HL Deb 17 January 1978 vol 388 cc5-13

2.47 p.m.


My Lords, I know that this House does not like multiplying tributes unnecessarily, but I also know that your Lordships will wish me to draw attention to the retirement of the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, as the Chief Whip of the Party in Opposition. The noble Earl first became Government Chief Whip in 1958 and has served as Government Chief Whip and as Opposition Chief Whip in successive Conservative Governments and in Opposition ever since, As a newcomer in comparison I feel a little diffident in trying to express the respect and affection in which the noble Earl has been held both by my predecessors as Leaders of the House and the Opposition and by the Labour Chief Whips who have worked opposite the noble Earl.

His retirement marks the end of an era. We on this side of the House would like to express our respect for the noble Earl, who has combined with such distinction the subtle mixture of being a formidable Party Chief Whip and the need to work closely with his Party's opponents, whether in Government or in Opposition. It should be remembered that he has been perhaps the principal architect of the offices of the Whips in their present form. During his tenure the Whips in this House have become an essential ingredient in the organisation of the business of the House. Few who have not been responsible for arranging a business timetable will appreciate how awkward and difficult this apparently straightforward task can be. Without qualification I can say that the increase in the business of the House and in the activity of your Lordships during the noble Earl's years in office have ensured that it would now be impossible for the House to function as sir smoothly as it does without the constant attention of our hardworking Whips.

During his many years as Conservative Chief Whip in this House, the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, has imposed on himself an almost monastic silence in the House, with the exception of occasional remarks on the business of the House. Perhaps on this occasion the noble Earl will allow himself to make some observations on those matters with which he has been so closely concerned for many years. We shall look forward to the noble Earl's presence in the House for many years to come, and we look forward also to working with his successor, the noble Lord, Lord Denham. I am sure the House will wish to join with me in congratulating the noble Lord on his appointment.

2.50 p.m.


My Lords, I think all of us who sit on the Conservative Benches are greatly touched that the Leader of the House should have spoken in such terms about my nobly, friend Lord St. Aldwyn. He does so, I think, because my noble friend was not just the Conservative Chief Whip but in a very special way a servant of the House. His knowledge of its customs and traditions was and is unrivalled. My noble friend has been a friend of mine for over 30 years and, in the 11 years in which I have been either Leader of the House or Leader of the Opposition and he has been the Chief Whip, I do not believe we have ever had a cross word or an argument, though I suspect that that may be due to the extremely sensible attitude I have always adopted of letting him have his own way.

My noble friend has one great advantage among many others: he looks like the Conservative Chief Whip; he is the very model of a Conservative Chief Whip. But his character is as upright as his posture; his mind is as tidy as his hair; his views are as straightforward as his manner. He matches kindness with firmness and he tempers the Party battle with generosity and with magnanimity. There was never any rancour when the representative of the permanent Conservative majority was so generous and so pleasant a person as Lord St. Aldwyn.

My noble friend has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the House. Even on the infrequent occasions when I used to see him sitting on the Front Bench with his eyes closed I always knew that he was really awake, ready to pounce upon the Leader for failing to do his job properly or failing to obey and observe our customs. I shall greatly miss my two friends, Lord St. Aldwyn and Admiral Twiss, but I am happy to think that, as Cheltenham comes along and Ascot looms nearer, Lord St. Aldwyn will, unlike in all the past years, feel it unnecessary to be here and will find it possible to attend those two functions in the knowledge that he can now ignore Lord Denham's two-line whip in exactly the same way as Lord Denham ignored his.

My Lords, 20 years is a long time in somebody's life. It is a very long time in one job. I hope that my noble friend will reflect from time to time in the future that his 20 years of service have greatly benefited his Party, this House and the political fabric of this country, and have gained him countless friends and admirers.

2.53 p.m.


My Lords, the retirement of the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, as Conservative Chief whip is to me as surprising as it is distressing. I always regarded his as an appointment in perpetuity and I had no idea that it was possible for him to resign. But he has rendered distinguished service to this House. He has displayed a loyalty to it and an affection for it which have been quite outstanding, and which I think have been infectious to a lot of people who have joined the House during his term of office. His long service on both sides of the Chamber has been very much appreciated, not least on these Benches. Over the years, I have come to regard him less as a political opponent—except, of course, when the Conservatives were for a short time in office—and much more as a personal friend and a genial adviser, even to the point of accepting his advice from time to time. I want to thank him personally for the tremendous help he has given to me, as a Member of this House, and to many others, and I hope his counsel will be available to us for many years to come.

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I thought it might be proper for me to say a word about the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, my implacable opponent! In many years in political life I have never met with such immovable obstinancy, determination and almost impenetrable cunning as I have in my work with the noble Earl! It has been quite an experience, but of course infinitely rewarding, because, as the whole House knows, his complete dedication to his Party is equalled by his integrity, his honour and by his splendid sense of humour. He served his Party with a tenacity which has been very daunting to me on occasions, but he has always been a dedicated servant of your Lordships' House.

Nothing has been too small or too domestic for his energies and his concern. On the basic and difficult problems of our legislative duties he has been untiring and indeed ingenious, both in Government and in Opposition. For myself, I should like to thank him deeply for his generosity, for his always ready sense of fun, and for his helpfulness in anything which concerned the wellbeing of your Lordships' House. All noble Lords on all sides of the House will wish him and his enchanting lady well, and we shall hope to see him often.

2.56 p.m.


My Lords, may I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Denham. The reason why I rise is that I have had a long association with the noble Earl. He became Chief Whip about the time that I became Deputy Chief Whip for the Opposition. For some 18 years, therefore, I have been associated with him in one form or another in what is referred to as "the usual channels". Like my noble friend, I can speak of his complete integrity. There could never be any question that if you needed advice you could always go to him knowing that even the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, would not get the slightest wind of it. The noble Earl was of great assistance, despite what my noble friend has said about his being a Party man. I shall never forget the assistance the noble Earl gave to me when I became Chief Whip after those 13 disastrous years of Conservative rule, when Labour sat for the first time for many years on these Benches, having to grapple with all the problems involved in the new Session and the setting up of business.

The noble Earl was always kind. I think the thing that always struck me about him was his basic concern for the House as a whole, not just in the Chamber, but the general atmosphere. I can well remember the noble Earl coming to me one day and saying, "We must do something about the dining room". It was nothing to do with the food. The noble Earl had taken the view that it was quite wrong that Conservative Peers should sit at a Conservative table and Labour Peers should sit at a Labour table. Where the Liberals sat and where my noble friends the Cross-Benchers sat, I am not certain. The noble Earl was quite right. We both agreed to exhort our various friends to mix up and sit at different tables. This House, as usual, took not the slightest notice. So the noble Earl came to me and said, "There is one solution only—one table". I believe that that one act had a profound effect on the House, because we were all forced to sit and meet each other—I think very much for the benefit of our friends opposite.

The noble Earl has given great service to the House. He has made very many friends, and I join with all others, particularly my noble friend the Chief Whip, in wishing him not so much a retirement but a return to a more active and vocal role in your Lordships' House. I have no doubt that his charming wife will be able to provide him with some information and ammunition for speeches of that type.

2.59 p.m.


My Lords, I think it only right that someone from these Benches should say a word on the retirement of the noble Earl. I have every reason to remember him with gratitude, because at one time in the far and distant past I actually sat on the same Benches as he does. I remember well one occasion upon which I had, in spite of that fact, spoken and, so far as I can remember, voted, against my own Party. One of the most remarkable things about the noble Earl is his gentlenesss in reproval. Shortly after that incident I had a note from him saying, "Do you think that occasionally you might speak and vote in favour of the Government?". To those who rather think of the Chief Whip in terms of a strict disciplinarian the noble Earl has been the very greatest possible contradiction of that conception. I, for one, shall miss him not only as a Whip but also as a great personal friend.

3.2 p.m.


My Lords, I have been deeply touched by what has been said by the Leader of the House, the Leader of my own Party, the Leader of the Liberal Party, my noble friend on the Cross-Benches and the Chief Whip. Indeed, the noble Baroness described me as obstinate. That I find a little difficult to understand, because I have always found that I have had to give way to her. The noble Baroness has that female instinct which enables her to know just how to get under the skin of an opponent and obtain the answer which she wants. She does it with enormous charm and on numerous occasions I have succumbed to such beguiles from her.

I find myself in some difficulty because there are so many people on all sides of the House whom I should like to thank personally for their help, assistance and co-operation. However, if I started to do so I would exceed even the suggestion of the noble Leader of the House that I might speak for a few minutes. Therefore, I shall refer to only a few people and hope that those who are not included will not take any offence or feel that I have failed to appreciate what they have done for me and with me for the House.

First, I should like to thank the noble Lord, who was then the noble Earl, Lord Home, for appointing me as Chief Whip in 1958 and having the kindness to have sufficient faith in me to leave me to try to work out a solution. On the other side of the House, the character to whom I think I must refer is the late Lord Alexander of Hillsborough. If ever there was a Leader of the Opposition who never let the Government get away with anything it was him. However, we were great friends and outside the Chamber we had many happy meetings. I am perhaps inclined to think that the Opposition, at present, should follow his example more closely and press Ministers to give more complete answers than has sometimes been the case.

The next person whom I should like to thank is my noble friend Lord Denham who has succeeded me. I could not be more pleased that he has done so. He was thrown in very much at the deep end. I was lying in a bed the other side of the river and it was the time of the Industrial Relations Bill where the temperature inside the House—even if not outside—rose exceedingly high. My noble friend had to cope with all that and he did so with great skill and what he learnt will, I am sure, stand him and the House in great stead in the future. Equally, I should like to thank all my colleagues, especially those who have served under me in the Whips' Office over many years.

There is only one other person that I would name; that is, my wife. She has the uncanny knack of keeping my feet on the ground on occasions when I have been tempted to let them rise off the ground. She has a much better memory than I have and she remembers many more Peers' names than I do. My present Leader was always twitting me whenever a strange face came in, and immediately turned round to me and said, "Who is that?"; of course, I did not know so I had to ask the Table. However, my wife's common sense and guidance on how I should do things has been absolutely invaluable to me. She brought sanity where sometimes sanity was inclined to fly out of the window.

I shall take up the remark of the noble Leader of the House and say a few words about how the Whips' Office came into being. I think that that needs to be recorded somewhere and this seems to me as good a place and as good a time as any. When I was appointed by my noble friend in 1958, I had an office, a telephone and a file, which noble Lords may have seen reference to in the Sunday Telegraph, saying "Dead Peers." but with no names in it. That is literally all that I succeeded. to. The business of the House was then totally organised by the Secretary to the Leader of the House, Sir Charles Hendriks, a remarkable character who served this House quite brilliantly over many years. However, he was getting on in years and was due to retire at the beginning of 1960. In 1958 the Life Peers arrived, and then, after a defeat of the Conservative Government by the Conservative Peers backed by the then Opposition, hereditary Peeresses were also admitted.

I was then faced with the problem of what to do when Sir Charles Hendriks left, because I felt that the Chief Whip's job was to run the business of the House. I had many long discussions with the then Clerk of the Parliaments, Sir Victor Goodman, as to what was the best solution. He came forward with the suggestion, which I very readily accepted, that the Government Whips' Office should be manned from the Parliament Office. I must admit at once that that seemed to me a thoroughly sound idea, for two reasons; first, because it meant that there would, over the years, be an increasing number of Members of the Parliament Office who really understood the Government machine. In the past there has always been a slight tendency—I think probably in both Houses—for the Parliament Office to consider itself slightly remote from the Government offices. This scheme has undoubtedly proved a great success and I think that most of your Lordships would agree that we have benefited from it. It also had the great advantage that various people were loaned for short periods only, which meant that no servant, either of the House or from anywhere else, rose to a position of extreme power.

I am sure that it has been very much for the benefit of the House that we have had this constant turnover. Really, the business has been in the hands of the Chief Whip, assisted by his secretary, but not run by his secretary. Sir Victor I suggested a young man to come and be the first of these secretaries to the Leader of the House and to the Chief Whip—a combined office which was very important. His choice, with my full agreement, was of a young man of exceptional ability. I know that it is totally wrong to mention any Clerk by name in this House; all I can say is that he happens to be the Clerk of the Parliaments at the moment.

My Lords, I thank you for receiving the nice things that have been said about me in the way in which you have. I hope to see many of you constantly for many years to come.