Last week I met Sir George Young, the MP for North West Hampshire and Government Chief Whip. Sir George recently announced his retirement from Parliament, having been first elected in 1974.
We met in his constituency office in Andover, a small, unimposing office suite, close to the historic St Mary’s Church. It’s immediately easy to see why Sir George is such a well respected Parliamentarian. He welcomed me warmly and seemed genuinely interested in both Andover and Villages and me.
After a long and distinguished career in the House of Commons, Sir George is in a somewhat unique position to describe the differences between the House of the 70’s and that of 2014, a place most of us only see in a 10 second soundbite from Prime Ministers Question Time on the news and one we know little about.
“There have been some really significant changes” Sir George said, “One is the hours, when I was first elected in the seventies Parliament would sit fairly regularly throughout the night, we didn’t start until 2:30 in the afternoon, we never stopped before 10:00 and quite often we went beyond 10:00. Nowadays we sit at 2:30 on Mondays but we start in the morning on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and end at either 7pm or 5pm on Thursday and that has transformed the rhythm of Parliament. It’s made it a much more attractive career for people with families who don’t want to wholly lose contact and I think it’s a more civilised way of doing business, in that if you’re up all night and you’re a minister, you’re in your office at 8 o’clock the next morning trying to run the country.”
“The second major change has been the transfer from communication with MPs from letters to email, when I first got in people wrote to their MPs and at 9 o’clock you go to the post office, you collect your post and by 10 you’d have sorted out your correspondence and the rest of the day was available for holding the Government to account, sitting on select committees and the rest. Nowadays I get relatively few letters from constituents but I get many more emails than ever I got as letters and and again thats slightly changed the rhythm, in that the emails don’t all arrive at 9 o’clock, they arrive throughout the day and throughout the weekends and so, that’s affected the rhythm of the work of an MP in that if you don’t reply to an email within 12 hours people might assume that you’re not interested, so you do need to keep on top of the flow of emails.”
Sir George then went on to praise the way women MPs and television have changed the way Parliamentarians behave in the House of Commons.
“A third change is the increasing number of women in Parliament, when I first got in there were relatively few, I think there were 13 women MPs in my party and we’ve now got a very substantial number more and again that’s slightly changed the chamber in that although there are some women colleagues who are quite, feisty, they have had, I think, a slightly calming influence in the chamber and that’s affected and I think improved the way the chamber is portrayed. Televising Parliament that’s changed, it wasn’t broadcast or televised when I first got in and again I think that’s actually improved the behaviour of MPs, because people don’t want to see their MP misbehaving in the chamber or indeed shoddily attired.”
Minutes before our meeting the news filtered through that one of the police officers involved in the pleb-gate affair had resigned from the Met Police and pleaded guilty to misconduct. Sir George took over from former Government Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, after he was forced to resign. I asked Sir George if there were any ongoing issues of trust between Members of Parliament, particularly minsters and the police.
“I think ministers and MPs recognise that the police do a difficult job, on the whole they do it really well, every now and then something goes wrong. I don’t think there has been any major change in the relationship between MPs and the police, we see them the whole time because they look after us, and look after us really well, in Parliament, but I think standing back, institutions and people like judges, bishops, the Royal Family, MPs, Police, they have all come under much more scrutiny from the public and the media over the last thirty or forty years and whereas people implicitly assumed [previously] that whatever they did was right, now there’s a much more questioning attitude and to some extent that’s healthy. The police as an institution are under much more scrutiny … and also when things go wrong that gets more attention.” He added “I don’t think there has been any fundamental change in the respect we have for the police.”
We then moved on to a subject which some claim changed the political spectrum in May. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) won two seats in Andover and a number elsewhere in England. I asked Sir George if he felt UKIP were a major concern to Conservatives in North West Hampshire.
In paying tribute to his colleagues who lost their seats he said “We were really sorry to lose those two wards, Pam Mutton and David Drew were first class County Councillors and I’m very sorry that they lost their seats last May and we will be doing all we can to win those seats back in three years time.”
We then moved on to discussing the General Election in 2015. “I think people will draw a distinction between voting for UKIP in a local election or a European election and voting in a Parliamentary election, where you have to take a serious decision, who is going to run this Country for the next five years? If you look at previous Parliaments there’s been a peak in support for non-mainstream parties, the Greens did very well in the European elections in the eighties and then fell back, the same may well happen with UKIP in that they peak in by-elections and local elections but then don’t do quite so well.”
Sir George said the local Conservative Association was not complacent however, calling it a “very good organisation,” He made clear “we’ll fight the election really hard and we’ll be doing all we can to win back those who voted UKIP in the local elections.”
Andover and Villages has recently been leading a campaign to discover the reasons for the redirection of Smannell Road, through the Augusta Park Development after local residents, Borough, County and Parish Councillors all were opposed to the plan. I ask Sir George if he felt developers were looked upon more favourably by Government in having their plans authorised in the face of local opposition.
Sir George, who was previously the Minister for Planning responded “Appeals like this used to end up on my desk, normally there’s an inspector that’s entirely neutral and independent who looks at the arguments both ways and then comes up with a recommendation and the inspector looks at what the guidance is, what the national policy is and then looks at the particular case to see how it fits in with it. Ministers and indeed inspectors will take an objective decision, they won’t be swayed unduly either way, they look at the merits of the case.” Sir George acknowledged the problem with the traffic going through Augusta Park but said he felt there was nothing irregular about that decision.
As our interview wound to a close it was obvious that Sir George Young is a politician who genuinely cares about his constituents and the wider public.
All too often the vast majority of people never meet their local MP or Councillors, we hope this will be the first of a series of interviews with local politicians discussing their individual roles.
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