I'm leaving with my head up
Over three decades after he first arrived, Alistair Burt will say goodbye to the Commons at the general election. He reflects on the most memorable moments, the changes, the value of what has stayed the same, and the importance of good colleagues across the House
I’m sure it will hit me quite hard next week. Up until now, or at least up until an election date was finalised, the decision I had taken weeks ago to leave Parliament after 32 years as a Member, 36 years since I first arrived as MP for my home town of Bury, had been relatively painless. It was sad to inform my local Chairman in North East Bedfordshire and leaving a constituency as MP after 18 years elicits pangs of regret, but at least I will still be living there. Leaving Westminster however is different; you will never walk through a number of doors again, will never be called again to speak in the Commons, and some colleagues you may never actually see again – you cannot stay in touch with all.
You realise that almost every room holds a memory. The committee corridor, where as a minister, I waited anxiously for grilling by Select Committee, only too aware of the bits of my brief I did not know, hoping they were not as aware as I was! The corridor where the last days of Margaret Thatcher were played out, as colleagues voted on her future with a mixture of anger, distress and anxiety as to the implications.
The small dining rooms, where Nick’s Diner, a spiritual home for centrist pro-European Tories, founded by the late dear Nick Scott, met fortnightly. Evenings not to be forgotten, filled with the best of friends, and guests including Prime Ministers, Archbishops, even journalists.
The members dining room itself, which I felt was never quite the same when the hours changed. When every evening Monday to Thursday finished at 10 o’clock, the dining room was almost always full, divided between us not out of malice, but party camaraderie. And the tea-room! Julie and Gladys and friends – there will be no substitute for them.
The lower ministerial corridor, with tiny rooms to which you could never take an overseas ministerial guest without losing prestige, containing many windowless offices. I think the corridor is designed to encourage ministers either to be promoted to the main Cabinet corridor upstairs or get out!
The voting lobbies, an archaic system which could any day be replaced by electronics, but at some cost to our relationships. None who were there will forget the electricity of John Major’s unexpected appearance in the Aye lobby having just been elected leader and prime minister.
And of course, the Commons Chamber itself, glimpsed in black and white photographs as a child in a family with no political connections, but stimulating a yearning for a life someday in a place through which history ebbs and flows. The Commons holds two sorts of memories. Firstly, the great debates and occasions in which you are a bystander – Mrs T and ‘No, No, No’, Blair and Iraq, Cameron and Syria 2013. Landmark speeches; moments on which the country turned.
“Friends across the Chamber are common, which still surprises those outside who fail to grasp that your opponent is just that – an opponent not an enemy”
Secondly, personal memories. Memories of a nervous maiden speech, a question in the daunting atmosphere of PMQs, and then finally the confidence as a minister, generously allowed time in a role to develop an expertise, to engage with a House and colleagues as eager and interested in foreign affairs and development as I was. And with those memories, my deep appreciation for the understanding on all sides, when even in the most difficult days, from Child Support Agency to Yemen, and even when profoundly disagreed with, a House which never once took it out personally on the minister. I will never forget.
Some memories are not physically associated with the Palace of Westminster. Two great sporting endeavours, football and the London Marathon stand out – evidence that the warmest friendships are often based around our interests and our travel together. The Parliamentary Football team, UKPFC or the Westminster Wobblers as we originally were, gave ageing veterans some wonderful opportunities. I’ve played from Wembley to Old Trafford, scoring with an assist from Bobby Charlton – thank the Lord for video! Going abroad, with Laurie McMenemy as the gaffer, was a schoolboy dream for all of us come true.
Being an MP has allowed me to run 10 London Marathons in four different decades, but sadly the sudden election has robbed me of the chance to make it five! I ran, though a long way behind, with Matthew Parris when he recorded his MPs’ record of 2hrs 35m. Taking part, with huge support from colleagues, and heroes such as David Bedford, has enabled MPs to be involved with an extraordinary national endeavour, demonstrating that the UK can still find the will to come together around things that truly matter.
It is tempting in leaving to look back on what has changed in 36 years – and there is no shortage. From technology, to a 24 hours news media, to the annoying loss of spouses as brilliant partners in work as life, and the shocking way in which women MPs in particular have been targeted, there is much that is different. But I prefer to leave on a different note, to value what has stayed the same, not because it is old, but because it represents values and attitudes of eternal dimension. Friendships here can be lifelong. There is a strong spiritual element to our work, from the wonderful Chaplains, the departing Rose and Pat, to the small fellowships of Members. Friends across the Chamber are common, which still surprises those outside who fail to grasp that your opponent is just that – an opponent not an enemy. And indeed, where else can you sound off about the shockers in your own party, except with a trusted friend from another?!
Those who work for us are exceptional, from our constituency teams, to Library, Clerks, security and catering, whose friendliness and willingness to treat us well says so much more about them than us.
And finally, individual MPs still make a difference. Great people are needed for great countries. I look forward to the shining lights of those following us.
Alistair Burt is Conservative MP for North East Bedfordshire
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