Moved by Baroness Anelay of St Johns
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:
“Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament”.
My Lords, it is my privilege, on behalf of all noble Lords, to thank Her Majesty for honouring our House with her presence to deliver the gracious Speech from the Throne. I am, as ever, grateful for all that she does for our nation and our Commonwealth of nations. Her Majesty’s exemplary attention to duty is her greatest gift to us all. It was also a great pleasure to have with us today Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.
I thank my noble friends on the Front Bench—the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip—for entrusting me with this duty. All Leaders of the House have a tough job, but the challenges since the State Opening in June 2017 have been particularly testing, and my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal has demonstrated her mettle in dealing with them. My noble friend the Chief Whip and Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms is fairly new to his post, but he has held ministerial office for the past five years, both in the Whips’ Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. He has consistently demonstrated his respect for this House and its Members.
The first time I attended the State Opening of Parliament was in October 1996, a couple of weeks before I took my seat. I was a guest of my dear and noble friend Lady Seccombe, who is in her place today. As I watched the afternoon debate, and listened to Lord Gray of Contin move the Motion for an humble Address, it never crossed my mind that, one day, I might be entrusted with that privilege. I sat in the Gallery, just above the Clock which measures the minutes, and now even the seconds, of our speeches. If at times my eyes stray heavenwards during a debate, it might—just might—be not that I am showing any impatience at the length of the speeches of others but that I am simply recalling that moment, all those years ago, and the swift passage of time.
The past month has witnessed extremely challenging times. The challenge for me now is to be mindful of the guidance in the Companion to the Standing Orders that it is customary for my speech to be uncontroversial. In the non-Prorogation—
In the non-Prorogation, I was part of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s UK delegation to attend the Commonwealth parliamentarians conference in Uganda. I flew overnight to Entebbe to join the other delegates from this House—the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock and Lord Purvis of Tweed—and delegates from the House of Commons. I planned to stay for six days to take part in the women’s conference and the main conference. I was there six hours before flying back, overnight, to the UK. What had happened? The clue is in the date: it was Tuesday
As soon as I arrived at the conference hotel by Lake Victoria, I registered as a delegate and sat patiently in a very large, busy room, waiting for my security pass to be issued. My chair faced a vast TV screen which was broadcasting the BBC’s live feed of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, delivering the judgment of the Supreme Court—with the sound turned off.
Not by me—the sound was turned off and there were no subtitles. It was a most bizarre experience. Suffice to say, as a consequence of the court’s decision, all three of us from this House decided we should return overnight to join the sitting of the House the next day, which we did. All but two of the MPs followed the “requests” of their Whips to return ASAP, and the two MPs who stayed to hold the fort at the conference were paired—at least, I hope they were.
I congratulate the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and thank it for the work it does so admirably to support and strengthen parliamentary democracy throughout the Commonwealth; the head of which is, of course, Her Majesty. The UK’s role in promoting democracy and human rights, and in defending the rules-based international system, remains vital, not only within the Commonwealth but around the world. That is especially true at a time when we witness the suffering of civilians as they are killed, injured or driven from their homes in conflicts where there is little or no regard for international humanitarian law—places such as Syria and Yemen today. Diplomacy must be engaged steadfastly to resolve such disputes and bring an end to the misery suffered by the casualties of conflict. The UK has a vital part to play in that diplomatic work.
Whatever the pressures may be on our internal politics, it is crucial that the UK continues and strengthens its diplomatic work around the world. We can be proud of the expertise of Her Majesty’s ambassadors and high commissioners in their promoting of our values, which are inherent within the rules-based international system. They deserve our wholehearted support. I was therefore pleased to see that the gracious Speech stated that as we leave the EU the Government will continue to ensure that the UK continues to play a leading role in global affairs and promote its values. That commitment comes at the very end of the gracious Speech.
The Speech begins by making it clear that the Government’s priority has always been to secure the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU at the end of this month. Parliament continues to have the opportunity to consider the implications of this and of the Government’s wider proposals in the gracious Speech during our debates over the forthcoming week.
The gracious Speech sets out the broad swathe of the Government’s manifestly ambitious plans, which will have an impact on every department of government. For example, the proposals will: strengthen public services such as our National Health Service, with a welcome reference to mental health; reform adult social care; ensure that all young people have access to an excellent education; improve infrastructure and connectivity across the country; implement new regimes for fisheries, agriculture and trade; reform the immigration system; tackle crime while also enhancing the integrity of the criminal justice system; protect our natural environment for the long term; and focus on tackling climate change in our work alongside our international partners. To deliver those proposals, a new economic plan will be underpinned by a responsible fiscal strategy, investing in economic growth while maintaining the sustainability of the public finances. I wish my noble friend the Chief Whip—and he is a friend—every success in his task in securing enough time for the House to carry out its usual line-by-line scrutiny.
We will shortly hear from my noble friend Lord Dobbs, who will second this Motion. I have read many of his books over the years and I very much look forward to hearing from him today. I am always encouraged by the resilience of his fictional hero, Harry Jones. Whatever disasters fate or fist throws at him, he seems impervious to all and wins the day, just like my noble friend. At home, our bookshelves groan with the weight of books published by noble Lords of all parties and none—I can see them here today—and indeed those of our much-respected Lord Speaker.
I have three of the Lord Speaker’s books. I am currently rereading AIDS: Don’t Die of Prejudice. It is such an impressive investigative book. However, I am not planning to reread any time soon my copy of another of his books, entitled A Political Suicide. But I hope that my noble friends on the Front Bench would like to borrow a copy of another of his books that I have to hand—it is upstairs if they want it. It is called Ministers Decide. They will find it useful for many years to come. In the meantime, I beg to move the Motion for an humble Address to Her Majesty.
Yes, I am a little bewildered too. I endorse the fine words of my noble friend thanking Her Majesty for the great honour she did us here today, despite the attempts of protestors to close down Parliament. I had thought that that was Boris’s idea. I also thank our doorkeepers, the police, our security staff, our caterers, our cleaners and everyone who under Black Rod’s guidance has worked so hard to make this occasion possible. Their job is not easy. It sometimes carries significant risks. They should be proud of what they have achieved today.
I also want to thank my noble friend Lady Anelay for her fine words. What a pleasure it is to follow her. However, I have a confession to make: that has not always been the case. She was my first Chief Whip and, if I may say so, magnificent. She dominated the seas like a great battle cruiser, loading three or four Back-Benchers into the breech and aiming us at the enemy—I am sorry: the Opposition. One of my first debates in this House was on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. Noble Lords may remember it. Our Liberal Democrat colleagues in coalition demanded a referendum—a binding referendum, no less, but life moves on. I was young and naive. I listened to an amendment being put by my noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, and I was impressed by his arguments. I went out of the Chamber to tell my Whip that I was having difficulties, and she, very sensibly, advised me to go and have a cup of tea. But I was confused, and at this point I must have lost my presence of mind because I spurned the tea, returned to the Chamber, listened to more of the debate and voted for the amendment and against my Government. That was perhaps nothing more than a youthful indiscretion, except that the Government lost that crucial Division—by one vote. I scarcely need to tell noble Lords the direction in which the guns of my noble friend were then pointed, so it is a special delight to be able to follow her today.
I am much looking forward to the response by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. Some say she is a remarkable Leader of the Opposition, and I wholeheartedly agree. She also once died in my arms. It was during one of the pre-Christmas theatrical jollies staged every year by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. They are so much fun. I played the romantic lead, and the noble Baroness played the impressionable maiden. I fear we were both tragically miscast. I persuaded her of my honest intentions, and with her dying breath she fell into my arms. Isn’t fiction wonderful? However, I fear political fiction may have run its course. How can it possibly keep up?
In order to be entirely cross-party, I should mention that while the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, died in my arms, there was a time when I almost died in the arms of the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, who I think is lingering somewhere if he is not in his place. He and I have been colleagues and friends for many years. We joined this House together. Some years ago, we were flying back in a private plane from Germany. It had been a successful business trip, and he opened a bottle of champagne—at 10,000 feet in an unpressurised cabin. The effect was truly dramatic, but I do not blame him for that near-death experience; I simply put it down as another lesson in the unintended consequences of his party’s policies.
This day has been wonderful. This gingerbread palace of ours was filled with colour and excitement this morning. I am struggling to imagine quite such exhilarating times in the QEII conference centre. We were treated to a gracious Speech that covered such a breadth of ground that some idle cynics might suspect there is an election around the corner. However, after Brexit, we will have many things to catch up on, whoever is in government. I dream of the days when we are beyond Brexit.
There has always been a bit of Hogarth about our politics. We fight for our beliefs with passion, and no one can doubt on which side of the Brexit lawn I have parked my lawnmower. However, if we are to bind the wounds and eventually to come to some form of reconciliation, we must learn once again the art of listening and try to understand the passions of those who oppose us. We cannot go on as we are, ripping up the roots of our democracy: tolerance, self-restraint and that sense of responsibility to others, without which our individual rights are meaningless.
In recent days we have seen a so-called performer on stage waving the severed head of the Prime Minister while shouting obscenities. We have heard remainers describing Brexiteers as Nazis, and leavers talking of stuffing the Krauts. No, no, no, my Lords. I hope that it is not controversial to suggest that we have, on all sides perhaps, gone too far. We used to have a voice that rang around the world. When President Xi of China came to this Parliament a few years ago, I presented him with one of my books, House of Cards. It is quite a hit in China, I am told—they think it is a documentary. I wrote a dedication for him and this is what it said:
“Where we agree, let us rejoice. Where we disagree, let us discuss. And where we cannot agree, let us do so as friends”.
Perhaps that is naive but I hope not. Today, who would look at our system and our recent conduct and hold it up as an example to follow? Report after report from this House has emphasised the importance of deploying our soft power in the challenges that lie ahead. However, if we are to offer lessons to others, we must relearn those lessons ourselves. Therefore, I cling to those words and the hope that, where we cannot agree, we do so as friends.
As my noble friend pointed out—so eloquently that there is no need for me to repeat it all—optimism explodes from every line of this gracious Speech rather like the champagne of the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey. There is enough clean air for the most jaded of souls, and I am delighted at its focus on tomorrow and particularly the young. By that, I do not mean up-and-coming young Peers like me but those whose first political memories might have been the bombing of the Twin Towers, after which came war upon war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. Then we threw at them the mother and father of financial crises and drowned them in debt. Now, they look aghast as we do war among ourselves. Somehow, we have turned politics into a game that seems to have no rules and no referee. Can we not do better than that? We must do better than that.
However, I am an optimist—I have to be. I have four kids and am a grandfather and a Tory Back-Bencher, all roles for which survival requires endless doses of optimism. There will be life after Brexit, new mountains to climb and, yes, risks to take to reach those summits, but once we are there the view can be magnificent. There is no view more glorious or exhilarating from any summit in the world than that across the open highways, pleasant pastures and green mountains of our United Kingdom. Like my noble friend, I raise my eyes to heaven in the hope that I have not died in your Lordships’ arms. I humbly beg to second the Motion.