Personal Statement

– in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 9th May 2001.

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Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup 3:32 pm, 9th May 2001

I was absolutely delighted, as I am sure was the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), by the glowing tribute that the Prime Minister paid to us at the beginning of his remarks. It was inspired, no doubt, by the first half of the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition—the second half was not quite in the same vein. I should like to thank you very much, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to make this personal statement as my final contribution to the proceedings in this Parliament. The fact that it is a final contribution explains why I am using a script for the first time since I ceased to be Prime Minister.

As a retiring Member, I am grateful to the electors of Bexley for returning me as their representative in 14 successive general elections. It has been an honour and a privilege as well as a pleasure to serve them. I should also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the staff of the House. These often forgotten people—Clerks, security staff, librarians, catering staff and others—ensure that this place runs so efficiently. As Father of the House, I feel a certain responsibility to ensure that we appreciate what they do and pay tribute to them.

You, Mr. Speaker, are also deserving of my thanks. In allowing the right hon. Member for Chesterfield and myself the freedom of the House, you have kindly allowed us to continue to use some of the facilities of this establishment.

It is more than 51 years since I became a Member of the House and I remember full well the impact that it made on me in those early days. In fact, I had been a Member only a few months when I was invited to become a Whip and a member of the Conservative Opposition. As a result, I spent my first 25 years here on the Front Bench, either in government or in opposition. After that, I spent the next 25 years—on the Front Bench—[Laughter]—below the Gangway. During that time, I learned a great deal, particularly when I was first a Whip—in fact, that was the reason why I became a Whip.

In those days, the Whips had a place at the Door and, if they wanted to, they kept Members in or let us pass. When our Whip asked one of our Members, "Have you got a pair?", he said, "No" and went on. The Whip said, "Well, you can't go out. Get a pair." "No, I haven't got a pair," replied the Member. Whereupon our enthusiastic Whip jumped up, gave him a hefty kick in one of the usual places, and the man fell flat on the floor. He had to be picked up and set on his feet; he went to the Chief Whip and complained. As a result, the Whip himself was changed; I was sent for and invited to take his place. The result was a notice in The Times the next day, to this effect: Colonel Walter Bromley Davenport, MP for Knutsford, majority 16,913. He has resigned in order to give greater attention to his constituents. His place is now being taken by Mr. Edward Heath, MP for Bexley, majority 133. That is how I began my climb to fame. The next day, I was taken to see Churchill, who patted me on the shoulder and said, "Yes, of course you can be a Whip." I quote his words: It will mean much hard work and it will be unremunerated but so long as I am your leader it will never remain unthanked. That was a guiding principle all the time. After that, I had all the work of a Whit, involving many different activities and different parts of the world. It also entailed the relationship between Parliament and the Executive—the Government themselves.

When I look back over my 51 years here, I cannot help but be saddened by the increasing impotence of the House and the decline in the esteem in which this place is held; I am speaking quite frankly. The powers of Parliament to hold the Executive to account have been declining for over a century under Governments of all political persuasions. I can only hope that the Parliament following this one will reassess and reassert its authority, and robustly hold the Executive to account.

I should like to say a word about standards in public life. The behaviour of us Members has also undermined public confidence in parliamentary democracy. As I noted during a debate when I entered the House in 1950, every Member of Parliament was seen as a person of integrity. Unfortunately, some reckless campaigning and an increasingly cynical media excessively focusing on a few examples of unparliamentary behaviour have led to a serious and worrying decline in the public perception of Members of Parliament. I hope that the new intake and existing Members will take note of the need to set an example in those spheres. I also hope that when the conduct of one or two Members falls below the required standards, the media will not try and tar all Members with the same brush.

Perhaps I may finally say a word about Europe. [Interruption.] Do I hear a rumbling? As the subject has already been extensively dealt with this afternoon by my leader, I have no doubts about continuing with it. It is most appropriate that I make the final points of my statement and my final remarks in the House about Europe. I have been a committed European since my Oxford days. My pro-European outlook was reinforced by my wartime experiences. In 1945, as both the victors and the vanquished surveyed the devastation wrought upon the continent, it became obvious that Europe could not afford another war.

Unfortunately, the case for British membership of the European Community was not recognised by British Governments of the 1950s, so this country lost the opportunity to be a founder member of the Community. However, its architects, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, correctly recognised that the European Community would not be complete without the United Kingdom.

My proudest achievement was to have successfully negotiated entry of the United Kingdom into the European Community. In January 1972, she fulfilled her destiny. The United Kingdom has always been a European country. We have a shared history and culture. In the modern world it is only right that we should share our sovereignty with our European neighbours, for the greater benefit of all.

In due course, for the second time in a quarter of a century, the British people will be asked to vote on whether the country can remain a committed player in Europe. I look forward to campaigning vigorously for a yes vote. I have no doubt whatever that a united Europe is here to stay. I believe that it is in British interests, and I believe that we should do everything that we can to help it and to help its people. We shall then be helping ourselves as a people and as a country, and we shall be supporting our own continent. That will be for the good not only of Europe as a whole, but of the world. For those who will follow us in the House, I wish them all well.