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Speaking up for Parliament

Posted on 20 May 2009 | 11:05am

Sitting in our kitchen at the moment is an impressive looking tome, its front cover a picture of an empty House of Commons chamber, its five hundred pages a collection of some of the best speeches ever made there.

Even before the expenses row, took off I was dipping in and out of this ‘Centenary Volume’ which celebrates one hundred years of Hansard, the written account of procedings in Parliament.

It was sent to me because I was one of almost fifty people – mainly Parliamentarians including Prime Ministers, party leaders, Speakers, among them the departing Michael Martin – asked to choose a speech and explain the choice. I went, as did Margaret Beckett, for a stunning Opposition Day debate speech by John Smith in 1993.

John Major, the man on the receiving end of Smith’s wit and wisdom that day, opted for Sir Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech which helped topple Margaret Thatcher. The Labour leader defeated by Major, Neil Kinnock, choose Nye Bevan’s speech at the Second Reading of the NHS Bill in 1946, while Tony Benn went for Bevan’s resignation speech five years later, and Jim Callaghan selected another Bevan speech five years after that, on Suez. Rather cruelly I thought, Nigel Lawson chose a speech by Neil – in the Westland debate in 1986 – as ‘an object lesson in how not to do it.’ .

Leaf through the pages and you’ll find Churchill (several times), Lloyd George, Asquith, Wilson, Macmillan, Thatcher, Keir Hardie, Benn, Denis Healey, Michael Heseltine, Enoch Powell. A speech by Michael Foot is chosen by Ian Paisley, while David Blunkett goes for one by  Oswald Mosley. Ted Heath is in there on his opposition to capital punishment (GB’s choice), Duff Cooper (David Cameron), Enoch Powell (Denis Healey), Barbara Castle (Patricia Hewitt). Dennis Skinner chose one of his own. Robin Cook is chosen twice – by Michael Martin (arms to Iraq) and by Shirley Williams (his resignation speech over the Iraq war).

There appears to be no price on this book, compiled by former Hansard editor Ian Church, so perhaps it is limited edition. On the inside cover there is an email address for inquiries licensing@opsi.gov.uk .

So why is he going on about a small circulation book with a load of old speeches in it, you ask? Because for all the talk about a need for a new politics, and the media’s protestations to care so much for Parliamentary democracy, it is worth asking the question why they cover it so little.

It is one of the paradoxes of our time that we have more media space than ever, but less of it devoted to what happens in Parliament. Political reporters are never off the screens. Politicians mainly on it when saying something that fits the reporters’ pre-ordained agenda, or doing something they shouldn’t.

It is easy to present the negative side of Parliament, particularly now. But the diminution of coverage of Parliamentary debate, other than the yah-boo of PMQs, has been steadily developing over time.

I am in favour of some of the changes being mooted to clean up the place, clear out the worst offenders, and make Parliamentary reform part of a broader plan to modernise and revitalise politics. I am also in favour of getting more younger people into Parliament too.

But reform of Parliament has to be accompanied by a change in the media attitude that says news about Parliament is only news if it shows itself in a bad light, or that to have a view which chimes with the view of your party leadership is somehow anti-democratic.

There may not be many Churchills or Bevans around the place. But there are good speeches made in Parliament most days of the weeks they sit. We just never get to hear about them. Hardly surprising when daily coverage of Westminster debates has gone and most of the papers have promoted comedy writing and commentary above reporting. So you can only read them if you subscribe to Hansard, which I accept is likely to remain a minority activity.

Also, isn’t it interesting how everyone seems to be saying we need more openness and transparency about what the procedures of Parliament … and welcoming the fact the next Speaker will be chosen by secret ballot?

  • Peter Farley

    Not surprising that the media focuses on what happens with activity outside Parliament than in the chambers, because that’s where decision-making has moved to. The last 12 years have seen a a complete emasculation of the legislature by the pseudo-presidential style of government of the last two PMs. The Commons has been completly by-passed, a process compounded by the continual capitulation to Brussells. What attempts there have been at lawmaking have been poorly thought-out and railroaded through. It’s not much of an incentive for inspiring oratory. The fact that the Opposition (or any back bencher) cannot even table a motion for debate without the permission of the Government was probably news to most people only this week. Hardly a cradle for democracy. Power needs to be devolved, not centralised. Unfortunately Socialists just don’t get it. The parallels between the EU, the Kremlin of old and the Labour party have been widely made and are embedded in the collective fears of criticism and loss of control. Free speech is anathema to these political dinosaurs. But once you see normal service resumed after the next election you will likely see oratory flourish once again.

  • Mike Pearce

    Did you hear that man Lyons from the BBC saying why they could not publish all salaries – because it might stop people wanting to work for the BBC? The hypocrisy of these people, all up in arms at what they see as waste of public money on MPs. At least MPs are elected, and we know what they earn. When the BBC reporters come on there should be a box in the corner that gives their salary and expenses for the last year

  • gary Enefer

    Dear AC

    I was working too hard for 25 yrs to appreciate some of these speeches. I remember the late and great Robin Cook who showed great skills and integrity.

    You have prompted my imagination to look up some of these other speeches -kind of you to marry the events for us too.

    Best wishes
    gary

  • George Hall

    It sounds like the kind of book I would love to give people for Christmas. I remember the SMith speech you and Ma Beckett chose – Major the man with the non-midas touch, was it that one? Also agree with the idea that Bevan the best ever. I will email the address you put on re the book but maybe they should think of publishing it more widely

  • Em

    I hope to find this book somewhere. I’m a bit obsessed with speeches. Own way too many books on the Gettysburg Address alone. Thanks.

  • Em

    There’s a listing for it on amazon UK and CA (Ouch! That price tag!)

    Here’s the link, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Official-report-Hansard-centenary-1909-2009/dp/0118404636

    One can sign up to get an email when it becomes available.

  • Michael

    I have sympathy with this point. For various reasons, I am particularly interested in Welfare Reform. Around 3 or 4 years ago Alan Johnson was the Work and Pensions secretary and released a green paper about Pathways to Work – for a change, this cinderella subject was high on the News agenda. Andrew Marr spoke about it on the 10 o’clock news but I quickly gained the impression he had no grasp of the details and spoke vaguely about the ‘politics’ of it. It was a fur coat and no knickers performance from the leading political correspondent of the day. The problem is, many politicians colluded with this media portrayal, and voter apathy let them get on with it unchallenged. I used to think the Channel 4 political awards were good fun – over recent years it has become a knees up for the very smug and self-regarding Westminster Village. I’d blame Humphries, Paxman, Marr and Jon Snow for our current mess as much as Speaker Martin or David Chaytor – the old narrative suited their career trajectories as much as troughing MPs.

    The expenses scandal may well waken up many in the Commons and in the electorate about what we should be demanding from our democracy. I am reminded of JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls – that we are ultimatley responsible for each other. Let’s hope that some good comes from all this. But the rules of engagement are changing. The current politcal mood reminds me of the arrival of the punks who overthrew the old prog rock of the early and mid 70s – maybe we will get a politics that is more lively and energetic and relevant to most of our lives. Maybe.

  • CPW

    Another piece of dunderheaded self-serving bilge. I do wish you’d give this shit up. It offends all those minds that don’t come here to slap you on the back for you being you.

    Anyone with a TV and free digital might have caught 90 mins of the Politics show on BBC2 today and if they were really interested in parliamentary debate they might also have flicked to freeview channel 81 for parliament TV. Coverage is pervasive and doesn’t just – as you suggest – focus on the negative stuff.

    That you make out that it does owes more to your own blinkered bigotry than it does to a sense of real frustration with the media. That you are a hypocrite, too, is self evident to anyone with any scruples or a memory that stretches to your pre-Blair days.

    One dedicated channel, at least two national programmes (not to mention the regional versions) that cover many aspects of the week’s politics and untold coverage of many sides of the coin in the national press.

    I can only think you must think your readership is as blinkered as you are.

  • Mike Barlow

    “I am myself a man of peace from the depths of my soul”.

    Who said that?

    Not in Parliament, mind, but it was indicative of his nature.

    A peace lover, reluctant to commit his countrymen and women, to war.

    Deceived by those claiming to be allies, led up the garden path by one very evil dictator.

    In history, we regard him as weak and indecisive, eager to appease a bully boy.

    Neville Chamberlain.
    Again, not in Parliament:
    “I am speaking to you from the cabinet room of 10 Downing St. This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.

    You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more, or anything different, that I could have done, and that would have been more successful. Up to the very last it would have been quite possible to have arranged a peaceful and honourable settlement between Germany and Poland. But Hitler would not have it; he had evidently made up his mind to attack Poland whatever happened. And although he now says he put forward reasonable proposals which were rejected by the Poles, that is not a true statement. The proposals were never shown to the Poles, nor to us. And though they were announced in the German broadcast on Thursday night, Hitler did not wait to hear comments on them but ordered his troops to cross the Polish frontier the next morning.

    His action shows convincingly that there is no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force, and we and France are today in fulfillment of our obligations going to the aid of Poland who is so bravely resisting this wicked and unprovoked attack upon her people. We have a clear conscience, we have done all that any country could do to establish peace, but a situation in which no word given by Germany’s ruler could be trusted, and no people or country could feel itself safe, had become intolerable. And now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will all play your parts with calmness and courage”.

    When the world entered its darkest hour, Chamberlain used words of beauty and yet of such sorrow.

    That is the thing. The words of our politicians shape our lives, our destinies. Some use words with grace, beauty and refinement, and others use basic, almost ugly, words.

    Whatever their form, they decide our futures, our lives, our deaths.

    What a travesty that some parliamentarians choose not to honour the mighty position they have been gifted and instead of achieving magnificence, they aim low and take the easy, the greasy, route.

    I welcome the re-printing of the book Alistair references, in greater numbers, to make it affordable for the masses, to recall the ‘mere words’ that have helped shape this country into something worth upholding, worth dying for.

    Mike

  • Jane A

    I don’t know if the old fashioned media will reform, but I think people are switched off by listening to editorialising of an issue rather than the reporting of it. There are probably more viewers who could pick Robert Peston out of a line up than correctly locate Alistair Darling. I’m all for real investigative journalism but surely the point is *not* to be the story, but to communicate the story.

    Not sure you need to “subscribe” to Hansard – if you meant it in the sense of paying to read – their website is free, and every debate, speech and committee is transcribed word for word (some Herculean task to get that done) ; it is possible to go to the source and read it as it was said. I know that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is use of modern media to cut out the middle man, and deliver the business of the day direct to those inclined to hunt for it.

  • Ian Church

    Thanks for your comments on the book for which I was responsible – the Official Report [Hansard] Centenary Volume – which contains over 40 brilliant House of Commons speeches from the last 100 years. They are landmarks in parliamentary debate, which is today, as you rightly say, so lamentably neglected by the media. The initial print run has been sold out since the book was launched in April, so it is not currently available. However, it is being reprinted and should be available again soon. To order a copy go to the TSO web site – http://www.tsoshop.co.uk/ . The price is £35. This is not a sales pitch. The book was never intended to make money. All the work on it, apart from the printing, was done unpaid and voluntarily, and that includes the contributors. All we want is to break even and celebrate Hansard’s 100th birthday. I put the idea for the book to Betty Boothroyd when she was the Speaker – I was the Editor of Hansard and she was my boss – and she gave it the green light. That was 10 years ago and I started approaching contributors immediately, which explains why Jim Callaghan and Bill Deedes are included. Hansard is not well-known outside Westminster. But the fact that Prime Ministers past and present and some of the biggest names in post-war and 21st century politics have contributed to it is testament to its importance. But Hansard is important only because of what is in it – the uncensored, uninterpreted, unpre-digested, unvarnished utterances of our elected representatives speaking on our behalf in our House of Commons.

  • Mike Barlow

    I was wondering: Who does the Great British public think is the best orator in Parliament, NOW?

    My answer is split:

    Tony Benn says the right things, eloquently, intelligently, passionately; I think he could have made a great PM, had he been a little more ‘crowd pleasing’.

    William Hague, is-by far-the greatest speech writer and orator in Westminster, currently. I hate to say that, being a left of centre Labour voter.Though you have to concede the fact that he can write. By crikey, he stands out far above anybody else. GB included. Especially GB, in fact.

    What, and who, say you?

    Mike

  • Liz

    The Parliamentary Bookshop had a small heap of them last time I went in… price £35.00
    http://www.bookshop.parliament.uk/

  • james

    Three quick comments:

    Firstly, I’m afraid I still think this is sour grapes. In the run up to 97 I don’t remember parliamentary speeches getting greater prominence than Tory sleaze stories but presumably you didn’t complain then.

    Secondly, the new media are already leading the way. Remember Dan Hannan? You may not have liked the content, but what other political speech has had more coverage in the last year? There is, if anything, more chance these days that a speech will go viral if it resonates with the public mood.

    Thirdly, genuine thanks for the tip-off re. the book. I think you’ve just sorted half my Christmas shopping 7 months early.

  • Tim Rowbottom

    I can confirm that there are still a few copies remaining in the Parliamentary Bookshop. I picked one up today at lunchtime, and very nice it is too.