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Viscount Whitelaw: Tributes

Volume 491: debated on Monday 11 January 1988

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My Lords, I feel sure that all your Lordships will have learned with great regret of the resignation of my noble friend Lord Whitelaw from his post as Lord President and Leader of the House. However, it is good news that my noble friend is making a speedy recovery and I am sure that all your Lordships send him and Lady Whitelaw our best wishes for the future.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has already paid tribute to Lord Whitelaw's work in government where, over many years, his contribution has been unique. But it is as Leader of this House that we shall miss him the most and I am sure that your Lordships will wish me to pay particular tribute now to him in that role.

My noble friend Lord Whitelaw became Leader of your Lordships' House following the general election of 1983, and so quickly did he identify with our conventions and procedures that it seemed he had been here for many years. Of course he had behind him years of experience in the Whips' Office, as Leader of another place and as a senior Minister, but his swift adjustment to the leadership of your Lordships' House was nonetheless remarkable.

As Leader he was always available to talk about any matter and I think that we all benefited from the wisdom of his advice and the spirit of comradeship with which he invested his work here. The pressures of business meant that his task as Leader was not always easy, but the regard in which he was held by your Lordships and the strength of his relations with the other party leaders enabled him to steer our proceedings with a sure touch. His tact, diplomacy and grasp of procedure and above all his unfailing good humour always ensured that our business was conducted courteously, efficiently and, in particular, effectively.

After a maiden speech it is often the custom to express the hope that a new speaker will be heard frequently in the future and it is a custom which can be used on other occasions. I am delighted to hear that my noble friend Lord Whitelaw intends to continue to play an active part in our proceedings and that, I believe, would be the wish of all your Lordships.

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for making that statement. We were all sad to learn yesterday that the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, had decided to retire from office, although we fully appreciate his reasons for doing so. The noble Viscount has served his country with distinction in a number of high offices and in opposition and, as the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has just said, he was without doubt an outstanding Leader of this House.

He is a man for all seasons. He took account of the views of all parties, he listened carefully and made strenuous efforts to be patient. We shall miss him greatly. We are delighted to know that he is making a good recovery and all of us look forward to seeing him back here. We send our very best wishes to the noble Viscount and to Lady Whitelaw.

We also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, who now succeeds him. He has had long experience in many offices and of course as Deputy Leader here. As he embarks upon his new duties, he knows that there are choppy seas ahead and of course I should like to assure him that when he needs constructive advice we shall be very glad to give it to him. We wish him a stimulating and interesting tenure of office.

My Lords, it is both a hard task and an easy task to pay tribute to the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, as he resigns as Leader of your Lordships' House. It is a hard task because we are all going to miss him very much indeed. We are extremely sorry to see him going and especially sorry because of the reason which causes him to resign. However, it is an easy task to pay tribute because—and this is not always the case—we can have no reservations whatever in saying that we in the opposition parties have found him an exceptional Leader of your Lordships' House.

We recognise that he put first the proper conduct of political business, which he realised was of paramount importance not only for his party but also for the country. He believed that that was best served by total loyalty to his party and to his Government. However, he also believed that it required that the Opposition should play its part properly, and he always enabled us to be a proper Opposition and listened to what we had to say. He was an extremely generous Leader to the Opposition, giving us a fair hearing and fair recognition of what we did.

I remember on one occasion, when my colleague my noble friend Lord Tordoff had won a relatively minor amendment, that the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, came across and said "I couldn't think of a single argument to use against you." That is the kind of thing which greatly endears a leader of the Government to the Opposition parties. Similarly, I have heard him say "When you have defeated us, sometimes it was because we did not get our act together; sometimes it was because we were wrong." That endears him even more to the Opposition parties. We greatly grieve that he is leaving us.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, that we recognise that it is not an easy task to follow such as the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, especially at a time when, as we all know, extremely controversial measures are coming to your Lordships' House. If, as I am sure will be the case, he deals fairly and squarely with the Opposition parties, as did the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, then we, with the noble Lord, will do everything that we can to make your Lordships' House do its job of responsible government and responsible opposition.

My Lords, from this Bench I should like to follow my noble friend and express our regret that the noble Viscount has had to give up his activity in the House. He was an outstanding Leader with his combination of tact and effectiveness. Those two qualities made him an outstanding Leader of the House. Although we regret his decision, most of us will agree that he was right to listen to his doctors. We all look forward to seeing him again, if not in his accustomed place, lending his counsels to the conduct of the House.

We should like to convey our congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead. We should like to wish him luck (although not too much luck on every occasion) in his new office. He can count on all reasonable co-operation from these Benches.

2.45 p.m.

My Lords, we on the Cross-Benches should like to be associated with all the tributes that have been expressed by the parties to the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw. We should like to add our own special thanks for his understanding of the problems, procedure and customs of the House and how they affect those sitting on these Benches. At this stage, it is not possible to estimate his loss not just to the House but to the nation. We hope that our loss will he his family's gain for a long time.

We should like to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Belstead. He is well known in the House and well liked by us all. We do not expect him to be a second Lord Whitelaw. We know that he will bring his own personality, experience and skills to the House. We wish him well in his arduous task. We congratulate him on his appointment as Leader of the House of Lords.

My Lords, from these Benches I wish to add one word on the issue on which I think your Lordships' House is completely united. We shall all greatly miss the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw. Of all the many grounds for missing him there is, above all, this one: in my recollection, no Leader of the House has enjoyed so much affection from your Lordships as does the noble Viscount. We shall be delighted to see him back here when he feels fit to come, but meanwhile we wish to send our best wishes to him and to his family.

At the same time, we wish to join in the good wishes and congratulations to my noble friend Lord Belstead, who has a particularly difficult job in following a Leader of the House of such distinction.

My Lords, from the episcopal Benches I shall add a word of thanks to the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, for all he has done in the House. We have appreciated enormously the work that he has done as Leader of the House. I have appreciated the friendship that he has given to so many Members of the House, not least to myself. I am sorry that he is no longer to be Leader of the House. We should like to add our thanks and gratitude to him. I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, about the affection in which the noble Viscount is held.

We add our congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead. These Benches will not promise unswerving allegiance to him, but we shall co-operate as best we can.

My Lords, I shall speak as an older man and add just one word. To my great surprise, I found that I was 10 years senior to the noble Viscount. He has resigned on doctor's advice. Doctors' advice is wrong about four times out of five. When in three or four years' time he finds that his doctor's advice is wrong, I hope that he will come back. He resigned as Deputy Prime Minister. We have had too many "best Prime Ministers who never were". Perhaps in a few years' time he will return and be Prime Minister. He is quite young enough for the job.

My Lords, I thank your Lordships for the kind personal words that have been spoken. In particular, I thank all noble Lords for what they said about the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw. As your Lordships can guess, on the occasion of his resignation my feelings are mixed, as possibly are those of your Lordships. However, of one thing I am certain. The interests of the House are all-important and must be a prime duty of the Leader. In that I know I have the support of the leaders of the other political parties and of noble Lords on the Cross-Benches and the Bishops' Benches.

The House now has a great deal of work to do. I welcome to the Government Front Bench my noble friend Lord Ferrers, who has become Deputy Leader of your Lordships' House. I also welcome the move of my noble friend Lord Caithness to the Department of the Environment where we shall do our best to debate with your Lordships the matters which come before us in the months ahead. Meanwhile, I thank your Lordships for words which I am sure Lord and Lady Whitelaw will very greatly appreciate.

2.52 p.m.