Parliament returned last week from the Christmas recess and the expectation is that politics in 2023 will be less lurid but more ominous than in 2022. I trust we are past the peak of political drama for this Parliament, and yet it seems certain that the economic news is going to get worse before it gets better.
Inflation may be falling from the unnatural heights it reached after the lockdowns ended and the Ukraine war began, but we have chronic shortages of supply across the economy and it seems likely that prices will remain painful for some time. For a decade inflation (the natural consequence of printing money and suppressing interest rates) has been felt mostly in house prices, which was only a problem for first-time buyers; now it is hitting almost everything people need to buy. It is no surprise that people working for the public sector are asking for higher pay, and they deserve a settlement that helps them cope with the increased cost of living. But the Government simply can’t let wages chase prices up the spiral of inflation, for this would affect workers’ real pay even more, as well as retarding the recovery we need.
To avoid 1970s-style stagnation we need growth - but not the sort of growth that got us into this mess. Yes, we need to liberalise financial services (as the government is doing); yes we need foreign workers for some key sectors; yes we welcome imported goods and global free trade; and yes, at the right moment, we may need the stimulus of a rate cut. But fundamentally we need an economy that generates value through the productive energy of British entrepreneurs and British workers, not the artificial boost of cheap credit, cheap labour, and cheap foreign produce.
The cross-channel migrants keep coming. At PMQs before Christmas I caught the Speaker’s eye and managed to get through my question despite the heckling from the Lib Dems, whose leader bellowed at me throughout. I made the point that while Britain can claim some authorship of the European Declaration on Human Rights (Churchill benignly sent some Tory lawyers to help draft it, without intending we would actually sign up ourselves), it is now an impediment to proper border control. We should work with other countries, as Churchill did, to draft a new framework for refugees and human rights which respects national sovereignty; but whether we get others to join us or not, we should, I believe, get out of the ECHR, and trust in our own statute and common law to protect the rights and freedoms of both British and non-British citizens in our country. You can watch the exchange with the PM here.
Last week in the Treasury Select Committee I quizzed the Minister Andrew Griffith on the Government’s plan for a Central Bank Digital Currency. I have said before I am concerned about the threat to liberty from the demise of cash and its replacement by systems - public or private - that can monitor your transactions. Andrew was reassuring. Our exchange is here.
No one can deny the crisis in the health and care system. On Friday I had lunch in Pino’s in Marlborough with the Rev Chris Smith of St Mary’s. On entering we found Pino himself stretched out on the banquette in the bar, two crutches propped up next to him. What had happened? One icy night, he’d slipped fetching wood out the back, badly broken his leg, and lain there for two hours before he was found. The ambulance couldn’t get there for four hours, so the local undertaker loaded him into his Landrover (not the hearse), and took him to Great Western in Swindon, where they waited outside for an hour before being admitted; then the familiar nightmare of lying in corridors for even more hours. Pino stresses that the care he received was excellent. The problem is the excess of demand and the shortage of supply on the front-line.
I spoke about the NHS in the chamber this week, thanking our local hospital staff, GPs, pharmacists and care workers for their work. And I pointed out that though Labour (it was a debate led by the opposition) promise a lot more ‘inputs’ - more staff, paid through taxation of the inexhaustible non-doms - the real imperative in the NHS is value for the vast amount of money it already spends, and that means reform of its structures. The Government is introducing significant changes to localise the system and integrate health and social care, which I welcome, and I hope they’ll go further. My speech is here.
Speaking of the NHS I spent a fascinating hour in Marlborough Town Hall on Friday with Dr Nick Maurice. Dr Nick, as he’s called to distinguish him from all the other Dr Maurices in Marlborough, is the sixth consecutive generation of his family to practise medicine in the town. His great-great-great grandfather arrived in 1792, and Nick only hung up his stethoscope at the turn of this century. I filmed our conversation about the history of general practice in the area, and his own reflections on what makes family doctoring work, and what’s wrong with the system today. I’ll post the film up shortly.
Friday morning I spent at the wonderful Burbage Primary School (here I am above with the School Council) taking questions from children in the assembly and talking to the head and governors about the challenges of funding in these difficult times. I then headed to the Carsons’ farm at Alton Barnes for a meeting with a dozen or so farmers organised by the NFU. In a small warm barn, with pictures of crop circles on the walls, they politely and patiently eviscerated government agricultural policy.
The essential issue is that we are transitioning from a system of farm subsidy based simply on the possession of land to one based on the production of ‘public goods’, namely environmental stewardship and food production; but the new system is far more complicated than the old one, and farmers - who have far longer lead times for investment, and are subject to far more uncertainty (the weather) than most industries - need advance sight of the schemes they need to adapt to. But in many cases they are still in the dark. Supermarkets and the renewable energy system also came in for comment.
On the bright side, the farmers reported real improvements in the blight of hare coursing since the Government changed the law to allow the coursers’ dogs to be confiscated, and our local Police and Crime Commissioner Philip Wilkinson directed the cops to be more present and assertive. My thanks to him and also to all the farmers who, through Whatsapp, maintain vigilance and communication of the criminals’ movements.
The other good nature news is the success of the Great Bustard breeding programme. You may remember my clandestine visit last year to their secret location on the escarpment of Salisbury Plain. The massive creature - the largest flying animal in the world - is Wiltshire’s county bird. It was hunted to extinction in these islands in the 19th century, but thanks to the efforts of David Waters, and his colleagues and trustees at the Great Bustard Group, it is now back and breeding self-sufficiently. Such good news, which you can read about in the Telegraph here.