Nick's pick of the greatest Parliamentary speeches in the last century

by Stephen Tall on April 6, 2009

A big tip of my hat to Michael White in today’s Guardian for his feature, Greatest speeches in parliament of the past 100 years, 1909-2009, which links to a number of the Hansard transcripts of Parliamentary speeches nominated by ’46 distinguished figures, mostly living peers and MPs, plus a few officials and observers’.

It’s well worth browsing lazily through – as, incidentally, is the Hansard website, which you can access here. You can, for instance, search on speeches by “Jo Grimond”, and read ‘Major Grimond’s’ (as he then was known) maiden speech from March 10, 1950 here.

Which Parliamentary speech did Grimond’s latter-day successor as leader, Nick Clegg, choose for his Parliamentary desert island? This one by then Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe on 9th May, 1967, promoting the party’s pro-European stance. Nick judges it “mischievous and far-sighted” – here’s an excerpt from the 27-minute speech:

This debate is a cause for celebration by Liberals; I congratulate the Government on their decision to apply for membership of the European Economic Community and I wish them success in that application. … Being late entrants, let us realise that one of the reasons for our late entry is that we have given the impression, not only by words but by actions, that we were not anxious to become part of the Community. I believe that the Prime Minister’s success lies in the fact that he and the Foreign Secretary have convinced our European colleagues that we are anxious to join and are enthusiastic Europeans. …

There are very great dangers if we are out of the E.E.C. and, frankly, I do not believe that we have any other practical option but to go in. It is because there are no other practical options that the Prime Minister has been so decisive. He is only really decisive when there are no other options available. I believe that not only economically but politically we have a duty to go in. … I believe that, politically, the presence of Britain would have a very steadying effect, not only on Germany but on the possibilities of East-West relations. …

If it is an outward-looking Community, if it continues with its very impressive record of development, of investment in developing countries—I think Germany has invested more in India’s Five Year Plan than this country—because of its economic potential—this can be an expanding Community and a force for world peace, but it will be a long haul. We must be careful not to revive the fears of our being bad Europeans which we did so much to create in the years immediately after the war. If we can convince them that we are good Europeans and that we can make the Community work as a territorially expanding Community, not only this country but Europe has one of the greatest contributions to make to the world in the whole of her long history.

For the record, here’s what the Messrs Brown and Cameron chose:

Gordon Brown picked Edward Heath’s “forensic” destruction of the Tory case for restoring hanging in 1981, David Cameron his own distant relative Duff Cooper’s anti-appeasement speech on resigning from the Chamberlain government in 1938. Another of those deadly “personal statements” that litter the grey pages of Hansard.