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My Lords, I stand to address your Lordships’ Chamber for the first time. It is some 26 years since I made my maiden speech in another place and, even more dauntingly, it is 40 years since I made my maiden speech in Bradford City Hall. I was born in Keighley in a two-up, two-down in terraced housing close to the River Worth—and I can say that it is more than distance between the River Worth and this gilded Chamber. Somebody of my background was extremely unlikely to find themselves in this Chamber. However, my grandfather told me at the age of 15 that I would become a Member of this House.
Let me explain the background. On both sides of the family we were Labour voters. My great-grandfather helped form the Independent Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century and my maternal grandfather was a Christian Socialist of the old school. He was a railwayman and it was his proudest day when the Labour Party under Clement Attlee nationalised the railways. I cannot help but feel that my grandfather would be very pleased with the present Government on the East Coast Line.
My grandfather was a keen supporter of Harold Wilson and George Brown and I continually argued with him—not, as you might think, as a prototype Selsdon man, but because Labour was not good enough. I was a Communist. My room was festooned with posters of Marx and Engels. I had Das Kapital and I read the Communist manifesto. For my 14th birthday my parents bought me Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, which I read from cover to cover. I must tell noble Lords, with some distress, that a few years ago I tried to read it again and felt a little like Bertie Wooster being given the task by the most formidable of all his fiancées, Florence Craye, of reading Nietzsche. Bertie concluded that it was an excellent remedy for insomnia. Noble Lords will recall that Jeeves thought that Nietzsche was “fundamentally unsound”. Much the same could be said of Mr Trotsky.
But before I realised that, I was arguing that the Labour Party had betrayed the working classes by what the Wilson Government were doing and my grandfather said, “The trouble with you, young Eric, is you’re gullible: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you didn’t end up as a ruddy Tory”. Then he went on—it pained me at the time and I am sure that it will pain noble Lords—“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you didn’t end up with those half-wits in the House of Lords”. So here I am—the black sheep of the Pickles family, albeit with an ermine collar. My grandfather was a great man and I still treasure the Bible he gave me over half a century ago. Along with my parents, he was responsible for a very firm moral compass.
Besides my interest in the Conservative Party, which I am delighted to inform noble Lords has recently seen a massive increase in its membership, I have always been interested in social cohesion and the groups that make up the United Kingdom. At an early age, in the mid-1980s, I was co-chairman of the Joint Committee Against Racism with the late Labour MP Jo Richardson, whom I remember with great affection. Goodness knows what she would make of the current situation—but I will leave that for another time.
Whether it was in the Joint Committee Against Racism, or as leader of Bradford Council, chairman of the Conservative Party, Secretary of State or in my current job, I was always bolstered by some good advice given to me by my noble friend Lord Lawson of Blaby when I was a very young Conservative. I was at an event at which he explained what it was like to be a Secretary of State. Somebody asked, “How do you keep that up? How do you keep that rhythm going?” He said, “Because one day I know it will end”. Admittedly, ending in this place has a certain finality about it, but I have always felt that if you are given an opportunity to speak out, you must say what you think is right and make a difference.
I will briefly make a couple of remarks to my noble friend Lord Higgins, who taught me an awful lot when I was a very young MP. I cannot help but feel that Richard Nixon, who perhaps was not the greatest parliamentarian, had it about right: once you squeeze the toothpaste out of the tube, it is just about impossible to get it back in. All the very fine distinctions that have been made make not a jot of difference to the public. They have voted and the distinction is different. Even Charles de Gaulle, somebody I admire perhaps more than anybody, came unstuck on a referendum because the French public answered an entirely different question.
In conclusion, were my grandfather to look on the fine bunch of men and women that I see before me, I think he would regard his judgment on your Lordships’ House as a bit harsh. I think he would feel that I was in very good company.