As I write this Nick Clegg is about to address his Party Conference. For all the delegates present this will be a very special occasion, for few if any, will remember a Liberal holding high office. Surely only those grass root activists dedicated to perpetual opposition can really lament the developments of recent months?
By the time you read this the Labour Party Conference will also be over and Labour will have a new anointed Leader – almost certainly one of the Miliband brothers. And as you settle down to The Diplomat with your cornflakes, or your full English breakfast, David Cameron will be addressing his supporters in Birmingham – the first Conservative Prime Minister to do so since 1996 when John Major put on a brave face but knew that the Party faced catastrophic defeat the following year.
I have no plans to be at this year’s Conservative Party Conference, but I have missed only a handful since I attended my first in 1960, in Scarborough, and applauded Harold Macmillan who had saved the Party after the debacle of Suez and for whom most Conservatives still have a fond and nostalgic affection. In those far off days, half a century ago, party conferences were what their name implies. They were a gathering of the party faithful who met together for a week by the seaside, comparing notes on their relative fortunes, and listening, with great respect, to the party leaders. In those days even the media treated politicians with respect.
Nothing much happened, of course. At the end of the Conference there was a great rally, addressed by the Leader, and then the troops dispersed for another year, their enthusiasm revived, their determination rekindled. 1963, for the Tories, was very different – and certainly the most amazing Conference I have ever attended. Prime Minister Macmillan could not be there, grounded by prostate trouble. Lord Home delivered his apologies and good wishes, and the announcement of his resignation, to a stunned hall and Rab Butler, standing in as Deputy Prime Minister addressed the rally, but failed singularly to ignite the fervour of the troops, something Lord Hailsham did do when he addressed a fringe meeting and said he would renounce his peerage to contest the leadership. It was, of course, Lord Home, who emerged victorious.
I reminisce to point the contrast with modern conferences. Now the parties no longer go to seaside resorts – this year the Liberal Democrats are in Liverpool, the Labour Party in Manchester, and the Conservatives in Birmingham. And the modern party conference is no longer merely a gathering of the faithful. It has become subsumed in a trade fair and a welter of corporate hospitality. The charm, and the interest, of the old days are no more.
A week after most of you read this Parliament itself will have reassembled for the slog until Christmas – with much controversial legislation ahead, and with all eyes fixed on October 20th, when the Chancellor and his colleagues will announce the dreaded spending cuts. That, far more than Mr Clegg’s Address to his party faithful, will be the first real test of the cohesion of the Coalition.
However, I want to end this column by reporting on something that has happened. In my forty years in Parliament I have attended many Addresses to Parliament by foreign Leaders. I have listened to Reagan, to Clinton, and to George Bush; to Mitterand, to Giscard, and to Sarkozy – and countless others. But the only Head of State in my time, accorded the great privilege of addressing parliamentarians and others in Westminster Hall, was Nelson Mandela – until, that is, Friday 17th September 2010.
Westminster Hall has been the occasion for national rejoicings, to mark the Queen’s Silver and Golden Jubilees, and the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. On the 17th September, however, we had an occasion that was truly unique. For the first time a Pope addressed assembled parliamentarians, and leaders of civil society, and delivered not a bland Address of goodwill, but a message, based on true friendship and regard for his hosts in which he spelt out the dangers of marginalising faith in national life. No Address by any foreign Leader, in my experience, has engendered so much spontaneous warmth and enthusiasm, save perhaps that of Mandela. Benedict XV1was greeted by sustained applause and as he left the hall, the thousands present rose and clapped until he had left. He left behind him a sea of happy faces, an audience truly moved by his quiet passionate, gentle eloquence. The warmth was palpable and was most certainly not confined to the Roman Catholic faithful – something that was emphasised at every stage in the most remarkable State Visit I have ever known, and beautifully encapsulated in the Prime Minister’s farewell speech at Birmingham airport after the final great event of the weekend, the Beatification of Cardinal Newman.
No one who was involved in any way in this visit – and I had the great privilege of being presented to His Holiness – will ever forget it, and I would be surprised if his words, in a series of carefully crafted and thoughtfully delivered, speeches, did not help to rebalance the domestic agenda for some time to come.