HC Deb 29 June 1970 vol 803 cc2-14

Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton), addressing himself to the Clerk of the House (who, standing up, pointed to him and then sat down) said: Sir Barnett, in response to the Gracious Message which we have received from the Sovereign directing us to proceed to elect a Speaker from among our Members, I beg to move, That the Right Honourable Horace Maybray King do take the Chair of this House as Speaker. The history of this occasion warrants repetition. The Speakership was once in the gift of the Throne. Then it devolved and became the gift of Governments. In fact, before the year 1601 it was the permanent prerequisite of the Solicitor-General. But now it is the decision of the backbenchers of this House by free unfettered choice. This is surely right, for the Speaker is the guardian of the rights of backbenchers and their protector against undue domination by the occupants of the two Front Benches.

On the last occasion when the right hon. Gentleman was elected to this high but onerous post, he drew attention to the dangerous nature of the occupation—that nine of his predecessors had been executed, two on the same day. It is no doubt a fact that a modern Speaker since the abolition of capital punishment is not exposed to the same perils. Indeed, in recent times Speakers have been spared some of the perils of the polls to which we and some of our former colleagues have been subjected. Nor have I noticed that the opinion polls were entering into a frenzy of speculation on the outcome of the election in the Itchen division of Southampton. So he has been spared a certain amount of anxiety and relief.

Yet none of us has any misunderstanding of the great physical and mental strain placed on the man whom we are honouring with the Speakership of the House of Commons. It is a lonely office and at times a tiring one. On his shoulders to a great extent rests the reputation of Parliament as a debating chamber. He must show equal favour to the most distinguished Minister, or shadow Minister, and the newest back bencher. Indeed, we hope that he will tilt his favours slightly in the latter's direction. He must be zealous to maintain the cut and thrust of debate, and yet be tolerant of those who find it hard to compress their rambling thoughts.

The right hon. Gentleman has done much to improve the reputation of Parliament. As a member of the Select Committee in the former Parliament, I have watched with admiration the skilful exercise of the discretion which the House has handed to him over the selection of emergency Motions to be debated under Standing Order No. 9. His wisdom, and the fact that under the Standing Order no one may question his wisdom, have enabled the House to become a more contemporary sounding board of public opinion.

Question Time, as I know, has been a problem on which he has concentrated a great amount of care. Question Time has been improved, but may I express the hope that this new Parliament will study and debate the more recent recommendations of the Select Committee on Procedure on Question Time. These would give the Speaker greater discretion than his predecessors have recently enjoyed.

I wish to pay tribute to the work of the right hon. Gentleman throughout the Commonwealth. Not only has he gained the reputation of being the most travelled Speaker of the House of Commons, but he and his lady wife have been most generous and gracious hosts to hundreds of our fellow Parliamentarians throughout the Commonwealth.

It is for these reasons that I beg to move the Motion, expressing the hope that this Motion, enabling the right hon. Gentleman to continue his distinguished services to Parliament, may receive the unanimous support of the House.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I am greatly honoured to second the Motion.

It is a privilege to participate in this traditional ceremony. There is no doubt that the Speaker whom we are about to elect is in no danger of being executed, as the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) has just said in his eloquent speech. But there are, nevertheless, a number of hatchet men in the House of Commons lying in wait when various issues are raised, as they will be after these formal proceedings.

But although this is a formal occasion, this is no formality, because what we are doing today is electing the custodian of our traditional rights in the House of Commons. They are our individual and our collective rights. We are entrusting our laws, written and unwritten, to the interpretation of one man. We are inviting that man to be the living embodiment of the ultimate paradox of being our obedient servant and our complete master. We are offering him the highest office possible and the greatest responsibility for our conduct.

The office of the Speaker is unique, requiring unique sacrifices. The Speaker listens to the speeches of all Members. There can be no greater sacrifice than that. It is a unique office, because he cannot please all the Members all the time, and yet he must speak for all the Members all the time. It is unique, because he is the only man with the power to protect both the majority and the minority and, equally important in the House of Commons, to protect the minority within the majority and the minority within the minority.

We need a really strong Speaker who can ensure not only that these large and small groups are adequately protected, but also that individuals are protected, particularly when passions are aroused in this House. In the last Parliament Dr. King, and this is the one occasion on which I can refer to him by name—I can name him but I would take a very dim view if he named me—in the last Parliament Dr. King displayed remarkable strength in the Chair. He did not display it in the same way in which traditionally Speakers are supposed to have displayed their strength, by quelling this House of Commons at a glance. Indeed, there were a number of Members in the last Parliament—and I suspect even more in this Parliament—who could not be quelled with a blow on the head from the Mace!

Dr. King accomplished this through two virtues. The first was an unrivalled knowledge of the rules and procedures of this House, despite the challenges of one or two erstwhile and would-be Speakers. Secondly, he achieved it by the quality of his character, which is universally respected and admired. He was tried, he was tested, and he emerged triumphant, as a very strong Speaker indeed.

We must all recognise that this strength will be vital in this present Parliament. Even on the calmest days this is perhaps the most mercurial institution in the land. There can be abysmally boring tedium at one moment, followed instantaneously by flaming passions aroused in an instant. I would even go so far as to claim that this House is almost as volatile as the public opinion polls. Happily its conclusions are more accurate than those of the polls.

I believe that we now face a volcanic situation. We have a new Government determined to govern, we have a new Opposition determined to oppose. Every major political, economic and social problem will be the subject of scrutiny and the fiercest debate. But if into that political cauldron is poured the witch's brew of racial hatred or religious bigotry, then this House can explode with feeling which can rock it to its very foundations. That is why we need a really strong Speaker and we have him in Dr. King.

Strength alone is not enough. Strength can make a good Speaker but it needs a combination of strength and humanity to make a really great Speaker. I do not know how individual Members of this new Parliament will fare in the years to come. Some will enjoy great triumphs, some will endure great tragedies. Some may experience a combination of triumph and tragedy but all will find in Dr. King that essential humanity which has been one of his greatest assets. There is no need for me to dwell on Dr. King's humanity, because the whole House is aware of it. I simply want to conclude by saying to the House that we here are not alone in appreciating his humanity.

I have always felt that schoolchildren have an uncanny knack of assessing the character and the humanity in an individual. In 1950 Dr. King was a headmaster in Southampton, Test. When the children of his school heard that he was adopted as the parliamentary candidate in his constituency they participated in that election, and they canvassed against him. Their message on the doorsteps was simple. They said, "We want to keep our headmaster." Speaking, perhaps for the only time on behalf of the whole House, I say we want to keep our Speaker.

The House then unanimously called Dr. KING to the Chair.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Itchen)

It is indeed an honour to be proposed by the Father of the House. The right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) came here in 1929 to rub shoulders with the notables of that time—Baldwin, Ramsay Macdonald, Lloyd George, Attlee, Arthur Henderson, the two Chamberlains, Anthony Eden, young "Rab" Butler and one whose greatest service to freedom was yet to be, the late Winston Churchill. I see from the records that among those who stood for that Parliament and failed to be elected were the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward), Harold Macmillan, later to be Prime Minister, and a young man, then Lord Dunglass, later to be Prime Minister and now the present Foreign Secretary.

There were also in that Parliament nine men whose sons have followed them to this place and one such father who lost his seat at the election, Sir Archibald Boyd-Carpenter. Since then the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton has served Parliament with distinction, has partaken of its chequered history, the ebb and flow of party success including the gravest of all periods, the time when this House was the bastion and sanctuary of freedom in a Europe almost conquered by Hitler. We are glad that he changed his mind and decided to come back to Parliament. This pleases us all, including the challenger to the title of the Father of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor).

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) for his wise words. When the hon. Gentleman was suddenly smitten with total deafness there was a time when he wished to give up public life. His friends persuaded him to stay on and with the magnificent help of his devoted wife he turned his affliction into triumph. He once told me in the early, bitter days, that he had made up his mind to be the best lip-reader in the world. I think by now that he has achieved this. It is certainly true that he not only plays a full and active part in the life of Parliament but that he also devotes himself, by work and example, to the problems of the handicapped. His courage is an inspiration to us all.

May I first thank the major political parties for not contesting my seat at the election. I do so especially realising just how frustrated are the keen party supporters in a Speaker's constituency when they are deprived of voting for the party of their choice.

During my Speakership, among journeys abroad and in receiving here Parliamentarians from other countries, I have been deeply impressed by the admiration felt by others for this British House of Commons, its traditions, its recognition of the rights of majorities and minorities, its respect for order and for the Chair.

At the heart of all the tensions that exist, rightly, between free citizens and which rightly divide them, we meet to resolve those tensions by free and fair debate, respecting not only one's own right to hold an opinion but equally the right of the other man to hold diametrically opposed opinions and to express them equally freely.

This concept and the good name of Parliament are in the hands of every individual Member. The discipline of Parliament is self-discipline. Who fails to accept it hurts himself, hurts his cause and hurts Parliament itself. Sir Robert Fraser, Director General of the I.T.A., in a speech in January said: Self-government is the happiest of all human achievements, a rare flower of man's total accomplishment, and those of us who tend it had better be conscious of its beauty, for human freedom is beautiful, but also, in the long tides of history, of its fragility. And at the heart of that heart sits a neutral chairman, favouring neither side, except for his swum duty to protect minorities.

It is no light task—either for the Chair or for the 629 Members who make up the House—to maintain this concept of freedom and tolerance, in a world where many nations recognise no such political liberty and where, even in our own society, there are small groups who seek to challenge by violence the country's fundamental freedoms, and who refuse to allow a hearing to those who disagree with them.

Today, I remind the House, as I remind myself so frequently, that this parliamentary democracy of ours was won through history at a very great price, and was preserved in two world wars by bitter sacrifice. It has been my proud privilege, as your Speaker, to address the annual conferences of F.E.P.O.W.—the Far Eastern Prisoners of War; of BLESMA—the Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association; of AJEX—the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen, of the great British Legion itself, and a wonderful gathering of holders of the Victoria Cross or George Cross, and there I attempted to express the gratitude of a free Parliament to those who preserved that freedom.

It has been my deep privilege, on your behalf, to visit the British and American War Graves Cemeteries near the Anzio beachhead, and the War Memorial in the Canadian House of Commons, and there honour, on behalf of Parliament, those who gave their lives that we might freely chose and freely reject Governments.

Freedom is not enough: it is what we do with it that counts. Here, each hon. and right hon. Member seeks to use that freedom to make Britain not only a prosperous society but a good society. The differences between Members exist in a House every member of which accepts the rights and responsibilities of freedom and the conception of tolerance, and the utter separation of law from politics.

When I look back wistfully to my predecessors and realise how splendidly some of them filled this high office, a fragment of verse comes into my head: Beneath the good how far! Of the great Speaker, Shaw Lefevre, it was written that when there was no precedent he would calmly make one, forestalling any objection by observing blandly that it was the well-known practice of the House. [Laughter.] In this keen-eared and eagle-eyed assembly, such a brilliant manoeuvre would be impossible.

Speaker Peel was so majestic a figure that the mere rustling of his robes as he rose to rebuke a member was sufficient to awe the most unruly Member into submission. I am afraid that a modern Speaker would rustle his robes with less effectiveness. I console myself, as I think of the great Speakers, that some of my predecessors were not illustrious. At least one, Speaker Rich, who betrayed Sir Thomas More, was odious, and one Speaker, Speaker Norton, displeased everyone by telling the Commons that they were almost as bad as the other place. [Laughter.]

But even the good ones had their idiosyncrasies. According to the late Earl Winterton, whom so many of us remember, Speaker Fitzroy would remark to himself, in a voice audible at least to the two Front Benches, "When is this boring fellow going to sit down?" And Speaker Clifton Brown, as many of us remember, drummed angrily and repeatedly on the sides of his Chair when he thought that a speech had lasted too long.

I am grateful beyond my powers of expression to the House for the many kindnesses shown to me, and for its forbearance when I have made mistakes. Speaker Lowther said of Speaker Lenthall: Lenthall had his critics. Every Speaker has his critics. I console myself by reflecting that some criticisms are justified, some are not, and at least some cancel each other out. I am not certain that I can claim the same comfort.

I welcome many new Members, each of whom may carry his or her baton in his knapsack. They will find the servants of the House willing to assist them in every way. They will find Sir Barnett Cocks and his colleagues a tower of strength; the Serjeant at Arms and his staff, great friends; and the Speaker their guide and counsellor whenever they need him. They will learn, but I imagine that they know already, that Parliament is a place where Members can be political opponents and yet be personal friends; and that this mutual respect sets the pattern for the whole of British political life. We are indeed citizens of no mean city.

It has been said that whoever is called on to fill the Chair of the House must know that he is acting in the presence of a critical and vigilant assembly. As one who knows that so many of those who may choose him today are themselves masters of procedure, I submit myself in all humility to the will of the House.

The House then having again unanimously called Dr. KING to the Chair, he was taken out of his place and conducted to the Chair by Mr. R. H. TURTON and Mr. JACK ASHLEY.

Mr. Speaker-Elect

(standing on the upper step): At this solemn moment before taking the Chair once more as Speaker of this House, I beg to thank the House for the supreme honour that it has done me. I express the hope that we may all be worthy of the trust that the British people have placed in us and of all whose sacrifices won and preserved a free Parliament.

Mr. SPEAKER-ELECT sat down in the Chair.

Then the Mace (which before lay under the Table) was placed upon the Table.

3.19 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Edward Heath)

Mr. Speaker-Elect, it is my privilege, and in accordance with our well known practice, to lead the House today in offering you our very warm congratulations on your election to preside over our deliberations, and I am very happy that in addressing this House for the first time as Prime Minister I am undertaking a task which has the unanimous support of the whole House. I recognise, of course, that this is a situation unlikely to last beyond the middle of this week, but nevertheless it is a very agreeable way in which to start.

This, Mr. Speaker-Elect, is the third time you have been elected by this House to preside over it. The House shows its appreciation of the qualities of your services to it in the past, but this in itself would not be enough. What the House has just done is to demonstrate its confidence in you for the future.

As was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), the Father of the House, the office of Speaker is a great office and also one carrying very heavy burdens, and it has a character of loneliness about it all its own. But whatever the burdens and however difficult the situation, you have never forgotten, Mr. Speaker-Elect, the pledge which you gave in your first speech of acceptance that you owed your loyalty to no party and to no Government but to Parliament itself. You were rightly proud of being the first Speaker elected from your party when it became the majority party. Now, like many of your predecessors, you find yourself presiding over a House in which the majority has changed, and I am confident—we are all confident—that you will do so with equal skill and firmness as that which you have shown in the past.

You have shown remarkable patience, courtesy and understanding to us as individuals, which we greatly appreciate. You have endeavoured to extend your protection fairly to minorities which we, on this side of the House, as the recent minority party, have fully experienced. You have never deviated from your oft-expressed desire to see the business of the House conducted with dignity and with reasonable despatch. When we have failed to achieve these aims perhaps we must confess that the fault has lain rather more with ourselves than with Mr. Speaker.

Outside the House you have always been ready to accept invitations to visit other assemblies to represent this House, which you have so well done, and to discuss with them the merits as well as the shortcomings of the British parliamentary system. In all this you have always been fully supported by your wife who on social occasions has shown us individually, as Members of the Commons, such friendly hospitality.

Mr. Speaker-Elect, your election is a tribute to your qualities, which the House well recognises, and on this we congratulate you. Your readiness to accept this great office again is a measure of your willingness to render public service to your fellow Members and for this I extend to you, on behalf of the House, our warmest thanks. We wish you well in your task and happiness and fulfilment in your great office.

3.24 p.m.

Mr. Harold Wilson (Huyton)

Mr. Speaker-Elect, I am very happy to associate myself and all on this side of the House with the words of the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister in congratulating you on your re-election as our Speaker.

We have sat under your presidency during two Parliaments already and all of us would like to express our full confidence in your ability to handle any situation which might arise. We have seen you in quiet periods and in stormy periods and we have admired the way in which you have asserted, as is essential, the authority of the Chair, while being ever ready, in those not infrequent cases in which an honourable Member has placed himself in an untenable position, to help him withdraw from that position without humiliating loss of face. The traditional virtues of selective deafness and imperfect sight have been yours to summon whenever necessary.

To your virtues may I add, as did the right hon. Gentleman, the virtues of your wife who, we all feel, has made your difficult task just that much easier and who has been a generous hostess not only to hon. Members but to visiting Parliamentarians; and your own ability to represent Parliament at home and abroad, for your speeches, reflecting a deep constitutional sense and an almost unrivalled fund of literary knowledge and sensibility, have brought a new dimension to the Speakership.

You will be presiding over a Parliament which, as in 1966, includes a considerable influx of new Members. I have gained the impression that most of them are of a somewhat different political persuasion from that of the new Members of 1966. Those others who have had the honour to be in this House for a quarter of a century—and I am glad to say that from your principal sponsor downwards there are many of even greater seniority—must be ready to recognise that many new Members, whatever their political persuasion, will approach the customs and conventions of this House with a certain degree of questioning almost verging on cynicism. We must be ready, as I am sure you will be ready, to respond to their desire for change, though we must be ready equally, even though the going may be hard, to bring home to them that customs and conventions which may at first sight appear archaic and inefficient, but which stem from the wisdom and experience of centuries of this House, even in this restless modern age have the advantage of making the duties of your office more workable and not less efficient.

On behalf of all of us on this side of the House—although, as was the right hon. Gentleman, I believe that I am speaking for the whole House—I wish you a further happy tenure of your exacting tasks and all the necessary health and vigour in their performance by day and by night through the whole period—the whole period in which, with your characteristic blend of tolerance and firmness, you will be presiding over us.

3.26 p.m.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

Mr. Speaker-Elect, may I respectfully congratulate you, with a brevity which you would be the first to commend and which, as soon as you are bewigged, you will be the first to demand.

This House is always grateful to its one colleague who is prepared to shoulder the arduous duties of being Speaker of the House. As the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), the Father of the House, said, many of the dangers of your office have disappeared. The danger which befell one of my ancestors, Mr. Speaker Thorpe, of being beheaded by the mob at Harringay fortunately is no longer one of the dangers attaching to your task. But it is none the less a very arduous job. I suppose that the greatest tedium that any Member of Parliament has to face is to listen to any of the speeches of his colleagues. You have to listen to us all, and you have to do so through very long hours with no possibility of pairing arrangements being made through the usual channels.

Against that background you are the guardian of the traditions of this House—not only of the majority, not only of the minority, but, I would add, of the extreme minority and, indeed, of the individual back-bench Member.

You have shown your jealous regard for the protection of all those different constituent parts of the House of Commons during your tenure of this high office, and therefore this House is grateful to you and, if it is not out of order to say so, grateful to your wife, too, for the way in which in a certain sense you have both put the job in commission and for the way in which you have got in touch with individual Members not only in the Chamber but outside it, and during the course of your many travels abroad have shown the deep knowledge of, and the love which you have for, the traditions of this House.

It is therefore, I am certain, with the good wishes of the entire House of Commons that we pledge our support to you and wish you well in this new Speaker-ship which we are happy you are about to take up—subject to the usual confirmation.

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