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Sir Richard Shepherd

Volume 710: debated on Thursday 10 March 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Scott Mann.)

It is with both sadness and pleasure that I speak in this debate as a tribute to my dear friend, Richard Shepherd, a friendship that extended almost 40 years. I have written a tribute to Richard in this week’s House magazine. He was one of my closest political and personal friends. How often did we lunch together in his favourite Italian restaurants, discussing how we were going to extract ourselves from the subjugation of European government? It is entirely appropriate for this tribute to be on the Floor of this House of Commons, whose attention he held on every occasion. I feel him here now. He was a most unusual speaker. He only did so when he felt he had to, but when he did it was always an intensely emotional experience. He reminded me somewhat of what we have heard of Charles James Fox in the late 18th century, and particularly Fox’s last exchange with his friend Edmund Burke at the time of the French revolution, with tears streaming down Fox’s face as they parted company.

I remember, too, heady days when my wife Biddy and I spent time on holiday with Richard in Florida and elsewhere. Later in his life, I would sit in his drawing room opposite a painting of Clumber park, where in my youth I often played cricket, or on the telephone recalling our great parliamentary battles and our friendships with other patriots, so many of whom have sadly died. I am glad to say that Chris Gill still lives near us in Shropshire.

I strongly recommend that hon. Members read Richard’s speech of 21 February 1992 on his private Member’s Bill for a referendum on the European issue. The Bill was drafted at my suggestion by one of the Government’s former parliamentary counsel, Godfrey Carter. Margaret Thatcher came to the debate and voted with us shortly before she left the House of Commons. In that speech, he said of Maastricht:

“I belong to a union—the Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is a political allegiance which I gladly give. It is one of sentiment, one of passion, one which has been fashioned over the course of centuries. That is to be set aside because the Treaty of Union seeks to make me a citizen of elsewhere. I would be a citizen with a profound and essential difference: I could not control the laws, in whole areas, by which I would be governed.”—[Official Report, 21 February 1992; Vol. 204, c. 581.]

His Protection of Official Information Bill largely became law, and he voted against the Government on the Scott report as well as at many other important moments in our political life over the last 30 years.

On so many evenings as we left the Chamber late at night, particularly during Maastricht, Richard would simply say, “See you down there,” by which he meant the Members’ entrance, where his car would pull up to give me the inevitable lift on the way to his home in Kensington, which was once owned by John Galsworthy, who wrote “The Forsyte Saga” there. He was Back Bencher of the year in 1985 and parliamentarian of the year 10 years later. He was greatly loved by his constituents of Aldridge-Brownhills, where he increased his majority by 10,000 between 1979 and 2010.

Richard created Partridges, the famous food store now in Duke of York Square, which gained a royal warrant. He took advice from Garry Weston, who owned Fortnum and Mason. I am so glad that Richard’s brother, John, who is managing director, is in the Gallery with his family. Davida, his sister, was his ever diligent parliamentary assistant.

This being a Thursday afternoon on a one-line whip, some of his parliamentary friends cannot be here. I will therefore briefly read out some of their tributes to him. The chairman of the 1922 Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady), said:

“Richard was a great defender of liberty and democracy. He never forgot that the sacred duty of our Parliament is to protect the hard-won freedoms of the British people and to guard against the growth of an over-mighty Executive. He was a principled and courageous man who made a great contribution to public life.”

My right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) said:

“Richard Shepherd was an outstanding parliamentarian who devoted his work to advancing and upholding, as he put it, our very sense of liberty and confidence in our system of government and its institutions. As such, he was an admirable and remarkable man.”

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) said:

“Richard was a passionate campaigner for the rights of Parliament and democracy and in doing so was not afraid of either Ministers or Whips, who he frequently annoyed. I was working for Margaret Thatcher and remember well her robust arguments with him over freedom of information but also the respect she had for his always principled position. Parliament and the country owe him a considerable debt.”

My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said:

“Richard was a true gentleman, a great independent, committed free spirit and a truly kind man.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) said:

“Richard was a superb parliamentarian. He spoke his mind even when it was not popular with party leadership. He was proved right far more often than not. He was unwavering in his determination to see the UK out of the EU superstate. He will be missed.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) said:

“Richard was a man of principle who would never stay silent when he saw our cherished liberties being undermined. He put his country before his own advancement and was a fine example of a true parliamentarian in the great tradition of England.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) said:

“Richard represented everything that is best about an MP. He was a gentleman with the emphasis on gentle; but with a steely determination to act fearlessly in the best interests of our country.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) said:

“I remember Richard as an excellent and principled Parliamentarian, a kind and thoughtful colleague, and one who would do what he could to help his friends. I was sorry to hear of his passing and send my condolences to his family.”

Notice the word “gentle”, the word “kind”; that was the measure of the man.

I would also like to put on record that several Opposition Members have also paid tribute to Richard, such as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz).

I am greatly moved by the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) and the memory of our friend the former Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, whom, as a new Member, one was rather scared of, because his emotion could be so overpowering and his passion could be so devastating. I learned at first hand how that could be harnessed to the public good when I, as a young spokesman on constitutional affairs, was conducting the opposition to the Scotland Act 1998, which laid down the foundations of the devolution settlement that we are now trying to make work. Everything that he warned about that Act has come true, including the way that it has divided Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom politically and emotionally, the way that it has been exploited by nationalists and narrow nationalism, and the way that it has led to a political and legal dispute between the Parliaments and Governments of the United Kingdom and Scotland.

I also have to put on record one word that Richard kept raising with great passion: “consanguinity”. He kept talking about the consanguinity of a united people—that is, we are all a people of a common blood. Personally, I think our consanguinity goes wider than the United Kingdom, but he believed this with such force and it pains me greatly that so many of his predictions came true. He was a wonderful parliamentarian and I will never forget him.

What is so striking about all those quotations from parliamentary colleagues is that they are absolutely interchangeable. They were all written separately and they all said the same things. I can take that one step further because in preparation for this event this evening, I took the trouble to look up the obituaries in a variety of papers, ranging from The Guardian on the left to The Daily Telegraph on the right. And guess what? Those tributes are absolutely interchangeable, too. They talk about his independence of mind, his integrity and the fact that he was a true gentleman and a man of principle.

All I can add that I do not think has been said before is that, as somebody who has been here for merely almost 25 years—I am therefore a relative newcomer by comparison with my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) and, indeed, Richard—I believe that he set an example that all of us were proud to follow, sometimes even to the point of having the Whip suspended for a little while.

It is a great pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) on his very moving speech. I had the pleasure of knowing Sir Richard, not for as many years as my hon. Friend, but when I was a young man, I was first an undergraduate and then a graduate student at the London School of Economics—Richard’s alma mater—and he was a great hero of mine.

My hon. Friend mentioned a speech that he gave on 21 February 1992. I was living in Berlin at the time, and I spent a lot of time in the British Council library trying to understand what on earth was going on in my own land while I was living abroad learning German. Richard was a beacon for me at that time, and I commend the speech to which my hon. Friend referred. In a book, Edward Pearce, the journalist, referred to Richard’s speech on that date, on Second Reading of the Referendum Bill, as belonging in any anthology of great parliamentary speeches. Colleagues can look it up for themselves. It begins at column 581. I want to quote the last sentence because it has been for me a beacon for many years and showed how well Richard understood the central issue within the European question. He said:

“I say as a last note to the House that our people should ‘not go gentle into that good night’ but should rather ‘rage, rage, against the dying of the light’ that requires us to live under laws that we cannot change or control.”

I want to add a little bit to what my hon. Friend has just said. He was followed immediately after that speech by no less a person than Mr Peter Shore, the great Labour exponent of dislike of the idea of European government. He said:

“I think that the House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) for introducing the Bill and giving us an opportunity of addressing the most important issue that has come before us during the lifetime of this Parliament, which will shortly end.

The House will also be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the clarity and passion with which he argued his case.”—[Official Report, 21 February 1992; Vol. 204, c. 589.]

And there was more besides.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have that text in front of me. When I was a teenager, my father lived in Canada and I spent a lot of time going over there. Peter Shore was for a while the Trade Secretary or Transport Secretary and tried to thwart Freddie Laker’s attempt to introduce cheap airline tickets. As a very young man, I was extremely interested in cheap airline tickets. It took me some years to realise what a great man Peter Shore actually was, and my hon. Friend has done us a service in reminding us of that now.

In conclusion, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I thank you for the chance to speak in this debate? I hope that we all remember Sir Richard Shepherd for his extraordinary contribution.

Richard Shepherd was a gentle spirit and a poetic soul, as illustrated by the contributions of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I simply want to add to the accounts of his generosity, civility and courtesy. I invited Richard to speak in my constituency, and with typical humility he said, “Really? I don’t very often get invited to travel across the country to speak.” But surely enough, he did. He travelled from Aldridge-Brownhills to the Lincolnshire fens and addressed a luncheon function. He charmed everyone not by what he said but by the way he was. What he said, accorded closely with my own views, of course, but that is not really the point I want to make. He was such a humble, gentle, poetic soul.

I well remember that on that occasion I gave him a small gift of a watercolour that I had painted. Years later he said to me, “I treasure that painting you gave me, John. I treasure that painting.” It touched my heart, as he touched the hearts of so many people here, so many from his constituency and so many people more widely. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) for the chance to pay this tribute to a very great parliamentarian and a still greater man.

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I got stuck trying to get back for this debate. I will not detain the House for long, because I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will want to say something herself because of her own connection with Sir Richard Shepherd.

I arrived in this House in 1992, when the Maastricht treaty was in full flow, or at least was about to be. I was greeted by two people. One was my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), who destroyed the rest of my career, and the other was Richard Shepherd, who finished off the job. They persuaded me that my base instincts were the right ones and therefore I should give evidence to them by voting against the Government. I did, in fact, and was persuaded by them to do that. Richard was kindness personified, as I am sure many people have said. He was very interesting and amusing, but we forget that it was not just on Maastricht that he was so emboldened. He led the charge in the Conservative party on freedom: he was a forerunner of freedom of information and of the rights of whistleblowers. He challenged even the great Lady Thatcher herself, and she became very frustrated with him on a number of occasions, but, much as he adored and supported her, he still rebelled against her when the need was there.

I came to the House in 1992, a young Member full of hopes and aspirations; and then I saw Richard, who never sought public office, who thought that being here was enough in itself and that making your mark through your intellect, courage and determination would leave behind you a record of success to which many who might enter ministerial office could never point a finger—and to that extent I thank God for Richard Shepherd.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) for introducing so ably this very important debate, which has been graced by a number of wonderful tributes to Sir Richard Shepherd that I cannot hope to match. All I would say is that in my 20 years in the House—I am one of the most junior Members to contribute this evening—I came to regard Richard Shepherd as a man of infinite principle combined with charm and good humour. That is not a bad thing to say about any Member of Parliament from any party in the House. He never wavered in his belief that one day the United Kingdom would become master again of its own destiny. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone will understand what I am about to say: if Richard Shepherd had been here on 29 March 2019, he would have been a Spartan too.

No one has yet mentioned Richard Shepherd’s passionate defence of the rights of this place and the Members of this place. I well remember, before the days when we had automatic timetable motions—new Members will not be able to imagine that there could have been such days, when we did not have timetable motions and the Government had to introduce a so-called guillotine motion if they wanted to curtail the debate on any Bill or, indeed, any matter—that Richard Shepherd used to sit there, on the second Bench below the Gangway, and oppose and speak against and vote against and force a vote upon every single guillotine motion that the Government brought in. That had quite an effect. It was hard to believe then that he was in fact such a charming, passionate gentleman.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. He also sought to be Speaker, and he received 136 votes in that contest. Heaven alone knows what would have happened if he had managed to win it.

I am sure that the answer to that point of order is that we would have been sitting all night, every night.

Let me first convey my grateful thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) for securing the debate, and for sharing with us all so many memories and so many stories, but also for sharing his tributes with those of colleagues. You shared one of your own memories, Madam Deputy Speaker. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), and my right hon. Friends the Members for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), and for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). On a Thursday afternoon, when many Members will have left for their constituencies, the fact that so many colleagues are here this evening is a huge tribute to Richard.

Richard—Sir Richard—was a decent man. He was fair, honest and thoroughly principled, as we have heard. He was someone who cared for his constituency and his constituents. It was said that when many cared about spin, Richard cared about substance. Today has been an opportunity for Members to share their feelings and their condolences. I know, as the current Member of Parliament for Aldridge-Brownhills, that in the last couple of weeks constituents from right across the constituency—I do not know whether to call it my constituency or his constituency: our constituency, perhaps—have emailed me, stopped me in the local supermarket and approached me in Aldridge village, on Brownhills High Street and in the communities in between, to share their stories and ask me to pass on their sympathies, which I have duly done. They have expressed the joy that they felt and that was felt across the constituency when Richard was knighted. He made a difference to the lives of so many people. One constituent said:

“To call on Sir Richard in a time of need was to know that he would do all he could to either assist with the problem himself or find someone who could.”

That is important to all of us in this place.

It did not matter which political persuasion someone came from; many local people had reason to be grateful for Richard’s help. I would like to share one story that was shared with me by a constituent. I am sure she will not mind me naming her: she is a lady called Sue Satterthwaite. She is our local historian in Aldridge. She told me that when David Partridge received his MBE, Sir Richard invited him, three members of his family and Sue for a tour of Parliament. Richard met everyone in Westminster Hall, and after a few moments, he asked Sue to step a little to the left. When she asked why, he said:

“That is perfect. I know how much you value our democracy and the history of this place. You are standing on the exact spot where Charles I received his death sentence.”

Sue shared that story with me. For that constituent, Sir Richard created one of the most memorable days that she had experienced. That was something that he was able to do. It is also a powerful reminder of the importance of democracy, as we watch all that is going on around the world, particularly at the moment.

I join my hon. Friends in this place this evening to pay tribute to Sir Richard Shepherd, my predecessor, who I know represented his constituents with a tremendous sense of duty and purpose. As we have heard, he was a strong and independent voice. He was never one to shy away from the controversial debate, and he was often even argumentative. He is remembered by some as a Maastricht rebel, back in the 1990s, and in holding true to his views on the European Union he remained fearless, as we have heard. His often principled stance is to be celebrated. His record in defence of whistleblowers and his fight for transparency is to be applauded. He was greatly loved and respected in Aldridge-Brownhills for 36 years, and greatly respected by his friends and colleagues in this place. He was a fine parliamentarian, and our thoughts are with his family at this time.

It has been an absolute privilege to respond to this debate on behalf of the Government, and I again say to thank you to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone.

I am sure the whole House would like to thank the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) for having secured this debate and provided an opportunity for the House to pay tribute to one of its greatest ever Members. Sir Richard was a passionate parliamentarian, and we will not see his like again.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.