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Valedictory Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:42 pm on 5th November 2019.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Independent, North East Bedfordshire 4:42 pm, 5th November 2019

A man walks into my surgery in Bury. I can see from his address that he comes from one of the poorest parts of the town—a council estate. He sits down, and I ask what his problem is. He says, “My front door has been broken for six weeks, and the council has done nothing about it.” I have a Labour council. I pick up my pen; this is something a young Tory MP can get involved in. “Tell me,” I said, “how does your front door come to broken?” He said, “Mr Burt, it was broken down by the police during a raid.” I put my pen down; there is more to this than meets the eye. I say to him, “What’s this got to do with the council?” He says, “It’s obvious. The police must have told the council, and if the council had told me, I’d have held the door open, and it wouldn’t have had to be broken down.” I look at him and say sternly, Mr So and So, “you must tell me: did the police find anything during their raid?” He looks all round the empty room and whispers, “Not what they were looking for, Mr Burt.”

It is a privilege to speak in this debate and follow some fine speeches. I associate myself with the support of Ann Clwyd for the British Group Inter-Parliamentary Union, which I also had the joy of chairing and which does fantastic work. I associate myself with the remarks from my right hon. Friend Sir David Lidington about how Parliament should develop, the threats we face and what we will go on to do. They have been fine speeches all round.

It is 36 years since my maiden speech extolled the virtues of my home town of Bury and 32 years as an MP, so it is time to wrap up. I am grateful to The House magazine for giving me an extra 1,000 words this week to express a number of thanks, and I refer the House to my remarks therein; it covers a lot of my thank yous. I want to add one thank you to Chaplain Rose, who has done wonderful work and whose last engagement in the House will be as the vicar for the marriage of my son in the chapel fairly soon. We are really grateful for that. Rose has been wonderful to us all, and we love her and wish her well.

I have been exceptionally fortunate to represent first my home town and then North East Bedfordshire, where my wife and I settled post an election reverse in 1997, courtesy of T. Blair. As always with an MP’s thanks, mine are directed to those who elected me to eight terms in all—still, in my view, the highest honour and privilege of any citizen—and I say to all who have helped in those campaigns over the years, such as my chairmen in both associations, agents, canvassers and leaflet droppers, thank you to all.

My thanks to a family who supported me throughout: a father who, at a sprightly 97, still watches my appearances, and to a mum who always believed in me and watches from somewhere else now. In recent years, my mother—bless her—took to calling me “Your Excellency” when I came back from my frequent trips abroad. My thanks to my very long-suffering staff—currently, Sam, Amanda, Mandy and Katherine—and to all who have given way beyond their allotted hours to me and my constituents, I say thank you.

My thanks to a Young Conservative chairman in Hornsey who threw some leaflets at me during the Greater London Council elections in 1981, thinking that I was a Labour plant, because no Conservatives turned up in Haringey in those days, and that I would not return. However, I did return, and she became not just my wife, but my partner here, and a doughty defender of those spouses who did the same. She is a much-loved participant in the Christian community and the national prayer breakfast and a trainer and supporter of women in politics at home and abroad. To Eve, my children and granddaughter, the biggest of all thank yous.

I served not just my constituencies, but the Government over 11 years in six different roles for three Prime Ministers, and I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary to Ken Baker under another—Margaret Thatcher. To those who gave me those roles, I say thank you, and to all those in the private offices and all who worked with me at home and abroad—in the Department of Social Security, the Department of Health, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development —my deep appreciation of your public service and commitment to Ministers, regardless of our party or our ability.

From the touch on the lips of a deafblind man making out what I was saying to seeing a young optometrist use genius to measure a disturbed child’s sight, and from a refugee family in the humblest of homes in the desert to signing the arms trade treaty for my country at the UN—and being opened up to the wonders of north Africa and the middle east—I thank all those who have supported me during a lifetime of experience. I only hope that I gave back to Her Majesty’s Government something of what they gave me.

Like many of us, I am asked if I would recommend anyone to take up politics these days. My answer, I find, is rooted in being asked the same question in schools, when I have to say that the moment I begin to explain why I do the job, I find that I have exactly the same enthusiasm as I first had. When I became an MP in 1983, apartheid ruled in South Africa and the iron curtain divided Europe and the world, so who says things do not change?

I came into politics because I am a child of the ’60s. I was excited by the space programme, when it seemed we could achieve anything and the world came together, and stopped and held its breath as man stood on the moon. I had grown up with a sense of security and gratitude that my generation was spared war in Europe, which was so graphically presented in regular documentaries such as “All Our Yesterdays”. Then Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, and I learned of Alexander Dubček and Jan Palach. Here was my Europe under attack. I joined the Conservative party as a 15-year-old, when Ted Heath was leader, with his passion for Europe born out of his wartime experiences.

When I became an MP, I spent many years as a friend of those in the German Christian Democratic Union, hearing them talk about removing the inner German frontier, which seemed implausible, and sharing their enthusiasm when the wall fell, as well as being an election monitor in Berlin for the first free elections and seeing free nations—sovereign nations, just like the United Kingdom always has been—joining the EU for peace, their defence and security.

I hope colleagues will therefore forgive me when I say that the gradual but never dishonest movement of my party towards Euroscepticism and then a determination to leave the EU has hurt me more than I can possibly describe. However, that is not the reason why I am leaving. I have a chance to take all that I have been privileged to learn and experience here into new areas and to leave with friendships with colleagues and opponents—they are often the same people—still intact and in good shape, and wishing my party and the Prime Minister well for the future.

Let me therefore leave with the following requests. First, be kind to one another. Kindness is an underrated virtue. No one understands an MP’s role except us and those close to us, so if we do not help each other, no one else will. Make sure that MPs and Ministers have a serious development programme, not just an induction. Secondly, I have a couple of local matters to raise. I ask the Leader of the House please to ensure that the A1 is moved eastward from its current position, to save Sandy, and that trains do not keep skipping Arlesey station. Thirdly, I have a national request. After the inquiry, please make sure that the victims of the contaminated blood scandal, whose tie I am wearing today, receive justice for all that they have endured, as their sadly dwindling number contained some of the most decent people I have ever met. Perhaps the legislation that went through just before this debate is a measure of what could be done to help them.

In my maiden speech, I referred to Mrs Thatcher’s Government as having received much, and of us much was expected. The same applies to us all: where I have not lived up to it, forgive me; where I have, I thank those who helped me achieve it; and for what I am going to do, wish me luck. I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the new Speaker and all colleagues the best of luck.

Am I still idealistic? Oh, I do hope so. Somewhere beyond the barricades, there is a world I long to see. We all want to see that world; we are just going to be working for it in different places.