The House is at its best when it’s at its most sombre, as it was this week. Monday was entirely devoted to tributes to our dear friend, Sir David Amess, so brutally murdered, apparently by some kind of terrorist. There were superb speeches - most notably from Mark Francois who was perhaps David’s closest Parliamentary friend and constituency neighbour. Then, in a unique tribute, we all followed Mr Speaker across the road to St Margaret’s Westminster for a magnificent memorial service. On Wednesday after a very peaceful PMQs, the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition jointly paid lovely tributes to James Brokenshire who died too soon of cancer. South Swindon’s Robert Buckland spoke especially movingly. Normal business - and the hurly burly of normal politics - seemed suspended for the week in memory of people who had devoted their lives to public service.
I would draw two particular consequences from Sir David’s murder. First, politics in recent years seems to have been infected by a hatred, a toxicity, a readiness to be rude about politicians, of a kind which never used to besmirch our body politic. Robust views freely exchanged are central to our long-established democratic processes. But it should always be done with great respect. I may well often disagree with my Labour colleagues, but I have huge admiration and respect for them. Where I disagree with them, I say so in the nicest possible way, and go through the opposite Division Lobby in the House. But then we will often go off for dinner together.
The invention of the Internet, and especially Social Media seems to me to be particularly responsible for the coarsening of politics here and around the world. All of a sudden, any weirdo in a back room with a gripe or a vicious ideology can make his very nasty views known to all at the stroke of a few keys. And for some unknown reason we seem to take it seriously. I have a self-denying ordinance that I simply do not look at Facebook or Twitter or the other platforms, thereby ignoring the nonsense which sometimes pollutes them.
That leads me to my second conclusion resulting from Sir David’s murder. The only people who matter to me are the people of North Wiltshire, and I am absolutely clear that I will not be cowed by the increased terrorist threat against MPs. I will take normal precautions - of course I will; and I am closely in touch with Wiltshire Police over it all. But I am determined to continue with my surgeries in precisely the same way as I have always done - two Saturdays a month in six locations altogether spread around the Constituency. I have also always believed it to be my job to be visible up and down our high streets, in schools and businesses, speaking at local events and in so many other ways. That is an important part of representative Parliamentary democracy, and I will not be changing my long-held habits as a result of some terrorist threat.
North Wiltshire is a peaceful place, and we must keep it that way by maintaining the good and decent and peaceful norms of politics and society which may well be the envy of more troubled, perhaps urban areas. My job is to represent you all, and I can only do that if I live with you and talk to you and am wholly available to you. That must not - and will not - change.
Having a go at MPs - their holidays, their pay, their slips of the tongue or imagined indiscretions - is pretty routine silly season red meat for the more excitable tabloids.
As a bit of a reality check, here’s a flavour of what I have been up to in the current Recess.
Speeches at a lunch club in Tetbury, a reception in Brinkworth and a supper club in Ashton Keynes; attend outstanding event at Ashton Keynes School to open new buildings; surgeries at Cricklade, Malmesbury, Calne and Royal Wootton Bassett (about which more below); visit to Bosnia as Chairman of the all Party Group for the Armed Forces; two days in Iceland at the Arctic Circle Conference and (virtually) attend stakeholders meeting of Government of South Georgia as Chairman of the Parliamentary Polar Group; (virtually) attend Tory Party Conference and meeting of North Wilts Conservatives Executive Council; attend funeral, Bradford upon Avon; meeting with Leader, Wilts Council for briefing inter alia on Covid upsurge in schools ; visit to Headteacher, Malmesbury Academy and undergo thorough grilling by highly impressive sixth formers; visit White Lodge long term care home, Braydon Forest; attend a farmers’ party near Melksham; visit the newly refurbished Cross Keys Pub in Royal Wootton Bassett; attend an art show in Brokenborough; and meet the newly appointed Crown Prosecutor for Wessex.
All of that is alongside the routine flood of correspondence (500 letters and 1000 emails sent since September); and trying to do a bit of reading and writing as well. So the Recess is not a holiday - anything but. I have particularly enjoyed the feeling of the World opening up again after 18 months of near hibernation; and of things ‘getting back to normal.’ A bit of that must be a determination to break the habits of Lockdown, by physically forcing ourselves to get out and about and start doing things again.
I have, for example, restarted physical surgeries (two Saturday mornings a month in four places); but comparatively few people have so far been bringing me their troubles. (It was 12/15 cases per Saturday before Lockdown, but down to 2 or 3 recently.) You may think that ‘surgeries’ in town halls are out of date. You would be right that most people tend to get in touch with me via email these days; but there are plenty of people who can’t or don’t want to; or whose problems are so complex that they really need to be discussed face to face. So I remain a firm believer in surgeries – and view them as an important part of my job. So do please come and see me if you have a particular problem; or perhaps just want to get your gripes off your chest. Mine is (I hope) a good listening ear. You can find the dates/locations on my website.
Parliament’s back on Monday 18th October; when I will be ready to seek to advance the causes of North Wiltshire refreshed and reinvigorated by a busy Constituency Recess.
Our everyday hurly burly; our frenetic (if often needless) busy-ness; our madcap dash from home via school run, work, supermarket, sports club, friends, hobbies; my own whirligig of a political and Parliamentary life sometimes means that we lose sight of the big picture. The more fixated we are by our own immediate circumstances, the less aware we are of the big issues in life.
So I took advantage of the ‘Party Conference Recess’ (more on that later) to join 17 or so MPs and peers from all parties on a harrowing and hard work visit to Bosnia. We were led by the Right Hon Colonel Robert Stewart DSO MP, or ‘Colonel Bob’ to us all, the hero of the British presence in war-torn Bosnia in 1992/3. The Soviet Union had collapsed; that plus the death of President Tito meant the end of the fake Union known as Yugoslavia. What followed was chaos. Some little republics were quickly set up on their own, leaving at the heart of the Western Balkans, the hybrid State of Bosnia.
Here Bosnian Moslems, Serbian Eastern Orthodox and Croatian Roman Catholics had lived together in peace for generations. But Serbian Slobodan Milosevic saw his chance for a ‘Greater Serbia’ incorporating the 33% of Bosnia which had an ethnic Serbian majority. His problem were the thousands of Bosnian Moslems in the middle of it. So taking his example from Hitler, he set about ‘ethnic cleansing’ by killing the Bosnian Moslems off in their thousands.
We visited Sarajevo; besieged for over 1000 days - the longest in modern history; we explored the tunnel under the airport which was the only access in or out of the town which was being relentlessly shelled by the surrounding Serbians; we drove down ‘Sniper Alley’; we met both the young soldiers who had fought to save their city; and the victims who had lost so many sons and brothers.
Then we drove to Ahmici, where Colonel Bob had led the British force who uncovered the brutal massacre of 116 Bosnian Moslems, Croatian houses standing untouched. Who could not be moved by Col Bob’s tale of the young girl dead next to her parents shot through the puppy she was cradling.
But nothing could prepare us for the horror of Srebrenica. A large part of the Moslem population from the surrounding area had gathered together in what the UN guaranteed as a ‘Safe Haven’. I am certain it would have been had Col Bob been in charge; but we had given control over to the Dutch who gave in without a fight to the butcher General Mladic. Without a second thought, he then murdered 8373 men and boys, and deported 23,000 women and girls to concentration camps, many of them to fates too awful to recount. We met some of their mothers, paid our respects at the mass cemetery; spoke to former Moslem soldiers; visited the derelict factory where the men and women had been separated out like sheep and goats.
So if you are worried about where the next gallon of fuel is coming from; if you are fussed about whether or not to have the third jab; if you are obsessed by the potholes down your road; if you are fixated by the minutiae of politics which is so often the product of those rather annoying events the Party Conferences; if you are so close to the trees of your daily lives that you find it hard to see the woods, then I would just say:
Remember Ahmici; Remember Srebrenica;
and be grateful for how fortunate we in Britain really are.
“Long on rhetoric, short on policy content,” seems to have been the harshest criticism which the journalists and think-tankers could come up with of the Prime Minister’s brilliant Conference speech yesterday. If so, then I applaud it even more. The PM should always be the inspirational leader, setting the general course for the great ship of state, but leaving policy matters to individual Secretaries of State who then bear responsibility for their decisions. The PM should not be Presidentially responsible for everything; he should add the glitter, the inspiration, the direction, to those whom he has appointed to do the real work. And yesterday Boris did all of that in spades.
It was a classic Boris speech - funny, self-deprecating, full of literary and classical allusions; much of it a bit incomprehensible because of the speed of its delivery. It is just what the Conference Hall in Manchester wanted to hear; but much more important than that it has also been welcomed by much of the electorate outside of the lefty thinkers inside the M25. People often ask for vision, direction, brilliance. Boris has it, if perhaps his grasp of the finer detail may be something he leaves to others.
In days of Yore the Party Conference was a three-line whip. Anyone with a great political career ahead of them would not dare to miss it. There were true debates; motions passed or defeated; voting slips in our Conference bundles. I stopped going some years ago, as I think have most of my MP and activist colleagues (leaving aside those who have to be there.) It is now much more of an event for the media, for lobby groups and businesses of every kind, and for the very young and ambitious. (The average age at the Tory Conference was about 30 to 35). It is, perhaps for that reason, also an enormous jamboree - 10,000 delegates crammed into every bar and restaurant they can find, carousing the night away, as perhaps I used to do when young and foolish...
The Labour Conference is still a semi-serious event with motions and things called ‘composites’ (what on earth are they?); they try to create the policy direction of the Party as a whole; and tried to muster a little enthusiasm for poor dear Sir Keir Starmer droning on for an hour and a quarter to an emptying hall. He’s a nice enough man, but hardly inspirational. I fear that I cannot quite remember the name of the Lib Dem Leader far less whatever he might have said to his (entirely virtual) Conference the previous week.
Playing hookie from the Conference meant that amongst other things, I was able to attend the lovely funeral service in Bradford-upon-Avon of my old friend and one-time sparring partner, Margaret Purves GC. Margaret stood against me for the Referendum party in the 1997 General Election; but we spent the whole campaign agreeing with each other and have very much kept in touch ever since. It was as a 14-year-old that Margaret won the George Cross for saving two people from drowning; and that strength of character was to stay with her for the rest of her life. Her clarity of vision and thought, her determination and strength were masked by a great sense of humour and huge humanity.
‘Charisma’ is rather a weak characteristic - an easy charm which has been the hallmark of so many PMs – Blair and Cameron most notably. ‘Chutzpah’ is probably equally shared amongst most politicians one way or another. But true character is much rarer commodity – Churchill had it, Thatcher had it - and in my view so does Boris.
Gas is suddenly all over the news. The run-up to CoP26 in Glasgow will focus on reducing CO2 so that the increase in the Globe’s temperature can be held at 1.5 degrees. Yet simultaneously manufacturers of fizzy drinks are complaining that they can’t get enough CO2. That apparently is because it takes gas to make it, and the gas price has gone through the roof. So we are trying to cut CO2 by a reduction in carbon fuels like gas; yet at the same moment an apparent shortage of gas means a price hike, and the end result is too little CO2. My ‘O’ level science is not up to it.
The wholesale price of natural gas has gone up by 600% through a variety of contributory factors. That means that the big gas companies who have the cash flow and sophistication to do so, laid off the risk using the futures and options markets and so continue to break even within the price cap set by the Government. However, the smaller and cut-price gas suppliers who have no such hedge are buying the product at a much higher price than they are charging their customers. (I am on an Avro contract at a very low price, which I know will have to increase when I find a new supplier). Discount shops only keep going as long as they can buy goods even cheaper from the wholesaler.
I have to admit that I have always found the whole idea of competition amongst utilities companies hard to understand. Gas, electricity and water all come through a wire or pipe into our houses. It is the same gas, electricity and water no matter who we are paying our bills to. The gas is manufactured and distributed by British Gas; all the ‘retailer’ is doing is marketing the product, and billing for it. The retailer’s margin simply comes from how cleverly they carry out that admin task (for example by billing for several utilities); and from how nimble they are at using the forward markets to protect themselves against untoward international price movements. On this occasion they seem to have got that bit badly wrong. What all of this means is that we need not fear for the supply - it will continue no matter who we pay our bills through. So if, like me, your ‘retailer’ has gone bust, the advice is to wait for further instruction from Ofgem the regulator, and for now you need take no other action.
The whole world of trade is a mystery to most of us. It is a shame that we will not be able to come to a formal trade agreement with the US in the short term. They are our biggest single trading partner and having an agreement over tariffs and so on would be a great boost to post-Brexit Britain. However not having any such agreement will not hamper our exports in any way. It just means that each deal has to be negotiated separately and taking into account tariffs payable. I am glad that we have sorted out the Airbus/Boeing dispute, and that flights to the US will restart in November. The PM and Foreign Secretary’s US trip has overall been a great success. America are our closest allies from a trade and diplomatic, military and economic standpoint; and it is vitally important that we should have as close a relationship with them as we can.
Much of the media-driven disquiet over gas, steel, international trade and so much more comes from the fact that these matters are so complex that it is hard for many of us to follow them. We get upset over a newspaper headline that our soda stream may not work next Christmas thanks to a shortage of CO2, without actually having much of an idea why. We politicians should spend much more time trying to explain these complex matters in everyday terms. Less hot air and Gas Gas Gas. More cool quiet explanation in plain straightforward English.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.