Maiden Voyages: Anna Firth
In his occasional series, Patrick Kidd looks at maiden speeches of note.
You wait a millennium for a county to get a city and then three come along almost at once. Colchester has received a bump in civic status for the Platinum Jubilee to go with the elevation granted to Chelmsford for the Diamond one, with Southend-on-Sea becoming a city in 2021. The only way, as they say, is Essex. Why, even Elon Musk named his eldest child A12 in honour of its main thoroughfare.
For 20 years MPs had become accustomed to hearing the joyous juxtaposition of the words “Southend” and “city”. The late Sir David Amess seldom rose in the House without proudly plugging the cause, and his successor has not let that tradition drop. Anna Firth’s maiden speech in the debate on the Queen’s Speech was the 12th time she had spoken as an MP, having warmed up with an intervention here and an oral question there, most of which included the “S” and “C” words.
“It is the honour of my life to be the first MP to be elected for the new city of Southend,” she began, after which Hansard notes: “Hon. Members: ‘Hear, hear,’” though for a couple of churlish grumps that may actually have been “here we go again”.
It certainly was a few minutes later, when Firth declared that Southend should be the 2029 city of culture. “She may think that calls for Southend to be a city have finished,” Firth retorted to one heckler, “but they have only just begun.”
Firth is a proud daughter of Essex, unlike the proud adopted daughter of Kent I first encountered when sketching the Tory hustings in Rochester and Strood in 2014, where Firth had hoped to win support from the properly local Kelly Tolhurst by saying she had been baptised by the Bishop of Rochester. Her roots are really on the Essex Riviera: born in Leigh-on-Sea, on the outskirts of Southend, which boasts, she said, “the most captivating view in the South East,” while her grandpa worked for the Southend post office for 25 years.
Many a fresh MP has quoted Benjamin Disraeli. Few have quoted Dizzy on Southend. “You could not have a softer climate nor sunnier skies,” the former prime minister alleged. He may have raised an eyebrow when Firth boasted that if you “give a Southender a lemon, you will get limoncello,” but I bet he’d have loved Adventure Island. It was all part of a postcard eulogy to cockles and whelks, piers and promenades, and having “the largest collection of historic swimwear in the country”.
There was even a dash of saucy seaside humour with a joke about the fashion early in the last century for men to stand on the beach rummaging under their Mackintoshes (just changing in order to bathe, m’lud) and that when one was told to stop he pleaded to be allowed to “stick it out for a little longer”. Gosh.
Paulette Hamilton had not exercised her parliamentary voice since winning the Birmingham Erdington by-election on 3 March. Her maiden speech, also in the Queen’s Speech debate, was her first contribution, but she too was proud to be representing the area where she had grown up and to be Birmingham’s first Black MP. “Being elected to Parliament is not a right, it is an honour,” she said.
There were few sunny skies and pleasure gardens in her corner of England, more social deprivation and Spaghetti Junction, but she praised the strong community spirit and the beautiful canal walkways. Her goal, Hamilton said, would be to fight for better resources for mental health issues, for funds to invigorate businesses and for improved education. “When I won this election, my husband said, ‘Well done. Now the work starts’,” she said. And as every MP will know, it never stops.
Patrick Kidd is editor of The Times diary column and author of The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics
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