Backbench Business — Valedictory Debate

Part of Elections for Positions in the House – in the House of Commons am 3:34 pm ar 26 Mawrth 2015.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Ceidwadwyr, Havant 3:34, 26 Mawrth 2015

I thank my right hon. Friend Sir George Young for this great innovation and for the excellent debate we have been able to have as a result of it. I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for the innovations for which you have been responsible. I think particularly of the flow of schoolchildren through this House. We all see many more than in the past, and the effort you have put in to educating the next generation in this House will be a lasting legacy.

I begin by recording my debt to my constituents in Havant and explaining to them that when, in my final interview with my local paper, the story was run with the caption, “I leave Havant in great shape” it was not a personal statement about my fitness after years in this place; it was an attempt to be proud of what we had achieved together in Havant.

I thank my family for the inevitable burdens that they have shared as a result of my being a Member of Parliament. I know that my two kids look forward to being able to vote in an election without being under a moral obligation to support their father. I also thank our staff, particularly the three who have served me so well: Helga Wright, Annie Winsbury and Jackie Scaddan.

Colleagues matter. The inevitable ups and downs and triumphs and disasters of politics are among the great features of this place. There are colleagues in all parts of the House who are tolerant and understanding. There are friendships that keep the downs as well as the ups of politics in perspective. Having entered the House in 1992, I think particularly of two good friends, Judith Chaplin and Stephen Milligan, who both died within two years of being elected; that loss stayed with me for a long time.

In several speeches—most notably in those of Mr Hain and the former Prime Minister—the great values of Britain were mentioned. Those British values are shared in all parts of the House. But for us, surely, what matters is not just the values but the institutions and conventions that protect them and sustain them. I had the privilege the other day to go to the Magna Carta exhibition. We are celebrating Magna Carta not because it was a list of great principles but because it set out some key practical requirements such as habeas corpus and the requirement that the King’s actions should be scrutinised by the barons, leading to this place. The institutions that sustain those values are what make this country distinctive and special. Among those institutions are this place and also, under-appreciated but equally important, organised political parties. Political activity is about working with others and making the inevitable compromises of working with others. True political activity demands more than simply pressing a button on a laptop to express a personal opinion.

I have been privileged in my career to try to serve some of these great institutions, particularly in the Cabinet most recently as the Minister for Universities and Science. I was able to see and support our great universities and our great scientific institutions.

There is always a risk that valedictory debates become rather melancholy and people regret that things have got worse. Famously, Tip O’Neill, looking back on his time in the American Congress, concluded this about the way it worked: better people, worse outcomes. That has been an undercurrent of concern in several of the speeches we have heard today.

I wish to end on a note of optimism. Looking back to how our country as a whole has changed since I and several others who have contributed to this debate were first elected in 1992, I have to say that Britain is a better place. Britain has become better in many ways. Of course there are always problems to be tackled as social conscience is restless. We are an open and flexible society. All Governments deserve credit: the Conservatives have played an enormous role in strengthening our economy. Looking back on the Blair Government, I think that, at the end of that, we were a more relaxed and tolerant nation than we were in 1997, and that improved the quality of our national life. I feel confident that the young, dynamic, hard-working Members of Parliament who will be coming here for the first time next month will also be making our country a better place.