Shirley Williams makes her final speech in the Lords

I was out and about yesterday and ended up being marooned in Glasgow and not getting home till late so I missed Shirley’s final speech in the House of Lords. She has been a giant of common sense and wisdom and one of my political heroes from the moment I first realised politics was a thing. This is a speech that you have to watch as well as read for all sorts of reasons, the interaction with David Steel being one, so thank goodness the BBC have provided an embeddable version.

She talks about the great institutions of the BBC, the NHS and the EU and how important they are to our national life. Two of them didn’t even exist when she was born.

Heaven knows she deserves her retirement at 85 and we all wish her well, but we are so going to miss her regular contributions to the Lords. However, it looks like she will be campaigning in the EU Referendum, which is great news as her contributions were one of the very few high spots of the Scottish Referendum on independence.

The transcript is below:

Let me say right away, to me one of the most important things about this House is that it isn’t just a revising chamber – it is more than that. It’s a chamber that keeps very close to its heart the fundamental principles of this country and in debate after debate and question after question it flags up the things that are most important to the United Kingdom and explains why this country is in many ways still a unique country.

I will remind everyone of the famous quote by John of Gaunt in Richard II:

“This fortress built by Nature for herself. Against infection and the hand of war”

What that really says in very few words is that this is a very lucky country. But a lucky country in order to stay lucky and to stay effective has to be well governed. I’m going to say one thing about what I think is a lapse of successful government in my first remarks.

That lapse I think is with regard to the special genius of the United Kingdom. That is the genius for great public sector imagination. For the commitment to the idea and ideal of public life.

The Open University, one of those great public sector institutions, which enabled people for the first time, all their lives long, to gain more education, more understanding and more wisdom.

I could add to that others. The first of those great public institutions which is under a great deal of pressure at this time is the BBC. I believe the BBC is one of the great institutions of the United Kingdom and I believe that this is widely recognised around the whole world. I very much hope it will be allowed to flourish and will not be cut down into being a second rate institution.

Another worthy of mention, another hugely admired public institution is of course the National Health Service, and I have to say to my fellow politicians, why can’t you get together and propose, regardless of party, ways in which we could sustain the NHS over many years because it is one of the great institutions of the world and one which is based on a commitment to public service which is quite extraordinary.

Having said all that you may ask me why am I retiring? Well, I’m retiring partly because my noble friend Lord Steel managed to pass a reform to the House of Lords which allowed someone like me to retire. It has the advantage of me not having to lose my capacities entirely before I leave the House of Lords.

There is one great issue left and it is the reason I am actually retiring. I think the most central political question this country has to answer is the question that will come up later this year, in the shape of the referendum on our relationship to the European Union.

Regardless of your own views you will know that all my life long I have been passionately committed to the idea that the United Kingdom should not only be a part, but a leading part, of the European Union. I believe the future demands that of us. I believe that if we are to actually contribute to the huge issues that confront us, from climate change all the way through to issues like dealing with multinational companies that may wish to take advantage of us, then we can only do so on the basis of a much larger body than our own Parliament, important and significant though that is.

I would conclude by saying this, I believe that we need, in a period of very great tension, very great strain, considerable fragmentation in this world, a commitment by this country and those who are close to us, to try and deal with these most difficult issues.

I commend the Government for having taken some steps towards how one deals with the most vulnerable of the migrants and asylum seekers that come to this country. I believe this country has a very good reputation in that respect. I hope it will agree to take more of the boys and girls currently awash in Europe, with no parents, no help and no assistance because that is an areas in which we are very well placed to assist and help.

I believe this country has a long and great tradition of leadership, increasingly one in which we recognise it is not just national but global. Where we are part of a larger group of human beings seeking a better world and a better life. I think it would be a tragedy if this country gave up that kind of leadership, because that kind of leadership is essential in the modern world and the modern world is totally interconnected one with the other.

So in concluding, I hand over to my colleagues here, careful and very cherished support for the great public institutions I have spoken about which are part of the warp and the weft of this country’s whole being and who texture and quality. And I ask them to think very hard before allowing the United Kingdom to withdraw from what I believe to be its major duty to the world, which is the one it will encounter and then deliver through the European Union.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Breathtaking hypocrisy by Williams, after she helped push through Lansley’s “reforms” in the Lords.

  • Refit man , that is factually incorrect and particularly irritating , as it was Baroness Williams who was so incensed with the original proposals , she even considered resigning the party whip in the Lords !What she did was help draft ammendments to mean a very different reform to that envisioned by Lansley . She is , as Caron says , a giant , I take issue on the BBC , which has already become second rate , and needs cutting down to become first rate , as it was once when very thin in fact ! However , to sum up the farewell speech of one of the greatest post war politicians as you have , Refit man, is insult to the best of them !

  • What joy to find the first two posters disagree with each other and that both of them in their different ways happen to be wrong.

    @ refitman Breathtaking misinformation by refitman after Shirley tried to minimise the damage caused by Lansley’s bill.

    @ Loremzo “I take issue on the BBC , which has already become second rate , and needs cutting down to become first rate “,

    Yes, and in the old days quacks used to use Leeches to make the patient bleed – and it’s also the type of thing Osborne’s pal Murdoch was trying to do in his ‘secret’ meetings with Osborne in May.

    The dumming down comes from the Murdoch (and Desmond’s) stable.

  • Thanks to David Steel’s HoL reform bill, giving members of the HoL the right to retire, I expect we will being seeing more retirement speeches. I think this is actually a good and very civilised thing, as not only does it cause us to reflect but it reminds us of the role played by the HoL and the marks left by its members on the country; something we are likely to lose with an elected HoL…

  • A nice lady, who was a very talented politician and came across well in the media. I hope she has a lovely retirement, but to describe her as a “giant of common sense and wisdom” and “one of the greatest post war politicians” is just going over the top.

  • David Allen 29th Jan '16 - 5:38pm

    Malc, I don’t agree. Which other postwar politicians might you nominate, without fear of vociferous disagreement by their opponents, as being indisputably “greater” than Shirley Williams?

  • Richard Underhill 29th Jan '16 - 6:52pm

    David Steel’s bill, now an act, does less than he wanted. For instance, the bye-elections in the Lords can be farcical. A consensus that there would be no voluntary retirements was always worth testing. It was appartently broadcast by peers who wanted to be paid to retire.
    Shirley Williams was prominent in the 1975 referendum and will be valuable in rebutting some of the things that euro-sceptics are saying.
    In the Liberal Summer School we were taught that “the task of politicians is to bring great issues before the people”.
    Shirley Williams is exceptionally well equipped to do that.

  • Richard Underhill 29th Jan '16 - 7:12pm
  • Shirley was (is) comfortably in the Premier League……. and in cricket terms has had a good and relatively successful innings. I will always respect her courage and intellect.

  • Richard Underhill – I’m a fan of Shirley Williams, but she never held one of the “big” jobs in government and was never a party leader. If you asked the general public to name the top 20 post war politicians I doubt she would get a mention, I’m not sure she would make the top 50. Even among the LibDems – and Labour and the Tories would have many more choices – she would struggle to be in the top 5. I certainly would put Roy Jenkins, Charles Kennedy, Jo Grimond and Paddy Ashdown ahead of her.

  • I will never forgive Shirley for destroying the NHS

  • @Lorenzo – Do you know what the Lib Dems could have done? They could have opposed the Health Care act in its entirety. It wasn’t in anyone’s manifestos before the election so there was no obligation to support it in Parliament.

  • David Raw, why it is a joy to see disagreement , as you say I don t know ! What you could have said to me on the first point ie NHS , is well done , as I made the point at greater length about Shirley Williams and her role re the improvement of the health act , and yet you dwell on my brief comment on the BBC , which I also mentioned to highlight how we can all disagree with anyone on certain issues but it s a lousy way to sum up a great career ! On the BBC , you are wrong to say I am wrong , as it is not possible to be so on a matter of taste . I say it , the BBC , is, in my oppinion , now second rate , others might think it is first rate , so what ? I love marmite , my wife loathes it . Marilyn Monroe has been a woman I ve adored since a boy , if someone else does not , who is wrong ? The late , great , Liberal voting ,Peter Ustinov ,told the story of how , at Westminster school, where he was educated ,the teacher asked , “Who is the greatest composer ?” Ustinov answered, “Mozart .” You are wrong “, said the teacher ,adding, “The correct answer is Beethoven ! “

  • Malc and Phyllis , you both express your views with potent language , but , if you read the thread above , surely both can see Shirley Williams actually tried to help the NHS and is worthy of consideration for what she has done and tries to do with the roles she has , not because she has actual power !

  • @Lorenzo – any Lib Dem who helped the H&SC Act pass through parliament is complicit and responsible for the problems the NHS is currently facing.

  • @ Lorenzo….. I was pulling your leg….. and it came off.

    Otherwise, I agree Shirley was trying to mitigate the awful NHS Bill…. all credit for trying…. but sadly she was wrong. We should have kicked it out as a red line. Thank goodness it didn’t apply to Scotland.

  • Captain David Raw , Long John Silver , reporting for dooty , sir !

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