William Waldegrave – 1979 Maiden Speech in the House of Commons

Below is the text of the maiden speech made by William Waldegrave in the House of Commons on 24 October 1979.

It seems to me to be bad luck for a maiden speaker to be followed by another maiden speaker, since in such circumstances he misses the opportunity of having paid to him those rounded tributes that years of experience in the House teach one to deploy. However, I am sure that other hon. Members will join with me in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland), who has provided the Labour Party with a formidable new voice to succeed the attractive voice which preceded him, and which I always thought would have been more in order coming from the Conservative Front Bench than from the Labour Benches.

My ancestor, Richard, had to be dragged to your Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, being the first so to be dragged, according to family tradition. My delay in finding the courage to speak to the House might have led you to believe that those nerves were inherited. I am particularly nervous about speaking to the House on one of those days of fierce and formidable debate, when although perhaps each side does not terrify the other much, perhaps both terrify the outside world a good deal. I promise that the enforced truce of my maiden speech will be only a brief interruption of the dialectic, which can then continue between those who say the cuts are essential to the economy and that, what is more, there have not been any, and those who say that the cuts are quite unacceptable and, what is more, were never accepted by them when they were making them.

Into this brief period of truce, I would like, first, to insert my tribute to my predecessor, now Sir Robert Cooke. Many of those whom he served in Bristol, West for so many years perhaps did not know of the work that he did here for the House, but I have been left in no doubt about the affection and gratitude in which he is held by many hon. Members, and by those who work in the precincts of the Palace of Westminster, because of the work on the fabric of the House with which he had so much to do. The ghost of Sir Christopher Wren will, I am sure, forgive me if I borrow from the walls of St. Paul’s, and translate, his tribute to himself and apply it to Robin. Should any hon. Member be in the Library or the Committee Rooms, I suggest that he looks around him, and he will see Robin’s monument there.

Bristol is too ancient and proud a city to need my tributes. It was once the second county borough in the land, until the march of time alleged that we had become a district council within Avon. We are a city with a tremendous history of contribution to the culture of the English-speaking world. We have a great radical tradition going back beyond Sir Stafford Cripps and Augustine Birrell to our key part in the history of Methodism and of the Society of Friends.

We also have a fine Tory tradition. If the conflict has at times become a little heated—we burnt down most of the city and pursued the bishop over the rooftops in order to make a point or two about the 1831 Reform Bill—we have, none the less, normally managed to reconcile our differences and to demonstrate in a practical and sensible way a continuity of policy in the city’s administration. I am sure that the present exponent of our great radical tradition, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), has no intention of treating my friend the present bishop in a similar way.

Our Tory tradition has at its head Burke. Burke is perhaps over-quoted by hon. Members from Bristol, since his famous letter on the proper definition of the relationship between himself and Bristol was followed rather rapidly by his becoming the Member for Malton—a pocket borough in the gift of Lord Rockingham. More recently, in Oliver Stanley, we had a fine example of House of Commons skills. And in Walter Monckton we had a patient practitioner of the skills of negotiation and reconciliation in dealings between the Government and trade unions. Both those examples deserve study.

Bristol, with its long history, shows in two particular respects how we can live with the future. First, Bristol is a successful multi-racial city. It has been multiracial successfully for many years, and has largely solved—or thinks it knows how to solve—the problems of being so. In achieving this, quietly and without fuss—although some problems remain—it perhaps has something to offer to others.

Secondly, we can show from our origins as a commercial city how science and technology can serve the interests of the community. Bristol has unrivalled traditions in science and technology. It has a university whose chancellor, Dorothy Hodgkin, is Britain’s greatest living woman scientist, a polytechnic of outstanding excellence and first-class colleges and schools.

We know we can live with the future and we intend to play a decisive part in its shaping. Strangely enough, our tolerance of immigrants is not unconnected with our scientific and technical skills. We played patron to an immigrant French engineer called Brunel. We bred and educated Paul Dirac—probably Britain’s greatest living theoretical scientist, whose father came from Switzerland.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, this House is not perhaps at its best when it comes to limiting the growth of public expenditure. Disraeli, I think, said that everyone was more or less in favour of public spending cuts in the generality and no one was in favour of them in the particular. That is perhaps particularly true of hon. Members. I am already guilty myself, as I welcome the hints in today’s edition of The Daily Telegraph that the threat hanging over the BBC’s external services may be lifted.

There can seldom have been a time when—putting aside the protection of special interests and the promotion of admirable causes to which individual hon. Members are dedicated—there has been a wider agreement on the necessity of holding down the growth in public expenditure. The last Government knew that it had to be done and started the process with considerable courage and effect. This Government enjoy the advantage of having a mandate to do what the last Government found themselves compelled to do. Indeed, there can seldom have been a Government elected with a clearer mandate, or a mandate so unpleasant to carry out.

The truth is inescapable. Government spending of £70 billion a year cannot be financed without taxes so heavy that they begin to destroy the economy that pays them, without interest rates so high that new investment is impossible, or without catastrophic inflation—or perhaps all three. The old Keynesian formula of public expenditure as a way out of recession is of little relevance to this situation. It derived from a time when prices were actually falling and when the money supply was decreasing.

But our commitment to the unpleasant job for which we were elected should never be allowed to become tinged with fanaticism. There is an essential place for spending by the State in wide areas of modern national life. That area is wider than was necessary 100 or even 50 years ago. It is essential that the Government have a philosophy which includes solid justification for positive action by the State, as well as negative abstention from action.

The allegiance of citizens to the State does not derive from mere proximity. It will grow only if the State effectively does the modern version of the primordial just ruler’s proper job of protecting the weak and pulling down the over-mighty. Government is possible in a free society only if that allegiance between citizen and State is maintained. If that means spending on poverty, or on the mitigation of industrial failure or on anything else where a sensible judgment might be that the State can helpfully act, we should not be frightened of exercising our common sense by economic theory grown too big for its boots.

Nor should we fall into the equally-ridiculous error of increasing expenditure by the State for its own sake in order to satisfy an opposite economic theory of even less intellectual interest. It is possible to do things because they are the right things to do on a particular occasion without any grand theoretical structure of justification.

The authority of Government in a free society depends on the success with which it makes respectable, and then voices, a concept of common national good. In terms of this debate and this subject, that means showing the many people who are genuinely upset by cuts and postponements that they should accept them—although they are not inclined to do so—for the benefit of the common good. That means winning and retaining people’s trust. And that means saying, where it is true, that the present austerity means the loss or postponement of some good and valuable things. Not every saving can come from the elimination of waste or the cutting down of administration.

There will, of course, be some exaggerated lobbying, and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches would be inhuman if they did not join in the uproar—and we know that they are by no means inhuman. But there will be some real losses, and if we deny that we will undermine the authority that we need to explain why the cuts are necessary in the first place. And more important even than that is the fact that to get people to accept unpleasant things now, in order that there will be benefits in the future, means reminding them of their membership of a common community—the nation—as well as of their rights as individuals, or as members of competing groups. That in turn entails occasionally talking in the now rather unfashionable language of national unity, as well as in more fashionable jargons.

Having listened to many maiden speeches, I concluded that the House was so tolerant that it would put up with a good deal of teaching of right honourable grandmothers how to suck right honourable eggs. I have continued that tradition and I am grateful to the patience of the House for allowing me to do so.