the different roles of an MP
I saw three versions of an MP’s life this week. Last Sunday evening, I drew the broadband Minister into discussing better broadband access for Cumbria. I really want to make this happen. We have more self-employed people in Penrith and the Border than any other constituency and we will jeopardise all rural services from village schools to post offices if we don’t get this right. I described the success in Alston and problems in Dufton; produced statistics on why we need and want it more than anywhere else; and reminded him that we are the very heart and epicentre of Britain. I did this for three hours until the Minister eventually agreed to chair a broadband conference in Penrith this September. He probably wanted me to shut up.
On Tuesday morning I was asked to a meeting on foreign policy. I was intimidated to be addressing the Prime Minister, but I was more intimidated by the fact that among the soldiers and civil servants in the room were no less than four of my previous bosses. It felt a little bit like an episode of ‘This Is Your Life’. The afternoon was spent on letters and e-mails from Penrith and the Border: five people sent press clippings; eleven had ideas for government policy; three sent books, two a DVD and one a hand-painted postcard; two families were being threatened with eviction; and there were another six developments in the ongoing fight to save Newton Rigg.
The next day, we heard the terrible news from West Cumbria and on Thursday I found myself speaking for the first time in the House, not in a Maiden Speech, but because Copeland MP Jamie Reed was in his constituency, to express some of our sorrow on behalf of Cumbria.
On Saturday I found myself sat with Billy Welch, the gypsy leader at the Appleby Horse Fair, by a camp-fire in the centre of a circle of caravans, on Fair Hill. Billy spoke in great bursts of furious eloquence, scattering his speech with Roma words and invoking 650 years of gypsy history. Young, shaven-headed men, who would have looked like football fans had their bare shoulders not been almost touching the withers of white horses, galloped past to the Eden.
“This earth”, shouted Billy, “is sacred to us – this is our Mecca.” Behind him, doves flew past the great mysterious mounds at Knock and Dufton pike.
His rhetoric was driven by his sense that the police were being too aggressive towards gypsies. It was a particularly difficult time for the police: the Assistant Chief Constable had been the Gold Firearm Commander for the Derek Bird shootings only two days earlier, and he and his team had obviously gone through a very tough two days. Kevin Douglas, the Chief Executive of Eden District Council, who was also listening to Billy beside me, had been working for eleven months with a large multi-agency team on preparing the Fair. Despite Billy’s complaints – the atmosphere in town had seemed to me friendly and orderly – at the St Lawrence’s coffee morning many residents told me they were pleased. The horse-fair was already going before Pitt the Younger became the MP for Appleby in 1781. But I doubt even he could have crafted a perfect balance between two such different communities.
This isn’t an issue for a single year. It demands a continual series of experiments, small lessons-learned, and endless flexibility: more order this year, perhaps a little more freedom next.
I am no nearer to untangling this web of roles or finding a simple core to an MP’s life. Yesterday, I saw some soldiers who had recently returned from Afghanistan and was reminded how, through their basic training, the parade ground, and the daily routines in regiments, they absorb a whole culture, a sense of their profession as a calling. Neither a Corporal nor a Colonel need ever really wonder what their job is. Each person has a superior officer and comrades and people for whom they are responsible, a mission, and orders. And, even when those things are missing, there exists a clear code to guide them.
But a Member of Parliament has none of this. As every other part of government has become more formal and more trained, Members of Parliament remain an anomaly. We can seem at our worst a little like my Highland Cows which I continue to keep for the sake of tradition but who never seem to bring me much gain at Market.
I am still learning about the opportunities, the uncertainties, the small moments of influence and power which might allow me to encourage the roll-out of broadband, help a constituent, suggest an alternative in Afghanistan, or just play a small part for Cumbria. Yet I’m embarrassed to say that although I cannot pin down this job in the way a soldier could, I’ve never had a more interesting week.