“A tempest in a teapot” - speeches in Westminster Hall
Westminster Hall is the oldest remaining part of the Mother of all Parliaments. In the latest in her series on the history of the Hall, Guinevere Poncia looks back on the key addresses from foreign leaders
Donald Trump’s visit to the UK coincides with the last days of Theresa May’s premiership. Whilst the Prime Minister’s imminent departure will certainly colour proceedings, for several months there have been rumbling disagreements over what form the President’s visit should take. Westminster Hall has been at the centre of this tension, following a debate over whether the President should, like his predecessor Barack Obama, be invited to address both Houses in the Hall. John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, was quick to point out that addressing parliamentarians from the Hall was an “earned privilege” not an “automatic right”, and vetoed any suggestion that the honour would be bestowed upon this particular president. That his comments drew both admiration and hostility in equal measure reflects the significance of speeches delivered here.
Some of the most enduring moments in the Hall’s history have been the addresses by foreign leaders. These speeches are rare; to be asked to speak in there is a great honour, bestowed only to popes, presidents and leading human rights figures. Nelson Mandela, Charles de Gaulle, Barack Obama, and Aung San Suu Kyi have all graced the Hall in recent decades. Today, speeches of this sort are the most exclusive use of the Hall, which reflects changes in the space’s usage since the late Georgian period, after which the public was still freely admitted, but the day-to-day practices of public trading and trials faded away.
Given the calibre of those speaking, speeches could easily descend into a glorified reflection of a life well-lived. More often than not, however, speakers reflect upon their nation’s relationship with the UK and her democratic values. None was more surprising in this respect than Charles de Gaulle. When he spoke in Westminster Hall during a triumphant state visit in 1960, he had successfully steered France through the most turbulent years of the twentieth century, and simultaneously cultivated a stormy relationship with his counterpart, Winston Churchill. Despite any personal animosity, De Gaulle heaped praise on Britain’s democratic institutions which, without the “minutely detailed texts of a written constitution” function efficiently “without incurring excessive criticism from the ambitious to the finicky disapproval of purists”.
Obama was the first American President to address Westminster Hall. He was met with more positivity than his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, who was forced to address the Houses in the Royal Gallery after public outcry (dubbed a “tempest in a teapot” by the Los Angeles Times). Obama’s speech followed a difficult period for the Special Relationship after the presidency of George W. Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crash and the withdrawal from Iraq, Obama’s speech was relentlessly optimistic. He sought to “reaffirm one of the oldest, one of the strongest alliances the world has ever known” which, he argued, would endure on the world stage, even as the tide appeared to be turning against more established international powers. He hailed the historical failures and successes of the UK and US in their pursuit of freedom as examples for emerging economies: “We have learned better than most that the longing for freedom and human dignity is not English or American or Western – it is universal, and it beats in every heart.”
Mandela’s speech to the Hall in July 1996 was less platitudinous but held the same hope for future international cooperation. The South African President’s visit to the UK heralded the end of apartheid politics, but he did not hold back when he described Africa as “an ancient continent disgorged into the hands of foreigners what lay in its bowels and in the fertility of its soils” and decried the wilful ignorance of her suffering. However, he also paid tribute to British anti-apartheid campaigners, and heralded the “advent of a glorious summer of a partnership for freedom, peace, prosperity and friendship” between South Africa and the UK.
The most controversial address belongs to Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. When she spoke to Parliament in June 2012, she was newly elected and regarded as a hero for her bravery under fifteen years of house arrest. As Speaker Bercow pointed out in his introductory address, Suu Kyi was the first figure other than a head of state, first citizen of Asia, and first woman from abroad to do so in the Hall’s history. Like her predecessors, her speech bore the familiar hallmarks of belief in a democratic future for her nation. She expressed hope for a better future for Myanmar and appealed to the UK to help in achieving that. It was appropriate, she said, that she was giving the speech in Westminster Hall, because “the British Parliament is perhaps the preeminent symbol to oppressed people’s around the world of freedom of speech”. When Burma has its own equivalent of PMQs, she said, that she will be able to say that “parliamentary democracy has truly come of age”.
In recent years, however, Suu Kyi’s record on the persecution of the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in Myanmar, has come under intense international scrutiny. She has drawn criticism for downplaying the seriousness of the military’s sustained violence towards the Rohingya, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh. Whilst no-one at the time would have doubted the sincerity or legitimacy of Suu Kyi’s speech, an invitation for the same honour today would be seriously in doubt.
If nothing else, it shows that no person’s legacy is infallible, power and personality always shifts, and honour is always subject to circumstance.
Westminster Hall is the place to praise democratic values, but the gap between democratic ideals and political reality is often wider than one hopes.
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