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Maiden Voyages: Austin Mitchell

4 min read

In his occasional series, Patrick Kidd looks at maiden speeches of note.

Austin Mitchell knew it was time to leave the Commons when he found that although he could still think of clever questions, he was never able to hear the answers. The veteran Labour MP, who died in August, stood down in 2015 after serving Great Grimsby for 38 years.

It is more difficult for a career back bencher to leave the Commons than a leading light, he observed in his valedictory speech. The grandees are offered directorships and newspaper columns and a seat in what Mitchell referred to as “the hospice along the corridor”; the lobby fodder shuffle off with barely a thank you. Yet Mitchell said he had never wanted to be more than a back bencher. “Thankfully the Labour front bench agreed with that ambition,” he added. 

On his final appearance, he spoke up for the importance of his fellow foot soldiers, whose job he said was to “heckle the steamroller of the executive” and called for them to have more powers to audit the overlords. It was a reminder that they also serve who seldom stand and prate.

Mitchell had arrived in the Commons in 1977 as a modest celebrity thanks to his time on Yorkshire television. He admitted in his maiden speech that he appeared now as a “repentant sinner”. In his past life, he said, “it was never my practice to treat members of Parliament with courtesy or indulgence by interviewing them without interruption”. Now that he stood there, knees knocking without the crutch of an autocue, he begged to be shown greater kindness by his former victims. “I have a feeling of awe,” he said, “that I am speaking in a chamber that has echoed to the oratory of giants of the past.”

It is more difficult for a career backbencher to leave the Commons than a leading light

He had just stepped into the shoes of one of them. Mitchell had won a by-election (a rarity for Labour candidates in those days) caused by the sudden death at just 58 of the foreign secretary, Tony Crosland, and he wisely devoted a large chunk of his 19-minute speech to lauding a man whom he called his intellectual mentor, suggesting that he had been cut off before his career reached its peak. “He was a man of great originality of thought, and deep seriousness, a very warm and very human man who loved life and was loved and respected by both sides of the House,” he said. James Johnson, a Hull MP, spoke for many when he replied that the best compliment he could pay Mitchell on his first outing was that his predecessor would have approved of it.

Mitchell chose to open in his account in a debate on the Royal Navy, yet his main concern was with small boats rather than warships, specifically Grimsby’s fishing fleet. As you might expect from a man who 25 years later briefly changed his name by deed poll to Austin Haddock, Mitchell spoke up for an industry that he said three times had been “badly battered” by the Common Fisheries Policy.

Whether MPs groaned at the pun is not recorded. Mitchell, of course, made his debut before Parliament was televised. Yet in the speech that followed his, the Tory MP Anthony Buck hinted at what was to come. “If the proceedings of the House are televised in due course,” Buck said, “his contributions will no doubt be even more formidable than the admirable maiden speech we have just heard.” And so it came to pass. Six years later, Mitchell raised the issue of televising Parliament in a Ten Minute Rule Bill, which was given a first reading only after Speaker Bernard Weatherill cast his deciding vote. The cameras finally arrived in the Commons, four years behind the Lords, in 1989. 

Patrick Kidd, is editor of The Times Diary column and author of The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics

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Read the most recent article written by Patrick Kidd - Lords reform: Backwards, not forwards