As we celebrate the New Year dawning before us here in Lincolnshire, it’s helpful to look back on what’s been a busy year in Parliament.
Free speech has always been a passion of mine, as it should be of every MP. In January, we convinced the Lords to reject a bill which sought to outlaw “annoying or nuisance behaviour”. I’m sure you’ll agree how easy such a description is to misinterpretation. One person’s freedom of expression is another person’s annoyance, and these mere words threatened to potentially make criminal everything from peaceful protest to street preaching.
A whole range of civil society groups combined to fight it together: the National Secular Society, the Christian Institute, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, the Evangelical Alliance, even the Countryside Alliance. Happily, the Government saw sense and withdrew its plans, but MPs are remaining ever vigilant in ensuring Government proposals are subject to the fullest scrutiny possible. We don’t want freedom to die on our watch – or ever.
As the year went on, we received prestigious visitors to Westminster including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Higgins of Ireland – the first state visit to Great Britain from our nearest neighbour. We also bid farewell to some of our own colleagues – including the Labour MPs Tony Benn and Jim Dobbin.
Abroad, the two struggles that most caught our attention in Parliament this year were the continuing troubles in the Middle East as the Iraqi Army melted away before the ISIS onslaught and the newer crisis that emerged in the Ukraine with the overthrow of President Yanukovych.
In debates and question times, I’ve sought to make sure that our government’s response to international problems is always proportionate, appropriate, and doesn’t overstep the bounds. Ever since the debacle of the Iraq War, which I voted against, we are all much more reticent to give the powers that be a blank cheque to wage war, but when British military action can achieve definable objectives, we are still willing to get involved.
In September I think the whole United Kingdom was holding on to the edge of our seats as we watched the Scottish referendum unfold. This has been the most successful family of nations ever to have thrown their lot in together, and a lot of us were worried that Scotland might slip away as the political class was amply distracted. At Prime Minister’s Questions a week before the vote, I implored the party leaders to drop everything they were doing and head to Scotland, and no one was more surprised than me when they actually did. Scotland voted to stay put, and I’m happy our family is staying together.
Looking ahead, there is much more work to be done. We’ve brought down taxes for many working families and individuals, and we’re reining in public spending. But the election in May will decide the future of the country, and we Conservatives still have a lot of work to do. I hope voters will let us finish the job.
Sir Edward Leigh
MP for Gainsborough