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Addendum: Lord Soley’s Valedictory Speech

Volume 826: debated on Thursday 19 January 2023

Lord Soley (Lab) (Valedictory Speech): My Lords, I really did not expect to be starting this speech; I had no idea what had happened until I came in this morning. I was going to start by saying that, after 44 years’ continuous service in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, I would not have expected to have caused quite so much chaos in the management of my retirement.

I must express my thanks to the Government Front Bench and, of course, to my own Front Bench. They have worked very hard to make sure that the legislation as it is carried will not affect other people who make a valedictory speech, because my understanding is that the House wants to encourage such speeches and it would be a good idea if it did not have to be done this way every time. So my thanks to Ministers and my own Front Bench.

Also, I invited everybody up to the River Room for drinks later because that is what the Speaker told me I could do. I will extend that invitation to everyone because I am working on the theory that everybody can come up and have a drink and I will then ask for the bill to be sent to me at the House of Lords, knowing without doubt that it will be sent back marked, “Not known at this address”. So we are going to have a big party tonight.

I am thankful to everybody of all parties and none for the way this House operates. As the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, said, just because we disagree violently at times on politics, it does not mean that we have to do so in an uncivil or unreasonable way.

I also thank all the staff of Parliament at all levels and in all ways. They have always been very helpful to me. Despite little hiccups such as the present one, everything works pretty well most of the time. I therefore offer my thanks to the staff.

I also want to flag up—I am sure others will agree on this—all the staff who work for us, whether in the House of Commons or the House of Lords, such as researchers, our secretaries and others. They are profoundly important. Personally, I have to mention Nora Macleod, who worked for me for more than 20 years and is incredibly effective as both a secretary and a researcher, and in preparing press statements and all the other things. I sometimes thought that I could perhaps just go on holiday and talk about politics, while she and others could get on with running the country—it was really a straightforward matter, but it was very important. There are then the other staff who have worked for me—too many, I am afraid, to mention.

I should also thank the present Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, and the previous two Ministers in her role. When I introduced the home education Bill in 2017 in this House, it went through all its stages and was accepted. The Government then told me, to my surprise, that they wanted to incorporate it into the education Bill. That has now been withdrawn but I have been assured—I am watching this carefully—that it will be brought back because the Government now recognise how important it is that we give help to parents who want to home-educate but also recognise the dangers to children in a tiny minority of cases who are vulnerable to trafficking or abuse. I am pleased to say that I will be watching that from the highlands of Scotland to make sure that it goes through; I shall come down and knock on the door if there is any slacking on that aspect.

I must also, as I think we all must, thank the members of my family, some of whom are here today. It is sometimes forgotten how much flack families take in the course of a political career. We put ourselves on the front line—that is fine; we know what is going to happen—but families do not. My long-term wife and partner and the mother of my two children, Roz Brown, was not keen on publicity. She did not like being photographed. When I was doing the press Bill and things of that nature, there would be attempts to photograph us all the time. You have to try to get that balance right.

She particularly did not like the children being photographed, especially over the garden wall. Things such as that make many Members very angry—understandably so. However, she was a great source of support for my work. On one occasion, very nobly and without intention, she took an egg for me; it was obviously aimed at me but it hit her when she opened the front door as I was not there. Many people outside Parliament would be surprised just what families take at times so I give them a big thank you.

I thank my daughter, Alice, who cannot be here today because her two young children are not well; they are minor complaints but they are not well enough to be here. She has often put me right on foreign policy when she thinks I have got it wrong. She has travelled widely in both the Middle East and South America, which is pretty impressive. She is also now proficient in Arabic, so the Minister might find someone who speaks good Arabic in the Foreign Office soon.

My son, Ben, gave me the best political advice I have ever had on something about which I know virtually nothing: football. QPR, which is in my former constituency in Shepherd’s Bush, was, on one occasion, about to be moved to Slough because somebody wanted to buy the site because of its property value. A huge demonstration of supporters emerged. They wanted to hear what the MP thought. I told them that I know very little about football. The organisers said, “Don’t worry, as long as you are on our side”, and I said, “Yes”. To those 400 or so people, I said that I know three things about football: first, that QPR belongs in Shepherd’s Bush. A huge cheer went up. Secondly, I said that the sale was not about a better ground for QPR; it was a property deal. Another huge cheer went up. Thirdly, I said that I wanted to see QPR back in what was then called the first division. There was absolute silence. Then a voice somewhere in the middle said, “But we’re not out of it yet”. That goes to show that you can get things wrong in politics. When my son heard that story, he said to me, “Dad, whatever you do in politics, never talk about football”; I have followed that to the letter.

My other problem as a politician is that, while I have always been quite good at remembering faces, I am pretty hopeless with names. Once, a guy stood next to me in the bar. I said to him, “I know I have seen you before but I can’t remember your name”. He said something to me in a very strong regional accent laced with Guinness. I could not understand him but, on the fourth occasion, I realised that he was saying, “I live next door to you”. Despite all those things, noble Lords might be surprised to learn that I kept getting elected. I do not know what it was that I was doing right but I must have been doing something right. Those are the sorts of trials and tribulations I had; they are important aspects of being a politician.

I was born before the Second World War—people very kindly say, at times, that I do not look it—not the First World War or the Crimean War. I was evacuated a number of times and so on. At the end of that war, when there was a big fire on the street I lived on in east London with an effigy of Hitler on it, I got my first understanding of the importance of politics, democracy and the rule of law. That is what has guided me throughout my political thinking; those matters hold me really strongly.

I recall something that is very relevant to the debate introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Verma. I frequently hear a phrase from Churchill in the 1940s about being “alone”. In fact, we were not alone; we had enormous numbers of people from what was then the Empire and the Commonwealth. In the context of the noble Baroness’s debate, there were 2.5 million people in the British Indian Army, all volunteers. How often is that recognised?

I turn now to the context of the debate before that. Fairly early on in my political career in the House of Commons, a group of Caribbean women came up to me and asked me to help identify the grave of Mary Seacole. I then made a decision in the back of my mind that, when I had more time, I would try to arrange for a statute of Mary Seacole to be built. Those five women were all Caribbean and had come to Britain in 1939. In their words—these are not my words—they said, “We have come to help the motherland in the fight for freedom”.

That is a very important statement. For those noble Lords who know the statue—I am sure that they have heard about it now—it is right opposite this House. The disc behind it, incidentally, was cast in the Crimea, where the Crimean war was fought and where Mary Seacole practised her skills. On that disc are the signs of where tank shells exploded in the First and Second World Wars. Noble Lords should have a look, if they have not done so already. I did that because those women were members of what I think was then called the Women’s Volunteer Reserve, which serviced the anti-aircraft guns and the balloons that defended London. So, no, we were not alone—we had this enormous back-up from people from all over the world, which has made this country wonderful for its diversity and sense of freedom.

From that, I also have to say that my school background was rather different. A book has recently been published, I gather, with the school reports of people in public office who had interesting reports. A final comment on mine was, “Could make better use of his limited abilities, if only he tried a little harder”. I was 15 at the time, and I obviously did not try very hard. The interesting thing for me, as I left school when I was 15 and did all types of jobs, everything from construction work to offices to factories, was that my “pay”, which was the word used, was always told to me in hourly or weekly arrangements. Much later, in my twenties, I went to university, and when I left, when I was about 28 or 29—at some distant point in time, I am not sure when—all of a sudden, the word “pay” was no longer used. The word “salary” was used, and it was always an annual amount. Most importantly, it was a lot more than I had been used to before. That is a very useful casual definition of class—that if you are getting those lower wages, you are in a job that is usually unskilled, and so on. I think that things are changing, and I very much hope that they do. All the work being done on apprenticeships and other jobs is profoundly important.

So that was my school report. When I was elected, I was 40, which was in 1979. We went into a long period in opposition to the Conservative Party, and my good and noble friend Lord Boateng said at one stage that he considered the Tory Party to be an organised conspiracy to stay in power. What he did not go on to say, which I felt I had to correct him on, was that the Labour Party was an organised conspiracy to stay out of power. I can now tell noble Lords, with some considerable pleasure, that there is a bit of role reversal going on. Since Boris Johnson and Liz Truss appeared on the scene, I actually do think that the boot is now on the other foot, if that is the right simile. The Tory Party has deep divisions in it. I shall not spend time on that, other than to say that they are to some considerable extent ideological. Of course, that also happened in the Labour Party, where the divisions were also ideological. I will simply make this point. Ideology is a useful guidance, and it is good to have it to structure your thinking, but it is a deadly mistake if you follow it too hard and without any idea of compromise. That is not just in politics; it is also—and this reflects the modern world—in religion. I have said here before that God is an idea—there either is or there is not one—but religion is in effect an ideology. It is subject to splits, divisions and arguments in the same way that politics is. So, yes, by all means have your religions and ideologies, but keep them under control, because they have a nasty habit of getting out of control if you are not careful. But meanwhile, I thank Boris and Liz Truss for the role reversal, which I am sure is very important.

I want to emphasise—this is the core of what I want to say—that it is vitally important that we bring respect back into British politics. We have to get integrity and a sense of duty back into politics, because we have lost quite a lot of that in recent times. It is my experience that politicians of all parties and at all levels, including councillors, actually do work for the people as a whole; they really do. They are very committed and, without them, our democracy would not work. The vast majority are honest and hard-working, and put the country first. A minority will always do us damage from time to time, but it is very important to put integrity and duty right back in—I urge everyone to do that. We can never quite match the sense of duty and integrity that the late Queen Elizabeth II had, including literally on the international stage, but there is no reason why we cannot do it very well as politicians in our own areas. I also say to party members, including my own party in Hammersmith and Ealing, that they work incredibly hard to make democracy work. Without them, frankly, our democracy would look a lot poorer.

However, there is a danger here, too. Something I want to emphasise is that it is a mistake, in my judgment, to allow party members to select the Prime Minister when a Prime Minister resigns in office. We saw this when Liz Truss took over recently. I listened in disbelief to the way that she was going to spend money without raising it; I knew it was a mistake, but of course it appealed to her party. I have to say that the same could have happened to us if Jeremy Corbyn had taken over from a Prime Minister in office. I simply say to both major parties and others: let MPs select the Prime Minister but, yes, it is important that the public, at the end of the day, decide who the Prime Minister will be at an election. Generally speaking, we have to be very careful about losing some of the strengths of our democracy; recently, it has been destabilised by some of these events. That is very important.

I will make a few final comments, if I may, about Brexit—I do not want to go in depth, noble Lords will be relieved to hear. I will simply say that I was not surprised at the result of the referendum; I always felt that Britain had adopted the European Union because it saw it as an economic model, whereas in continental Europe it was seen as politically important. It was seen as—and is, in my judgment—one of the best war-prevention organisations ever invented. Wars in Europe were common—look at a map of Europe in 1914 and you will discover that Austria owned part of Poland. The maps were totally changed. The one country that was not affected in this way is the United Kingdom, because we have not had a war on our soil since the Civil War. So, again, all I want to say is that, despite Brexit, Britain needs Europe and Europe needs Britain. If you have any doubts at all about that, think Vladimir Putin. What has happened in eastern Europe recently is making the Europeans generally—including former Soviet states—very keen on both the European Union and NATO. The European Union is becoming a nation state, and was always likely to do so. Our relationship with it must be really close, and I hope we will continue with that.

I do not have much more to say, other than to make a brief comment on the constitution. I would hate for the United Kingdom to break up into Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I have lived in the Highlands now for some years and I used to live in Glasgow and Edinburgh. I know everybody thinks of the UK as England, but it is in fact wider than that. I just want to say this. People forget at times—and they forget this in Scotland too—that it was King James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England, who designed the union jack. It was two Scotsmen who wrote and composed “Rule, Britannia!” This has always been the strength of the union: it is deep. It is a bit like an early version of the European Union, and it also had a federal structure before federalism was invented. That is why I do think we are going to have make changes to it.

My final, final point is just to emphasise again the importance, to me, of democracy and the rule of law. I simply say this: Britain was first with the Industrial Revolution, and it was that revolution that unchained all the scientific and technological events that we know about. It opened up enormous possibilities for the future; but possibilities create dangers too. Indeed, if we want to avoid that great novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, coming off the shelves of literature and into the real world, let us please protect our democracy and our rule of law. Without them, we are at risk. Thank you very much.