I will be the frank with the House: it will be a great wrench to leave this place after 27 years. You know what they say, Madam Deputy Speaker: folks are often kindest when they know you are on your way out, and there have been occasions in the past week since I announced my intention to step down when I have felt that I have been granted the privilege of attending my own funeral oration without the need to arrive in a hearse.
This afternoon, I wish to say a few brief words of thanks and to offer an expression of some hopes for the future of this place.
My chief thanks must go to my constituents in Aylesbury who have returned me as their Member of Parliament in seven successive general elections. I have to say that, when I was first selected and then elected, I was somewhat taken aback to read and research the tremendous history of my predecessors from John Hampden to Benjamin Disraeli, but prime among whom was John Wilkes, that great champion of press freedom. His first term in Parliament was as the Member for Aylesbury, but it was said of him by Edward Gibbon that he was a
“thorough profligate in principle as in practice …
His life stained with every vice and his conversation full of blasphemy and bawdy.”
I am sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you would always ensure that none of us here these days conspired to follow John Wilkes’ example in that respect.
Despite the stereotype that I think does exist in parts of the country about leafy Buckinghamshire and quaint market towns, Aylesbury is a very diverse community. The town itself is one of the fastest growing urban centres anywhere in the United Kingdom, and although I will not cross swords with my right hon. Friend Sir Patrick McLoughlin on the subject HS2, I will say that with residential growth need to go road and rail infrastructure and infrastructure that actually serves the local residents rather than infra- structure that bypasses them entirely.
Alongside that vibrant, very diverse town—a town where in individual estates, such as Southcourt and Quarrendon, one finds in microcosm all the urban problems and challenges with which Members of the House who represent inner urban seats will be familiar—is one of the most glorious stretches of countryside of the Chilterns and the Vale of Aylesbury. There is the extra piquancy, as the Member for Aylesbury and, at different times, either representing or being very close to Chequers, of being able to pick up—usually within about a week of whichever Prime Minister has been visiting particular shops or beauty salons or hairdressers—exactly what the Head of the Government at any particular time has been doing at the weekend.
It is a constituency, which, like our country, has changed a lot in the past quarter of a century. That was somehow summed up for me by my final constituency engagement on Saturday evening. It took place in the deepest rural part of my constituency at Radnage village hall. The hall was packed for a fundraising dinner to aid Nepal, and was presided over and inspired by Navin Gurung, the Gurkha landlord of the pub in the next village of Stokenchurch. Somehow, what summed up the evening for me was the spectacle at one moment of a Nepali traditional dancer performing her dance in front of a table containing the familiar range of bottles for the forthcoming raffle, behind which was the millennium mosaic for the village of Radnage, depicting red kites flying over the Chilterns and the beech woodlands and horse riders and hikers crossing the fields. Somehow, that image spoke to me volumes about my constituency and about our country—a country that can be at ease with itself in its modern diversity, where it is possible for people to feel that they are citizens of somewhere, and that they are rooted in a particular place and a particular heritage, but are also open to embrace and to learn from the experience and the traditions of others who also make up our country.
As well as thanking my constituents, I want also to thank the staff of the House, as others have done. I learned, particularly as Leader of the House from 2017, how much we owe to all our staff. All of us as Members know of the service that is given to us by the Library staff, the Doorkeepers and Badge Messengers, the Clerks—the Clerks from whom I learned so much in particular about drafting and parliamentary tactics during my 11 years on the Opposition Front Bench—and the catering staff, particularly the staff of the Members’ Tea Room, who somehow always manage to remain calm and cheerful despite the pressure that we on these Green Benches often put them under.
My final point is about the future of this place. We speak often about restoration and renewal, and I think we need to look beyond just the restoration and renewal of the fabric and the services—important though I believe that to be—to the restoration and renewal of the culture of the House of Commons. For what is the purpose of this place? If it is anything, it is surely to provide the forum in which the passions, fierce controversies and conflicting opinions in our country are represented, reflected and resolved in debate and votes—both in the Chamber and in Committee.
I believe that the conventions that we seek to stick to here—the rules of unparliamentary language, the fact that we refer to each other by constituency rather than name, and even the rather murky understandings that govern the relationships between Government and Opposition usual channels—are all important in trying to provide a culture within which very fierce political disagreements can be expressed in a form that is civil and democratic, and actually shows to ourselves and to those we represent that we can and should resolve such differences democratically through debate, not out in the streets. And that involves respect between people of different parties.
I was told soon after I came here the old story of the new bright young thruster taking his place on the Benches beside an experienced elder colleague. The young man said, as the Opposition Benches filled up on the other side of the Chamber, “Ah, I see that the enemy is here in strength”, to which his senior colleague replied, “Young man, those are your political opponents; your enemies you will find on the Benches beside and behind you.”
I believe that the House of Commons at its best recognises that there can be the most serious and principled disagreement about both values and policies, but which does not see such political differences as tantamount to our opponent somehow being wicked or lacking in integrity. I think and hope that the next Parliament will make a deliberate effort to avoid the language of “traitors”, “betrayal”, “vermin” and “enemies of the people.” To overcome some of the ills that beset politics in this country at the moment will take more than an effort by Members of this House—there will be things to be done by editors and internet service providers as well. However, a start can and should be made here, and that needs to start with a recognition on all sides that restoring and renewing the reputation and standing of this place begins when Members on both sides—leaders and Members of all parties—manage to find a way again in which we can express vehemently our support for or opposition to the particular policies that we debate, while at the same time respecting the integrity and fundamental good motives of our opponents.