Orders of the Day — Election of a Speaker
1:59 pm

Photo of Mr Tony Benn

Mr Tony Benn (Chesterfield, Labour)

I ask the indulgence of the House. This may be my last speech, so if I am out of order, Mr. Speaker, I hope that you will allow me to range widely.

I support the report of the Procedure Committee and the motion proposed by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. The report is scholarly and historical; it considers all the arguments. My only difference with it is over the question of a secret ballot. I have always understood that if one votes as oneself, it must be secret. Years ago, when I was canvassing in Bristol, I asked a woman to support me and she replied, "Mr. Benn, the ballet is secret". I thought of her dancing alone in the bedroom, where no candidate was allowed to know about it. However, when we vote in a representative capacity, people must know what we have done, so I shall vote for the amendment. The Committee has done very well. I hope that the House accepts the report.

The old system had serious difficulties. Although I disagreed strongly with the Father of the House, he carried out his duties with exceptional skill—with panache! I felt that he was the only Member of the House who could have turned the Beefeaters into a fighting force—he showed such passion and commitment to the rules. We got the Speaker we wanted and I hope that, as a result of today's proceedings, we shall get the system we want—the one that I advocated, as the House will recall.

As I have done on previous occasions—when we were electing a Speaker—I want to look a little more broadly at the role of the Speaker. Often, we tend to think of the Speaker in relation only to the Chamber, but the Speaker's role is of much wider importance. Relations between the legislature and the Executive go through the Speaker of the House.

We live in a strange country: we do not elect our head of state; we do not elect the second Chamber. We elect only this House, and even in this House enormous power is vested in the prerogatives. The Prime Minister can go to war without consulting us, sign treaties without consulting us, agree to laws in Brussels without consulting us and appoint bishops, peers and judges without consulting us. The role of the Speaker today compared with that of Mr. Speaker Lenthall is that you, Mr. Speaker, are protecting us from the triple powers of Buckingham palace, the Millbank tower and central office, which, in combination, represent as serious a challenge to our role.

Then there is the link between the Commons and the people. I have seen many schoolchildren taken around the House, and have talked to some of them about how it has been a home of democracy for hundreds of years. In 1832, only 2 per cent. of the population had the vote. That may seem a long time ago, but it was only 18 years before my grandfather was born. When I was born, women were not allowed the vote until they were 30. Democracy—input from the people—is very, very new. The link between popular consent and the decisions of the House can be tenuous.

Furthermore, nowadays, Parliament representing the will of the people has to cope with many extra-parliamentary forces—very threatening extra-parliamentary forces. I refer not to demonstrations, but to the power of the media, the power of the multinationals, the power of Brussels and the power of the World Trade Organisation—all wholly unelected people.

The House will forgive me for quoting myself, but in the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person—Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates—ask them five questions: "What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?" If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.

The role of the Speaker has another importance. When the political manifestos are yellowing in the public libraries, a good ruling from the Speaker in a footnote in "Erskine May" might turn out to be one of the guarantees of our liberty.

There are two ways of looking at Parliament. I have always thought that, from the beginning—from the model Parliament—the establishment has seen Parliament as a means of management: if there is a Parliament, people will not cause trouble, whereas, of course, the people see it as a means of representation. Those are two quite different concepts of what Parliament is about. The establishment wants to defuse opposition through Parliament; the people want to infuse Parliament with their hopes and aspirations.

I have put up several plaques—quite illegally, without permission; I screwed them up myself. One was in the broom cupboard to commemorate Emily Wilding Davison, and another celebrated the people who fought for democracy and those who run the House. If one walks around this place, one sees statues of people, not one of whom believed in democracy, votes for women or anything else. We have to be sure that we are a workshop and not a museum.

My next point, if I am not out of order, is that all progress comes, in my judgment, from outside the House. I am in no way an academic, but if I look back over history, I see many advances first advocated outside the House, denounced by people in power and then emerging. Let me use a couple of non-controversial examples. Twenty years ago, Swampy would have been denounced as a bearded weirdy; he will probably be in the next honours list, because the environmental movement has won. Similarly, when that madman, Hamilton, killed the children at Dunblane, the then Conservative Home Secretary banned handguns within six months, because public opinion had shifted. So we are the last place to get the message, and it is important that we should be connected effectively to public will.

There is a lot of talk about apathy, and it is a problem, but it is two sided. Governments can be apathetic about the people, as well as people being apathetic about Governments. For me, the test of an effective, democratic Parliament is that we respond to what people feel in a way that makes us true representatives. The real danger to democracy is not that someone will burn Buckingham palace and run up the red flag, but that people will not vote. If people do not vote, they destroy, by neglect, the legitimacy of the Government who have been elected.

May I finish with a couple personal points? I first sat in the Gallery 64 years ago, and my family have been here since 1892—five of us in four generations, in three centuries—and I love the place. I am grateful to my constituents who have elected me. I am grateful to the Labour party, of which I am proud to be a member. I am grateful to the socialists, who have helped me to understand the world in which we live and who give me hope. I am also deeply grateful to the staff of the House—the Clerks, the policemen, the security staff, the Doorkeepers, librarians, Hansard and catering staff—who have made us welcome here.

May I finish, in order, by saying something about yourself, Mr. Speaker? In my opinion, you are the first Speaker who has remained a Back Bencher. You have moved the Speaker's Chair on to the Back Benches. You sit in the Tea Room with us. You are wholly impartial, but your roots are in the movement that sent you here, and you have given me one of the greatest privileges that I have ever had—the right to use the Tea Room and the Library after the election. Unless someone is a Member or a peer, he or she cannot use the Tea Room or the Library, but you have extended the rules by creating the title of "Freedom of the House", so that the Father of the House and I will be able to use the Tea Room. You will not be shot of us yet. I hope in paying you a warm tribute, Mr. Speaker, that you do not think that I am currying favour in the hope that I might he called to speak again because, I fear, that will not be possible.

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