Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
Many, many moons ago, I had the pleasure of being employed as Michael Fabricant’s (otherwise known as ‘Fabbers’) researcher. One could not hope for a kinder boss under which to cut some very junior parliamentary teeth.
One of the first pieces of research I ever did was when I worked with Michael on a House of Commons Speech in 1992, on the forces against liberalisation in Russia. Quite topical, given the awful current events. In fact, I think he only got annoyed with me once – and that was due to my completely incompetent map-reading, when we were trying to visit his Secretary who was in hospital with a broken leg. Sadly, for all involved, car GPS had not yet been invented.
So it grieves me to come out publicly against Fabbers’ recent letter to the Speaker – as recently highlighted by Guido Fawkes – demanding the removal of Steve Bray from the precincts of Westminster.
Do I agree with Bray? Absolutely not. Do I approve of his activities? Of course I don’t. Does he suck up to MPs from the left and fail to ever challenge opposition MPs and their failings? Quelle surprise. Do I find him annoying? Who doesn’t?
But, I actually love the fact that we live in such a vibrant democracy, that our Parliament is so accessible and such an individual (like the late Brian Haw) is permitted to scream at all of us, morning, noon, and night. Those people watching Britain from afar can but marvel that Bray can shriek at ministers close-up as they walk to work.
His attendance at the Tory Spring Party Conference in Blackpool was quite a spectacle to behold, and at least kept the delegates entertained as they walked through to the conference venue.
I remember when I once had to do a live interview with Sky News on College Green with Bray screaming on his ginormous megaphone, with his trademark, ‘Stop Brexit’. By God, did I have to concentrate without messing up, and probably did a better interview because of it. Perhaps his services should be used for media training.
I once was at a meeting with David Cameron who complained that a whole load of demonstrators in Whitehall used to blast out music and drums in the wee early hours, the noise reaching Downing Street. I thought at the time, how remarkable it was that only in Britain, would such an activity be permitted just a few yards from the Prime Minister’s residence. The other day, I was wondering where the almost twenty-four hour bagpipe man on Westminster Bridge had gone. Life is not quite the same without him. A bit quieter perhaps.
In some countries such activities would, at best, see the perpetrators thrown into jail. At worst, they might never be seen again.
Far better to take on Bray and his ilk than ban him. After all, the Lee Anderson MP v Steve Bray bouts are now a required box office viewing. It is like watching the Rocky Balboa films all over again – but better. All we need is Eye of the Tiger, playing in the background. David Davies gives his money’s worth too. Conor Burns has not done too badly either.
My friend Michael writes in his letter to the Speaker: “Can you imagine this behaviour being allowed in Paris or Washington?”
But that line of argument is entirely wrong. The fact that this behaviour may not be allowed in and around other parliaments, does not mean we should follow their example. The stronger our parliamentary democracy is – having developed and evolved over many hundreds of years – the more we should allow these eccentrics to do whatever they want to do. Just because a fly is in the ointment, it doesn’t stop the medicine from working.
If the Right are to speak out and act against cancel culture, then it would be wrong to start cancelling people we disagree with – even if they are a nuisance. Far better to challenge than cancel.
(However, if that nuisance becomes harassment and transmogrified into violence, then of course, it is a different story.)
So I say, let Bray stay and carry on with his extraordinarily annoying activities. He might be crude and rude. But he certainly makes Westminster a livelier place. If we have to ban a man with a top hat screaming down a giant silver cone to parliamentarians, it is the political class that will have shown weakness.