect remaining members of the Single Market and Customs Union. It would mean that we cannot do trade deals with other countries - especially the US - whose regulations may well be wildly at variance of the EU ones. It is pointed out that Japan, Korea and Canada have all equally agreed ‘regulatory equivalence’ in order to achieve a trade deal with the EU, and that does give me some comfort. But I remain uneasy about it.
It is surely obvious that if you want to sell goods or services to another country- or group of countries, then quite plainly the standard to which they are manufactured must match those of the buying country. If they do not, you will not be allowed to trade with that country. We will not allow sub-standard goods from other countries to undercut our own goods manufactured to high British Regulatory standards. That applies whether you are selling to the EU, Australia, America or India. And it is largely a matter for businesses to ensure that their product meets the high standards of the country to which they are selling. But that should not be a matter for international treaties and governmental agreements, so much as sound commercial common sense.
So I welcome the progress so far, and I congratulate the PM on achieving it. But I am watching it all very carefully indeed and am by no means giving the deal my unconditional support. It’s a bit of a fudge in some respects (as all good deals probably are), and there are some very worrying elements to it. But for now I will give it the benefit of the doubt.
So for now its back through snow storms and floods to Westminster after a positive blizzard of constituency events, all of them thoroughly jolly, to a final marathon getting the Brexit Bill through its Committee stages. (Midnight votes all week by the look of it.) By the time you read this l will truly be looking forward to a Brexit-free Christmas holiday.
After a half-term week of Constituency engagements and Remembrance events, marred only by the sad death of my old friend, my horse, Mr Kipling, it was back to work with a vengeance:
Mon 13/11: Up to London for lunch with Norwegian Ambassador and veterans; the excellent Ruth Davidson addresses the 1922 Committee, briefing from Commons Defence Committee clerk and dinner with my daughter, Olivia.
Tue 14/11: Breakfast with (Wiltshire) General Jones (H Jones’ son), just back from commanding in Iraq; then whole day chairing Committee Stage of Nuclear Safeguarding Bill (part of Brexit - replacing Euratom). Brexit Bill Committee stage stretches through until about 1130 PM. Govt wins all votes by 18 or 20.
Wed 15/11: Appear as expert witness in front of Commons Defence Committee discussing military threats and tensions in Arctic. Rather odd appearing in front of committee I used to chair! Lunch with Lord Mayor at Baltic Exchange, chair meeting of Parliamentary Arctic group Advisory Council; then (intermittently) attend Antarctic meeting in Royal Society (and dinner) in between more Brexit votes through until 11 PM.
Thu 16/11: Up to RAF Northolt to see BFPO parcel up Christmas Boxes for our troops on Operations at Christmas. (I am Patron of the charity). 30 minute grilling on ITV South West to be broadcast tonight; then it’s off to Cambridge to speak at the Union about Scottish Devolution with co-speaker Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Home to London by 1 AM.
Fri 17/11: Train to Wiltshire to wade through paper. Tired, so cancel a couple of small engagements. Dinner with friends in Holt.
Sat 18/11: Surgeries in Calne and Royal Wootton Bassett, look in to a Conservative event in Box, then dinner near Sherston. Another late night.
Sun 19/11: Bit of R and R at home, despite an hour or two at desk clearing back log...
Mon 20/11: Attend first National Security Committee since my appointment by the Prime Minister, and speak at a NATO dinner at think tank IISS.
Tue 21/11: Walking with Wounded Breakfast, Chair debates in Westminster Hall, ask a question about environment at Foreign Office Questions, meeting about Western rail services, meet delegation from Chile.
Wed 22/11: Breakfast with RAF, PMQs then it’s the Budget
Thu 23/1: Skip rest of Budget debate and head back to Wilts for dinner with REME at Lyneham.
It’s a mixed bag of parliamentary, constituency, charitable, family and social events. Keeps me out of trouble.
It’s been a week of great and momentous and tragic events in the World. The appalling attack (by Daesh, we presume), on a Mosque of the wrong brand of Islam, and the murder of 305 wholly innocent people as they went about their prayers is an atrocity in itself, and may well have long-lasting consequences for efforts to find some kind of peace across the whole region. We may have celebrated the end of the Caliphate in Raqqa and Mosul a little prematurely.
The end of the dictator Mugabe in Zimbabwe should, we all hope, signal a new start for that great country. It used to be known as the bread basket of southern Africa, and was a prosperous and well run country. It is barely recognisable now. A stable and prosperous Zimbabwe would have greatly beneficial effects on the neighbouring countries, and potentially all of sub-Saharan Africa. We can but hope that the new President has the will and the power to start to turn the country around.
In Europe, Mutti Merkel is holding on by her finger-tips. I have thought for a while that she would be gone by Christmas with huge destabilising consequences for Germany and the EU. Brexit trundles along meanwhile, with the hope that we may soon start trade talks, albeit perhaps with a heavy price tag attached to them.
At home, Spreadsheet Phil seems to have survived the Budget, largely by making it pretty boring, with the sole exception of the stamp duty tax exemption for first time buyers. Steady as she goes.
Amidst all of that, you would have thought that my post-bag would be brimming over with views on any and all of those great matters each of which has the significant potential to affect our everyday lives as well as the prosperity and peace of the Globe for generations to come.
But no. My post-bag has been stuffed to the gunwales with letters about animals- mainly whether or not one of the Brexit Bill votes last week may have downgraded our concern for animals as sentient beings, on which I received many hundreds of letters, each of which will be replied to. Meaning no disrespect to the very concerned people who wrote to me, I hope that I am able to assuage their concerns. The amendment proposed, which was anyhow flawed in its drafting, was designed specifically so that Labour could claim that we Tories were uncaring about animals. The social media and 38 degrees storm which followed was a carefully planned scam to try to discredit we Tories.
The reality is that our standards of animal welfare in the UK are higher than anywhere in Europe, and across the Globe. Of course we recognise that animals are sentient beings, and having now lost two of mine within a week, I need no lectures about animals having minds and hearts. But all of that, plus a whole lot more, is now and has for many years been written into UK law. We had no need of a bogus amendment to the Brexit Bill to pretend to be forcing us to do something which we already exceed.
We really must try to focus our attentions to the great and important events which are happening around the world, and beware of silly political scams like the sentient animals one. Let us raise our gaze just a little.
Why do you think Remembrance Sunday is so poignant- perhaps even more so in recent years than ever before? It’s about remembering and honouring our war dead- of course it is. “We will Remember them….” And it’s about being thankful that it was not us “They shall not grow old…” It’s about thanking our servicemen and women today for all they do for us; and the Emergency services and other public servants as well. It’s about a renewed pride in our country and all it stands for; it’s about remembering local people and their great contribution to the wars of the past. It may well be about personal memories of relations or friends who gave their lives. It’s about all of those things and a great many more. It’s a complex of thoughts that swirl around our heads and hearts as we listen to ‘The Last Post’ and ‘Reveille’ and contemplate for what can often seem like a very long two minutes silence.
But it occurred to me as I attended four Remembrance events this year - the Children’s service in Calne, where all of the schools locally came together to lay on a most moving tableau about the Second World War, In Cricklade and then Blakehill Farm, where the gliders took off for Arnhem, then finally in Malmesbury, that Remembrance Sunday is not about the past. It’s about the future. That’s why these young people so honestly and enthusiastically commemorate decades before they were born.
Unlike any other historical remembrance, these young people are realising that their ancestors fought and died for their way of life and their freedoms – freedoms which as they look around the world today they realise that other young people simply do not enjoy in so many places.
I was very impressed this week also by attending the Abbeyfield School GCSE certificate ceremony and hearing so many wonderful attestations about the prize winners, and visiting the Cricklade Guides who were taking a keen and active interest in Parliament Week; and finally talking to GCSE students In John Bentley School in Calne about their exam project looking into education finance. We are just so lucky to have such a magnificent cohort of intelligent, capable, competent and healthy young people in our schools and colleges today. They can do what they are doing so very well because of the legacy which we previous generations leave to them.
These visits lift my heart and give me huge hope for and confidence in the future of our great Nation. “When you go home tell them of us and say: For your tomorrows we gave our todays.”
© 2017 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA