Shirley Williams’s bravura farewell speech to the House of Lords

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The great Shirley Williams, Labour MP, SDP founder and then Liberal Democrat peer, made her final speech in Parliament today as her political career of more than 60 years comes to a close. Whether or not you are familiar with the story of those years, for much of which she was one of the most high-profile politicians in Britain, Adrian Slade’s interview with Shirley Williams is well worth a read.

How they used to do party political broadcasts: the Liberal Democrats in 1988

A blast from the past with one of the 1988 local election broadcasts from the Social and Liberal Democrats (then in its brief post-merger phrase of trying to go by the short name of The Democrats). more

That’s a long enough career to stretch back to when party political broadcasts used to last 10 minutes, as you can see with this gem featuring Shirley.

Given the huge role the European Union has played in her career, it’s fitting that her final words were about it. But first, here is the full text of Shirley’s final speech for you to enjoy.

Shirley Williams giving her final speech in the House of Lords

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.

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