Backbench Business — Valedictory Debate

Part of Elections for Positions in the House – in the House of Commons am 1:39 pm ar 26 Mawrth 2015.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of George Young George Young Ceidwadwyr, North West Hampshire 1:39, 26 Mawrth 2015

I am very grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this debate. It is appropriate that this Parliament should end with a procedural innovation—a valedictory debate—having begun with so many other such innovations.

The sponsors thought that this would be a quiet day before Prorogation, with those retiring least inclined to return to our constituencies, giving us the opportunity to bid farewell to the House before we turn into pumpkins at the stroke of midnight on Sunday. I am delighted that the Leader of the House is replying to the debate, that the Father of the House is in his place and that so many colleagues are eager to take part.

I made my maiden speech on 18 March 1974. 1 thought it would also be my valedictory speech, as a second election was imminent and I had a wafer-thin majority in Ealing, Acton. Indeed, Harold Wilson delighted in telling me that he was in my constituency twice a week, which he was—on the A40 to and from Chequers. I was lucky enough to get in first time and I have been here ever since. Thanks to the Boundary Commission, I have represented two very different seats—Ealing, Acton and North West Hampshire. It has been a privilege to serve my constituents, my party and my country in this House. Whether my career has justified that privilege is another matter. Few MPs can have been sacked by two Prime Ministers, and then brought back by both, thus showing some ambivalence about my talents. I doubt whether any will achieve the double of TheSpectator Back Bencher of the Year award for leading the rebellion against the poll tax, and another one for being appointed Chief Whip—and for the same party.

Let me share a few quick reflections—first, on the coalition. The Liberal Democrats did the right thing in joining my party in coalition, and I believe that history will be kinder to them than the electorate is going to be. The coalition was at its strongest with the business managers, and I enjoyed working with my right hon. Friend Mr Heath as Deputy Leader of the House, and with the current Secretary of State for Scotland and Mr Foster, who were Liberal Democrat Chief Whips. Both parties had Back Benchers with independent views—they were the so-called awkward squads, but the two squads tended not to be awkward at the same time. Their reluctance to engage with the Whips was mercifully matched by a reluctance to work with each other, and so defeat was rare.

I recall one exchange in a meeting in my office—without coffee—with a difficult colleague who wanted to talk about social mobility. He looked me in the eye and said: “Sir George, I believe in social mobility, downwards as well as upwards.”

I was greatly assisted in my task by two high-quality deputies, and a strong team of Whips who kept me out of serious trouble. There were occasions in the last Parliament when the Conservative Whips thought we had a better idea of how the Liberal Democrats were going to vote than their own Whips did, but together we helped deliver a stable five-year Government—something that many people doubted would ever happen. We were greatly assisted by the staff in the offices of the Leader of the House and the Whips under Mike Winter and Roy Stone.

At times, my patience with the Liberal Democrats was tested. I would get back to my constituency on Friday to find them taking the credit for all the good things the coalition had done, while blaming my party for the cuts that had made them possible.

Although a coalition was right for this Parliament, I hope it will not become the norm. I am worried that this country may drift towards an unstable Italian style of Government, with moving coalitions remote from the electorate. I worry too that the sharp change of direction that this country needed in, for example, 1945 and 1979 may no longer be possible.

Looking ahead, I hope that the next Parliament will work hard to ensure that the United Kingdom stays intact. The Union is more fragile than it has been since the partition of Ireland and will require very sensitive handling.

We need to restore confidence in the profession to which we all belong—that of politician. It is a paradox that most people believe that their own MP is a paragon of virtue, but refuse to generalise on the basis of that experience. We must decontaminate our brand and encourage more young able people to stand. Although we may never be popular, the next Parliament must rebuild public confidence both in MPs as a professional body and in Parliament as an effective and relevant institution.

To that end, I hope that we shall have a clean campaign, fought on the issues, with alternative positive visions of the future being promoted, with a minimum of personal invective and abuse. As a former Housing Minister, I hope that housing will be an important issue in the campaign, as we need to build more houses than were built under either of the last two Administrations if every family is to have a decent home.

Finally, if we have to leave this building at some future date for repairs, we must come back here. We should never abandon the history of this magnificent Palace of Westminster for a horseshoe-shaped Chamber in a new glass building outside London.

We have all in our time had our narrow squeaks. My career as Chief Whip nearly ended in disaster. One of my last visitors was the Australian Chief Whip who presented me with a whip—not a small whip that a jockey might use but a stock whip with a long leather handle, and yards and yards of leather of diminishing width. He made it clear that this was a personal gift to me and not a donation to the Whips Office. The rules on ministerial gifts are clear: if it is worth less than £125, one can keep it; if it is worth more, one must either buy it or give it to the Government. When my guest had gone, I asked my private office to establish the value of his gift. Minutes later, a white-faced official came into my room. All the websites he had accessed on my behalf had been barred by the parliamentary authorities, and he feared that retribution for the instigator was imminent.

I am conscious that many Members wish to speak, so I shall finish on that cautionary tale. I thank colleagues on both sides of the House and the staff of the House for their friendship over 40 years. I wish my successor and the new Parliament well in the challenges that lie ahead.