An Open Letter to Fay Jones, MP for Brecon and Radnor.
Dear Ms Jones, I’m sure you will be sorry to hear that I currently have Covid, which gives me extra time to follow the situation in Ukraine, and to feel the frustrations of impotence. Old, ill, overweight, unfit, unable to shoot straight, and a coward, I am unable to cross Europe to take up arms on behalf of Ukraine. I’ve given money to the Ukrainian Central Bank, and to local refugee charities, but, actually, I’m deeply ashamed of our country, because of Priti Patel’s refusal to open our borders to war refugees. You have power, and I don’t. This might surprise you; I don’t want it, either.
I ask you again to do something about Ukrainian refugees; but I know you won’t. You won’t, because, let’s face it, you don’t need my vote. You pander to people who, seeing footage of terrified children, say ‘We don’t want them here.’ In your heart, you know that’s true. It’s them you need to appease to cling to your job, not me and mine. It won’t work, of course, because you will lose your seat at the next election, despite the funding that the Conservative party receives from Russian oligarchs.
But, you know what, we do want them here, want them and need them. I imagine you have some awareness of the problems Mid-Wales faces from depopulation and a demographic rising in age. At the end of Hitler’s war, many Italian ex-POW’s settled here, to the great benefit of our communities. Despite the best efforts of your party to drive them away, there is a vibrant Bulgarian community here in Presteigne; without whose children, our local primary school would lose a teacher. We need intelligent motivated young people here, from wherever they come. But they won’t vote for you either, so they can rot in refugee camps.
I know your standard response to most questions is to blame the Welsh Government, but perhaps not bother this time? Mark Drakeford, a man who has worked hard to keep us safe, has called to open Welsh borders to those fleeing from war. Of course, you won’t agree with him, because although he is a decent human being trying his best to help fellow humans in need, he belongs to a different party from you.
I only know one Ukrainian person in Presteigne. She keeps a dress shop just up the road from me. I took her some flowers yesterday by way of solidarity, for all the good it might do. She was in the backroom with worried and tearful friends; she had been crying. Her mother and sisters are trapped in Kyiv, and she would like them with her. Am I right in thinking one of your colleagues suggested that they apply to pick potatoes? Difficult to tell, since he deleted his tweet, because he is a coward. I notice you’ve blocked me on Twitter, since I had the temerity to quote your own words back at you.
Real people can access their hearts. There is a human sense of ‘the right thing to do’, as the poet Wendell Berry puts it. We know what the truth is. In the summer, I was unkind to you. I wrote about it in my forthcoming book; this is what I wrote;
‘One day in late August 2021, I’d been doing a shift in the box-office for the Presteigne Music Festival. When I finished my stint, I walked out from the Assembly Rooms onto the street to find Fay Jones, the MP for Brecon and Radnor standing outside under a banner, ‘Conservatives for blah blah blah’. I felt a cold and bitter anger rise inside me, like bile at the back of the throat. I asked when she thought the Covid public inquiry should start, as my Mum had died of Covid, the year before, and we, the bereaved families, thought it should start straight away. She said something non-commital, along the lines of ‘Sorry to hear about your mum but blah blah blah &c &c &c’, I can’t remember what. I said that I would be preparing a submission when it did actually start. She said ‘I can help you with that’. I felt so angry that she imagined I’d want help from someone from the party of Borrissey de Spaffel Jonestownmassacre and Rees-Mogg and Gove and Matt Hancock. As far as I was concerned, they had killed my Mum. How could she help? I turned away, but as I turned, I said ‘Get out of my town’, and walked home. I wished I hadn’t said it, as soon as it was out of my mouth. I thought of all the things I should have said; witty, incisive things, but not nasty.
A few months later I had cause to write to her about raising the rate of Public Lending Right. Fay Jones replied, and said she’d forward my concern to the hilariously entitled ‘Culture Secretary’. But she also said that she was saddened by my remark on the street. She wrote to me thus; ‘I’m not the kind of Tory wanker you think I am.’ I wondered, what kind of Tory wanker are you then? But she hadn’t forgotten my aggression, and why should she? She’s a young woman, one of the youngest of the current crop. And I had pretty much verbally assaulted her, in a town in her constituency. What could I say? So I apologised, and invited her to take coffee in Elda’s next time she was in town, and she, rather gracefully, accepted.
A week after that, the Tory MP David Amess was stabbed to death in a constituency surgery. I wrote to her again, saying how dreadful it was, how, on that day in August, I had been part of the problem, not part of the solution, and reiterated my invitation. She thanked me for my letter, and told me that next time she was in town, we’d do the coffee thing. I have prepared a disguise, in case any of my pals see me’.
So, as I hope you can tell, I’m willing to put my hands up, in print, in public. Because I try (and often fail) to live truthfully, I have to turn and look at my own behaviour, and examine my heart. Perhaps because I’m not a politician, I find this useful, and cathartic and instructive. I wanted to go for coffee with you, because I genuinely wanted to understand the motivation that would cause a young well-educated woman to join the Conservative party. We might have built a bridge. We still could maybe, if you camped out on the Home Office doorstep to demand that refugees, women and children and old people mostly, be offered shelter and kindness in their hour of greatest need, so I can tell our Ukrainian neighbour that our MP cares, and is actually doing something to help her family.
But I don’t imagine for one moment that you will. And I don’t know why.
A friend drew my attention this weekend to William Hazlitt’s essay ‘Man is a toad-eating animal’ published in 1819. I highly recommend it. It’s about power, and the love of power. Hazlitt wrote ‘the love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves’. If you have compassion for others, you would move heaven and earth to help actual real people who are living in fear and danger, now, tonight, this very night. But you won’t.
I deeply and sincerely hope that you prove me wrong.
Within an hour, Ms Jones responded. She was kind enough to give me permission to reproduce her reply –
Dear Ian (if I may?)
Thank you for your email. Much of it I disagree with but it is, as always, beautifully written. I’m so sorry to read you’re poorly – fingers crossed you’re better soon.
I’m afraid I’m short on time today but I want to make it extremely clear that you’ve got the wrong end of the stick about my attitude towards refugees. I’ve spent the day talking to colleagues about how we can change immigration rules to ensure as many Ukrainians who want to come here are able to do so. We should have some important news on that announced tomorrow. But please don’t swallow the Guardian line that anyone is ‘refusing’ visa applications. Yes we have had to limit in country applications because we physically don’t have the staff on the ground but we, like other countries, are dropping many of the previous visa requirements so we can get as many people through as soon as possible. We are also increasing the capacity of staff in Visa Offices in Poland and Romania so people can apply from there.
As ever your email is thought provoking. We are never going to agree so I think I can be honest with you. I’m really keen to know why the left is adamant they are the only ones with a heart and sensitivity? There is no monopoly on compassion in this situation. Just because I don’t beat down everyone’s twitter feed with my outrage and frustration that the West can’t obliterate Putin overnight, doesn’t mean I am any less of a bleeding heart than you.
But it’s worth saying that a much as we must welcome as many refugees as we can, we also have to remember that many want to stay in the free country they woke up in on Wednesday. This is where the U.K. can help – and is helping. I know you’ll lecture me about Russian money funding the Conservative party but do we really think that will stop the bombs? No.
I’m sorry I’ve never taken you up on the invite for coffee. My mum is terminally ill and I’ve spent the last few months racing between Westminster, the constituency and Cardiff where she lives. I’m writing this from her bedside where I spend my Sundays – eating biscuits, getting fat and feeling about as impotent and frustrated as you are. At last something we have in common.
Most importantly please tell your Ukrainian friend that I would do anything to help her and her family. She only needs to say. My number is xxxxxxxxx
I hope you recover soon.