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Sir Peter tells ESU of 23 years in House of Commons
SIR Peter Jennings was witness to the machinations of power and many changes of leadership, personalities and opinions during 23 years as an officer in the House of Commons.
Sir Peter, who lives in Chilmark, joined the staff in Westminster in 1976 after 24 years in the Royal Marines, and worked his way up the ranks, staying until he retired in 2000.
“It was fascinating,” he says. “It is a world of its own.”
He started as a deputy assistant sergeant at arms and rose to the royal appointment of sergeant at arms in 1995.
The role is not a political one, but as a member of the Speaker’s staff he was involved in all the day-to-day activities of Parliament and took part in ceremonial occasions such as the state opening.
When he first went to Westminster, James Callaghan had recently become prime minister, and Sir Peter stayed through many changes of administration.
He worked with three different Speakers – George Thomas, Bernard Weatherill and Betty Boothroyd.
Of the latter, he says: “I was extremely fortunate to be able to work with her. I couldn’t have had a better boss.
“She was an excellent Speaker and very well respected.”
Now aged 79, Sir Peter still retains a keen interest in politics and the goings-on in Whitehall, and can see pluses and minuses to the way politics has changed over recent years.
“We are grossly over-represented,”
he says. “You have the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly plus the Irish and EU parliaments and so many elected members – I think it is ridiculous given that you also have councils below that.
“And what about England? Everyone else has representation but not England.
“But on the plus side, and particularly more recently, we have the emergence of the clout of the select committees, which have come into their own slowly but surely.
“In the past they were paper tigers. There would be a committee report saying this that or the other but if the Government didn’t like it, it would just be put on a shelf somewhere.
“A by-product of that is that they use back benchers – and one of the problems of having so many MPs is that in the past they didn’t get used.”
He remembers political figures such as Geoffrey Howe, Margaret Thatcher, Edward Heath, Michael Foot and Shirley Williams as real ‘political statesmen’ and questions whether that can be applied to any serving members of the Government today.
“They had worked their way through the ranks. Now, there is hardly a single person in the Cabinet who was even an MP when I retired in 2000.
“They all shot up the ranks without having to earn their spurs further down.”
Shortly after his retirement, Sir Peter was asked to go to speak to the English- Speaking Union (ESU) branch in Exeter and decided to join the London branch on returning home.
He moved to Chilmark with his wife in 2011, but she died just a few months later, and since then Sir Peter has been active in the Salisbury ESU.
“The purposes of the ESU are twofold: the primary purpose is to promote understanding through the use of the English language and public speaking and debate for young people, and a by-product of that is a social function – there is a great sense of camaraderie,” he says.
Sir Peter spoke at the December meeting of the ESU and asked the audience to reflect on whether the quick rise through the ranks of today’s politicians indicates a lack of experience in Government or if it suggests they are young and vigorous.
“It doesn’t do to just look back and say ‘things were better in my day’,” he says.
* ENGLISH has become the universal language.
It is the most widely spoken language in the world and the third most commonly spoken first language.
It is widely learned as a second language and is the official language of the European Union and of many world organisations, including the United Nations.
Promoting its use and the way in which a shared language can aid understanding across nations and among many different people, is the English- Speaking Union (ESU).
The union was founded in 1918 by journalist Sir Evelyn Wrench, who aimed to bring together and empower people of different languages by building skills and confidence in communication.
With almost 40 branches in the UK and 50 international branches around the world, the aims of the ESU today are to: l Promote the mutual understanding of the English-speaking people of the world, in particular respecting their heritage, traditions and aspirations, the events and issues of the day affecting them and their inter-relationships.
l Encourage the use of English as a shared language and means of international communication of knowledge and understanding.
The members agree to pursue these aims in a nonpolitical and nonsectarian manner, with a particular emphasis on encouraging young people in both public speaking and written English.
The Salisbury branch of the ESU has 188 members. The group sponsors a nurse exchange each year so that a practitioner from abroad can spend time in the UK.
It also organises an annual public-speaking competition for young people from the area’s secondary schools.
The group holds monthly meetings at the Rose and Crown Hotel in Harnham from September to May and invites a wide variety of speakers to talk to members.
The last speaker was Sir Peter Jennings on his 23 years as an officer in the House of Commons, and the next will be Peter Dix, whose talk Cowboys Don’t Cry will look back on 50 years in boarding schools.
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