Election of Speaker

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th May 1979.

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2.50 p.m.

Photo of Mr Derek Walker-Smith Mr Derek Walker-Smith , Hertfordshire East

It is with a keen sense of pride, privilege and pleasure that first I welcome you, Mr. Parker, to the Chair and congratulate you on becoming Father of the House, in succession to our greatly respected friend George Strauss, and then respectfully submit to the House the motion, That the Rt. Hon. George Thomas do take the Chair of this House as Speaker. We share today a common purpose—the election of our Speaker—but I would guess that perhaps that is not the only thing that we share today. I am sure that we are all glad to exchange aspiration for actuality and the hustings for the House, and are glad to find ourselves in a place—one of the few, perhaps the only one—where politicians as a class are held in universal love and unqualified respect.

Alas, that is not so everywhere, but at least nobody here would share the opinion given to a colleague of mine, in my ministerial days, who had been unwise enough to enter into verbal disputation with a doctor—something I learned early not to do. They always have the last word anyway.

The Minister said "There are two sorts of doctor—the young and experimental, who kill you off, and the old and traditional, who leave you to die". The doctor replied "Yes, Minister, and there are two sorts of politician—those who are dead and those who ought to be".

In this great democracy of ours, no one can sit in the House without free and popular election. That applies to Mr. Speaker twice over. He has to be doubly elected on a free and popular vote—first by his constituents and again by his fellow Members. He is, in accordance with our constitutional principle of the discontinuity of Parliaments, a new Speaker for a new Parliament. It is therefore a new Speaker for this new Parliament that we elect today, even though he will come to the Chair with the unbounded respect and affection derived from his previous tenure of office.

Our new Speaker will be elected by a House containing many new Members. Perhaps, as this is the first speech of the new Parliament, I may, without presumption, be allowed a word of welcome to our new Members. Over the years, I have heard, as, I dare say, have you, Mr. Parker, new Members sometimes referring to themselves with becoming modesty as "new boys". But there is no such distinction here. In the House of Commons, as in the eyes of God, all are equal. Only Mr. Speaker, as arbiter and interpreter of our proceedings, as a symbol of the high authority of Parliament, stands perhaps a little apart—primus inter pares—rather than one of the boys.

One and all, Mr. Speaker and the rest, new Members and old, are part of a goodly company and heirs to a great tradition, exercising on behalf of those we here represent those democratic rights and freedoms taken perhaps for granted through long enjoyment in this country, but envied by many people in many lands who have them not. They are like the air that we breathe—little noticed in their presence but valued beyond price in the event of deprivation.

So, no doubt, Mr. Speaker will be according the customary priority to those who wish to make their maiden speech. Most of them, no doubt, will be delivered with traditional maiden modesty, but perhaps here and there we may have the speech of an F. E. Smith, or a maiden speech like that of my very dear and wholly delightful friend the late Alan Herbert in respect of which Sir Winston Churchill said "That was not a maiden speech, it was a painted hussy of a speech". The mention of those two and the recollection of many others, of the simple great ones gone for ever and ever by whose company and conversation I was, when younger, privileged sometimes to enjoy emboldens me to entertain the hope that I may enjoy the privilege from time to time of the company and conversation of those who join us now.

The duties of Mr. Speaker are to well known to require any description by me. On him falls the duty of interpreting our rules and guiding our proceedings. On him falls too the duty of ensuring compliance with the text in verse 40 of the fourteenth chapter of the first epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians: Let all things be done decently and in order. I am sure that that task will be lightened by the political equivalent of ecumenical assent to that exemplary and authoritative exhortation.

In all his tasks Mr. Speaker will have the inestimable advantage not only of his own experience, judgment and fair-mindedness but of the unfailing help and ready guidance of the learned Clerks at the Table, who are held by us all in such great respect.

Among the duties of Mr. Speaker is the difficult and delicate task of the selection of hon. Members to address the House, and that imposes the unwelcome duty sometimes to disappoint—a duty imposed not of choice but by the inexorable logistics of the quart and the pint pot.

I warn our new Members that there will be times, once those excellent maiden speeches have been made, when, amid a cluster of competing claimants, they will not be able to catch Mr. Speaker's eye. They will go home, as have we all, at the end of a long and frustrating day with their notes in their pockets and their hearts in their boots, reflecting sadly on the melancholy, but inescapable, paradox that the speeches that we fail to make are somehow and sadly almost always better than those we do make.

Those hon. Members will be sad, but so will Mr. Speaker. Perhaps he will not be as sad as they—I do not want to use the language of hyperbole—but he will be genuinely sorry because he is a kind and warm-hearted man.

It is obvious that for the performance of these varied and exacting duties we need someone of good judgment and rare quality. It is equally obvious that in the right hon. Gentleman we have such a man.

When I had the honour to second his initial election as Speaker, I said this: He is richly endowed with those qualities that make a good parliamentarian and a much-loved colleague—not only eloquence and judgment, although he has both in good measure, but courtesy and consideration, affability and sensibility, kindliness and good humour, and a wit that often scores but never wounds."—[Official Report, 3 February 1976; Vol. 904, c. 1136.] Today I reaffirm those words. But I do more. I do not need now to prophesy his fitness for the office of Speaker. I can point to the record. In the words of a great and much-loved parliamentarian, why peer into the crystal when we can read the book? Now, after three years and more, we can surely read the book. What I said then as to his quality is confirmed and proven clear beyond the possibility of peradventure.

What was then expectation is now realisation. What was then confident surmise is now established fact. What was then aspiration for the future is now present certainty based on the solid foundation of past performance.

If I may be allowed, in conclusion, what would normally be the almost unpardonable indulgence of a slight adaptation, to meet the happier circumstances of our scene today, of Shakespeare's lines in one of my favourite plays, His life is gentle; and the elementsSo mixed in him that Nature might stand upAnd say to all the world 'This is the man' This, then, is the man. The right hon. Gentleman is the man for us to be Speaker of our House.

It is therefore in a spirit of confidence and conviction, with feelings of warm friendship and deep respect, that I submit the right hon. Gentleman's election to the assent and approbation of the House.

3.1 p.m.

Photo of Mr Frederick Willey Mr Frederick Willey , Sunderland North

It is my very great privilege to second the motion moved by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith), as I am sure I may refer to him on this occasion. I cannot match his eloquence. I have admired his persuasive eloquence since I first heard him as president of the Oxford Union trespassing in Cambridge. I was not altogether surprised—in fact, I was forewarned—to be honoured to perform this pleasant duty. I realise that by survival I have become one of the senior Members of the House.

I share that privilege with George Thomas. I have known him man and boy. We both came here in 1945. Shortly, he will resist with theatrical robustness his passage to the Chair. I know that that will be theatrical. He and and House have enjoyed his Speakership—the office that we are about to renew.

I know that his success and distinction are the climax of his ambition, because he set as his target not Number 10 but the Chair. That was because he came here and immediately felt a love for the House. Hhis ambition was to be Speaker, and no one is happier than I that he has attained it.

It is conventional to give a list of requisite qualities that cannot be contained in a single body. I shall mention only three.

The right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East said that Mr. Speaker-Elect was courteous. He is a courteous gentleman. He is fair-minded and impartial. He may have spoken heatedly about matters that personally affected him but basically he is objective and fair minded. He is also shrewd. I must be careful in what I say—but fortunately he is Welsh.

Much more important than this, to me he epitomises the House that we serve. I know the penalty the office carries. I remember Sir Frank Soskice, as he then was, declining to take the Chair because of the isolation it brought with it. This lofty solitude must be a real penalty to impose upon George Thomas. On the other hand, from my experience I know of no other Speaker who, despite his office, has retained so many close personal friendships.

We are emerging from a general election in which—I speak for myself—we overindulged in dialectics. I developed an unpleasant aptitude for disagreeing about everything. I would have disputed the weather if that had been at issue. However, this election has brought us all to the House of Commons. I shall not be subversive. I respect the Whips; I respect Parliament, too. Parliament is the crucible of public opinion. We must keep it so. We must all try to make our contribution to it. For this, in a real measure, we depend upon the Chair.

We are indeed fortunate that George Thomas is going back to occupy the Chair. I am fortunate in being able to begin this Parliament by calling upon hon. Members to show unanimous enthusiasm to ensure that the custodian of our parliamentary rights and the master of our fair and balanced debates shall be the tried and trusted friend of most of us—and, as soon as he has an opportunity to know the new Members of Parliament, of all of us.

I know also that friendship will not impair the respect and love that George Thomas has for the House of Commons itself. Therefore, it is a real pleasure for me to second the motion.

3.9 p.m.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

(standing in his place): I join the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) and the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) in congratulating you, Mr. Parker, on becoming Father of this House. I hope that you will have many long and happy years as the Father of this distinguished assembly.

In accordance with ancient custom, I submit myself to the will of the House. First, I wish to express my deep gratitude to the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East and the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North for the felicitous and generous terms in which they respectively proposed and seconded my re-election as Speaker of this ancient and honourable House. The right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East has now proposed or seconded the re-election of the Speaker more often than I have preached Methodist sermons. I must say that every time his eloquence appeals to me and moves me deeply, especially when he is as kind as today.

No one is more conscious than I of the latitude which both right hon. Gentlemen allowed themselves today. The House will understand that this is an occasion when I find it difficult to express the emotion that I feel. The House knows that I am the son of a miner from the Rhondda valley. In our mighty democracy, it is no mean tribute to this House that, regardless of background, the House, when it gives its trust, gives it in full measure. That I learned in the previous Parliament. I am deeply grateful for the health and friendship with which I was supported throughout my time as Speaker in the last House.

It is a long time since Edmund Burke described England as the Mother of Parliaments, but in the intervening centuries this House has grown in stature and in significance. Right across the world, this High Court of Parliament, in Westminster assembled, is regarded as a true bastion of democracy. Every one of us in this Chamber today is, therefore, a highly privileged person, for we have been given the trust of our electors to guard their freedoms and their rights as citizens of the United Kingdom.

Within this House, free speech is our undoubted right and privilege, and this means that right hon. and hon. Members must be prepared to listen to points of view with which they may disagree profoundly. However strongly hon. Members may dislike a point of view that is being advanced, no one must be prevented from being heard, or our parliamentary democracy will be in peril. Every new Parliament has a personality of its own, but there are traditions, courtesies and customs that are common to each Parliament. It is our responsibility, as transient trustees in the history of this ancient House, to guard the customs and traditions that have served our country well for centuries past.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman quoted the apostle Paul, and I shall quote his advice to the Thessalonians: Stand fast and hold the traditions ye have been taught. By long tradition, this House, when it gives its trust to the Member elected as Speaker, rightly expects from the Chair complete independence, impartiality and fair play, for minority interests and for majorities. The rights of Back Benchers are as sacred as those of Front Benchers. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".] I thought that I would get a cheer there. It is the responsibility of the Speaker always to bear that fact in mind. If this day the House again puts its trust in me and does me the great honour of re-electing me to that Chair, I shall endeavour, with the help of God Almighty, to be a faithful guardian of all the rights and privileges to which this House is entitled.

I beg leave to give one word of advice to those hon. Members who have joined us for the first time. There is a hymn which runs: We love the house, O Lord, wherein thine honour dwells. This democratic assembly is a House to be loved, honoured and respected. Now that the proceedings of this House are broadcast to the nation, we have an even greater responsibility to remember that our conduct in this House has a great bearing upon the respect which the public has for Parliament. The fact that from time to time we are a noisy assembly worries the public at large more than is generally realised within the House. Because we have a living, vibrant democracy in these islands, it is a natural consequence that we should have a lively, vibrant Parliament. But the essential feature is that, at the end of the day, a fair hearing must be guaranteed to everyone and anyone addressing the House. To earn the appellation "a good House of Commons man" or woman is to prove worthy of the trust that has brought us to this place.

I am deeply conscious that no hon. Member can be given a greater honour than to be trusted to be the impartial guardian of the rights of everyone within this House. It is, therefore, with due humility that I submit myself to the will of the House.

Resolved,That the Right Hon. George Thomas do take the Chair of this House as Speaker.

Whereupon, JOHN PARKER, ESQUIRE, left the Chair, and the RIGHT HON. GEORGE THOMAS was taken out of his place and conducted to the Chair by Sir DEREK WALKER-SMITH and Mr. FREDERICK WILLEY.

Mr. Speaker-Elect:

(standing on the upper step): Before I assume the Chair, I want once again to express my sense of deep gratitude for the trust that the House has put in me. I hope that together we may all serve our country well.

Mr. SPEAKER-ELECT sat down in the Chair.

Then the Mace (which before lay under the Table) was placed upon the Table.

3.17 p.m.

Photo of Mrs Margaret Thatcher Mrs Margaret Thatcher The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

Mr. Speaker-Elect, it is one of the happiest features of our procedures that, after the passions aroused by the hustings, our first parliamentary duty is one on which we are unanimous. It is a great pleasure and privilege to offer, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, our congratulations to you on your election as Speaker.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) and the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey), who have proposed and seconded the motion, have already said much that most of us would have wished to say to you individually, had we been able to be the author of such felicitous phrases. I did, however, note that my right hon. and learned Friend referred exclusively to "new boys"—a mistake that you did not make, Mr. Speaker-Elect. But, of course, being a lawyer, my right hon. and learned Friend would doubtless refer me to the Interpretation Act 1889 and point out that "boy" embraced "girl".

From the time of your initial election, Mr. Speaker-Elect, we always knew that you would bring great distinction, humanity and warmth to your office, and you have. We always knew that your unfailing, patient humour would heal and not wound, and it was so. We always thought that you would be one of our great Speakers, and you are. For some 34 years, you have been steeped in the ways of the House, fulfilling many roles and therefore seeing our work from many different aspects.

I well remember, Mr. Speaker-Elect, an occasion when you were in a less exalted position—that of a mere Front Bencher, a Minister of the Crown—when one of your replies to questions gave rise to the accusation that you were hedging. Any other Minister would have denied such an outrageous allegation swiftly, but not you, Sir. "Of course I am hedging", you said, "and so would the hon. Member if he were in my position".

Mr. Speaker-Elect, some of us are now in that position, and we are grateful to you for that precedent, which, like so many others, may come in useful in the future.

You have carried the reputation of our House, Mr. Speaker-Elect, to wider audiences both here and abroad. At home, "Order, order"—I cannot imitate that Welsh accent—is now a household phrase. You represented us at the bicentennial celebrations in the United States and presided over the conference of Commonwealth Speakers, where we all know that you were a great hit. You have been very welcoming and generous to visiting parliamentarians and guests, as well as to hon. Members of this House. On those occasions you usually speak, as you did today in the most moving tones, of this Mother of Parliaments. You do it, Mr. Speaker-Elect, not because it is the tradition, nor because it is customary—although tradition and customary important—nor even because it is expected of you, though it is, but because you have a deep and abiding belief that our parliamentary way is the best way to serve a free people, and that we must bequeath it as a heritage to those who come after us. We know, too, of your profound faith that righteousness exalteth a nation and the strength that that gives you in difficult days.

While we have been away, a new crest has appeared in this House over the Archway. It is the crest of Airey Neave. We should like to thank you for having placed it there. The thought was so typical of you and so worthy of him, Mr. Speaker-Elect. We shall continue, Mr. Speaker-Elect, to be in need of your kindness, wisdom and integrity. As Sir Thomas Browne wrote centuries ago, All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again". In your new beginning, we salute you and wish you happiness and satisfaction in carrying out the duties of your historic office.

3.20 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Callaghan Mr James Callaghan Leader of the Labour Party, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Mr. Speaker-Elect, it is my very great privilege and pleasure to follow the Prime Minister in offering you, on behalf of everyone on the Opposition Benches, our good wishes, our thanks for your past services and our hopes for the future. We are delighted that you should be there.

Listening to the feast of oratory this afternoon and all the biblical quotations we have had, I began to wonder whether I was not attending one of the Speaker-Elect's Bible classes. We know the origins of your qualities, Mr. Speaker-Elect, the origins of your character, and why you stand where you are. I suppose I have had the privilege of being a friend of yours longer than anybody in this House. When you refer—I hope the House will not mind my saying this—to your home in the Rhondda valley, I know I am the only one who has had the privilege of staying in that miner's cottage with you, and I cannot help but think how proud of you your family would be today if they were here.

I agree with you that your election is a wonderful thing. We were both much younger then, and we have learnt a lot in the 34 years we have been here. I notice that you are not wearing your old Etonian tie today. I think we have learnt to respect and very much to value the traditions of this House which always induce impatience in every new Member. These traditions must not be maintained for their own sake. They must be modernised and brought up to date. It would be foolish to adhere to old practices because they were old practices, encrusted with history. But as we are addressing ourselves to new Members, I urge them to beware of changing those practices before they have been tested and proved to be outdated. There are a lot of practices which we value in this House and which seem to be a little antiquarian. Nevertheless, they have a very good foundation in the order to which the Prime Minister and you, Mr. Speaker-Elect, have both referred.

I say to every new Member that one thing he or she will find with you, Mr. Speaker-Elect, is that you have the most kindly disposition. I suppose that if I were to be preaching your epitaph—and who knows, I might do that one day—I would single out above all else your great heart which embraces all mankind, and that is the most marked feature of your life. It has endeared you to everybody in your own constituency, in Britain and throughout the world. It is humiliating for me, having been your neighbour for 34 years, and after all my efforts during the election, including every night on television, to find at the end of the day that, without your having made a single speech, you gained a majority which was nearly three times as big as mine.

I shall tell just one story to illustrate the way in which you, Mr. Speaker-Elect, are regarded and the way in which before you were elected you upheld our reputation throughout the world. You were once preaching in a southern state in the United States, before Negroes had reached their present position in the United Sates. You made one of your moving Welsh Methodist speeches. You referred just now, Mr. Speaker-Elect, to the eloquence of the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith). I promise the House that your sermons are just as eloquent. When you, Mr. Speaker-Elect, had finished preaching, the preacher got up, having been deeply moved, as we all are when we hear you, and he said "Brethren, we have just listened to a very fine man. His skin may be white, but his soul is as black as ours." I think that is a tribute, Mr. Speaker-Elect, to the impact which you have on all those you meet. The love and affection that you show to everyone you meet and the generosity you show to them is reflected back upon you by the way in which you attract their affection and admiration.

Having uttered these words to you today, I fear that they will not stand me in good stead when we resume the battle next week. Although I have been a friend of yours for so long, I have never noticed any particular favours since you took the Chair. I do not even promise you a particularly quiet time in the Chair. We, like all Oppositions, will be constructive. They always are. We shall be passionate in our opposition, and we shall certainly, of course, obey your rulings whenever we think they are correct. I am sure that that will be on every occasion.

We join very warmly with the mover, the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East and the seconder, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey), in thanking you for your services and in wishing you a very successful term of office presiding over our affairs and maintaining our reputation. Whatever broadcasting may have done for the reputation of the House of Commons, there is no doubt that it has improved the reputation of the Speaker. That, I think, is good in itself, because one day, for all we know a little of it may reflect back on us.

So, Mr. Speaker-Elect, may good fortune attend you. Please maintain the traditions in which I know you sincerely believe and which you uphold and live by. I believe that in those circumstances we shall be very proud of you as our Speaker-Elect.

3.28 p.m.

Photo of Mr David Steel Mr David Steel Leader of the Liberal Party

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, Mr. Speaker-Elect, I should like to add to the congratulations that you are receiving on your reelection—first, of course, upon your reelection to this House. We have all suffered mixed fortunes during the last three weeks. Some of us are here with bigger majorities, some are here with smaller majorities, and some are not here at all. But the swingometer tells us that you, Mr. Speaker-Elect, had the largest percentage increase in majority of any Member of Parliament.

That only goes to show that the people of Cardiff, West appreciate that we, the House of Commons, did ourselves a good turn in February 1976 when we elected you our Speaker. On that occasion you said: the House … will always be the guardian of the people's rights and liberties … and anything that undermines the dignity and authority of the House is a threat to our democraic way of Life."—[Official Report, 3 February 1976; Vol. 904, c. 1159.] We have always admired the firm way in which you dealt with those who may from time to time have been tempted to cast doubt upon those words. You have said in your acceptance speeches that one of your duties is to protect minority rights. As the leader of a minority, it is right that I should say how much we appreciate your quality of fairness in carrying out that very difficult task, particularly in the last Parliament. We all appreciate, too, the qualities mentioned by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition—your good humour and your kindliness. But it would be wrong for us to pretend that you are without faults. No man is. I noticed that your predecessor, Mr. Selwyn Lloyd, listed his faults on one occasion. By a strange coincidence, they are the same faults that you have. We have all witnessed them on occasion. They are myopia, deafness, and an inability to let every hon. Member speak or question whenever he or she wishes. But these are selective faults which on occasion we all feel are very valuable. We are resigned to accept them. We admire not only your conduct of the Chair, but your wise concern and friendly advice given privately.

I believe, Mr. Speaker-Elect, that you have added lustre to the historic office you hold, and we are glad that you will be guiding our fortunes in this Parliament.

3.31 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Molyneaux Mr James Molyneaux , South Antrim

I too, wish to congratulate you, Mr. Speaker-Elect, on your election to the Chair. Like the right hon. Lady the Prime Minister, I am glad that your election was unanimous. Had you been opposed you might have had to engage in one of those phone-in programmes, in which case you would have been greatly handicapped by your occupational deafness.

Since the House wisely selected you, Mr. Speaker-Elect, you have added to the esteem and respect in which you had already been held. You have been very fair to all of us, and you have been vigilant at all times in protecting the rights of individuals and minority parties. Perhaps I might be permitted on their behalf to offer congratulations, to express our gratitude for your understanding, and to wish you all happiness and success in your high office.

3.32 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Parker Mr John Parker , Dagenham

Sometimes, Mr. Speaker-Elect, the House alters its rules. I was a member of the Procedure Committee some years ago when I suggested that the senior Member of the House should take the Chair at the election of the Speaker. I did not realise then that I would have the pleasure of taking the Chair for your election.

Come next October, I shall have been a Member of this House for 44 years. I am the only Member to have sat in the Parliament before the war. It is customary these days to denigrate Parliament. That has been a fashion at various times in the past. I believe that Samuel Pepys did it. But we are often taken to task and told that we no longer have here the great names of the past, that we no longer have Churchills, Lloyd Georges or Nye Bevans in the House.

I believe, from my experience, that the quality of Members of this House as a whole is much higher now than it was before the war. At present, regardless of which subject may arise, we can depend upon half a dozen hon. Members drawn from both sides of the House to speak upon a subject with authority and knowledge. That was not so before the war. There were an enormous number of gaps in the knowledge of Members of this House, an enormous number of subjects upon which they could not make contributions of value. That has changed, and it is a good thing that it has.

Furthermore, in the House of Commons of today we still have orators. But Back Bench Members do a remarkably bigger and better job of work than they did before the war. I believe that that is due to two factors. First, far more hon. Members give far more of their time to the work of the House than was the case before the war. Second, with the growth of Select Committees and other Committees, far more hon. Members are well informed on the subjects they discuss than was the case before the war. I trust and believe that the growth of Select Committees and Committee work generally will continue to improve the quality of Members in this House as I believe it has done over the past 44 years.

We value you, Mr. Speaker-Elect, not only, as other hon. Members have said, for the way in which you have defended the rights of minorities. I enter one caveat. In this Parliament there will be minorities within the major parties. Please look after them as well as you look after the official minority groups. Mr. Speaker-Elect, we Back Benchers on both sides of the House value you for the work you have done as Speaker, for your fairness, for your sense of humour and for your common sense. We wish you well.