THE Conservative Party's longest serving Member of Parliament, Roger Gale MP for North Thanet in Kent, today starts his new regular column in the Daily Bulletin and is open to feedback and questions (by email) via the newspaper.
A funny old month.
THE dog–end of that wonderful “three–month holiday” that the British tabloids never tire of reporting. Liberal, Labour and, finally, Tory Party conferences generating much eating and drinking, hot air, high hotel bills for services that would not pass muster in any normal circumstances, and back to school exhausted and with a sigh of relief. Indian Summer may be with us but High Summer and cricket all seems a very long time ago! This is mopping–up time with the ping–pong of Lords' amendments to Government legislation bouncing cheerfully between the two houses. Business managers try to tie up as many loose ends before the session prorogues and lobbyists scurry around trying to close stable doors on horses that have long–since bolted! In the tearoom the fetid atmosphere that threatened to bring down Blair in the summer seems to have cooled. Labour colleagues looked into the abyss and clearly decided that electoral meltdown and loss–of–seat was unattractive. The polls flutter around the future of the Conservative and Unionist Party and at present appear to give Young Dave a pleasing but not exciting lead. “If there were to be an election tomorrow....” but there won't be, not for some time yet, I fear! “Faith” is the buzz–word of this spill–over session. Jack Straw has kicked off a debate about the wearing or the not–wearing of the veil. British Airways, while still commercially prepared to “fly the flag” are not, it seems, willing to allow employees to wear a cross as the symbol of their faith. On the BBC's Sunday morning political show a hackette from The Sun (where else) displays large amounts of chest and declares that her own cross is, in fact, “a fashion accessory” because “if it was a crucifix it would have Jesus on it”. Has Fid. Def. become Fid. Deaf?
This is Ramadan and there are constituency Mosques to visit. My own Imam is a superbly level–headed friend. When I call to break fast he seems entirely to agree with my own pragmatic view that if people wish to declare their faith then they should, veil or crucifix or Star of David or whatever, be free to do so. Does his flock share his attitude? I am not so sure.
I find myself Chairing the Corporate Manslaughter Bill through its committee stages. Acting for the Speaker I become impartial, listen, observe, endeavour to manage the business and do not become involved. This is Parliament at its absolute best. Commonsense, much expertise, a high level of courtesy and consensus and, possibly a result in the interests of the people. I see, during the first sitting, a young lady in the public gallery who is perpetually restless and close to tears. Did she lose someone in a train crash or industrial accident? I want to ask her after the sitting but she is finally overcome and leaves. I will never know the answer but I hope that our deliberations may help others.
Earlier in the year I visited some of my constituents serving on HMS Bulwark patrolling in the Gulf of Oman. After seven and a half months at sea and a detour from Gibraltar back to the Lebanon to take part in the evacuation of British civilians, she is back in port. This fine capital ship is a building site but no matter: it is good to renew acquaintances and a slightly terrifying honour to be asked to propose the toast to The Immortal Memory at a Trafalgar Night Dinner that turns out to be the last mess dinner, also, for an excellent Captain who is leaving. To become an Admiral, I trust.
(HMS Bulwark was designed and built to carry and land Royal Marine Commandos on arctic patrols during the Cold War. History moved on and by the time she was launched she was destined for service in the Middle East at temperatures for which her cooling systems were never designed. The re–fit is rather more than a little needed!)
As an aside, did you know that a Sardinian Pointer, belonging to an Officer on HMS Conqueror at Trafalgar, was thrown overboard, as was the custom, at the start of the battle? Caught in some rigging, said dog survived the entire onslaught, was retrieved and re–united with its owner and lived to some seventeen years of age! FARMERS
Back in the surreal world of Westminster Lord (Jeff) Rooker, erstwhile MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, tells Members that he cannot predict when the Rural Payments Agency, for which he now has Ministerial responsibility, will cough up the money owing to our farmers. It is, it seems, the fault of the computer. So that's alright, then! Our farmers can go bust, commit suicide, despair. The money that is theirs by right may be with them (or their receivers) in two years. And in the meantime the Treasury has cut £200 million of the budget of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That means cuts in the environmental funding that maintains our rivers and waterways and cuts to a State Veterinary Service charged with the duty of maintaining animal health and welfare. Has Gordon Brown heard of Bovine TB? Or don't they have these things in Scotland?
There are fewer old faces at the war memorial for Trafalgar Day this year but a fine spread of standards at Kent's own Festival of Remembrance in Margate's Winter Gardens. The British Legion speaker is the Chairman of the Poppy Factory, Sarah Jones. Mrs Jones' husband, Colonel HO Jones was killed re–taking the Falklands and not surprisingly she speaks feelingly about the need for the work of the Legion. Having lost two young constituents in Iraq she strikes a chord with me.
It is not treacherous or “disloyal to our boys on the front line” to suggest that the manner in which they were sent to war, the manner in which that war is now being prosecuted and the future conduct of our Foreign Policy in Iraq should be the subject of Privy Council enquiry.
The publication of the Climate Change report on 30th October is described by Mr. Blair as “the most important document to land on my desk during my premiership”. For the first, and probably the last, time I agree with him although the “dodgy dossier” must run the report a close second! Global Warming is the Big Issue. A farmer once said to me that you should “live as if you are going to die tomorrow and farm as if you are going to live forever”. Those custodians of our Green and Pleasant Land understood a thing or two. If we are going to hand on a world that is fit for our grandchildren and their children to live in then we are going to have to make some big and painful changes. Are we ready to do it? The Climate Change Bill predicted for inclusion in the Queen's Speech may give us some indication. More of that next month.
If the debates on the Corporate Manslaughter Bill in committee were exemplary then the Iraq debate has been a classic example of the House sinking to an occasion. Parliament has been subjected by the executive to so many deceits over such a long period of time that Members find it difficult to remain, on this issue, focussed, dispassionate and rational.
It is not, as some tabloids have suggested, treacherous or “disloyal to our boys on the front line” to suggest that the manner in which they were sent to war, the manner in which that war is now being prosecuted and the future conduct of our Foreign Policy in Iraq should be the subject of Privy Council enquiry. Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett says “Now is not the right time”.
She does not sound as if she believes her brief and she is profoundly wrong.
Too many men and women, civilian and military, have died and too many bad decisions have been taken on both sides of the Atlantic to allow this matter to be left for future business. Not once, since the start of the conflict, has Prime Minister Blair instigated and led a debate on Iraq. The lessons of this quagmire need to be learned now, before still more young men and women lose their lives. The Chief of General Staff clearly believes that. Does the House of Commons? For an Inquiry into the war 273. Against 298. The Prime Minister, at least, survives. Whether the same can be said for his reputation is entirely another matter.


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