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Maiden Voyages: Commander Redvers Prior

3 min read

Theresa May was probably relieved, given her majority, that by-elections became a rarity when she was prime minister. There were just five from 2017 to 2019, the fewest in any parliament save the eight months between elections in 1974. Things are now getting back to normal

Paulette Hamilton’s victory in Birmingham Erdington this month was the eighth by-election in the past 10 months, which is good news for this column. We look forward to her maiden speech.

Almost 80 years earlier, the newly elected MP for part of what is now Erdington, though at the time was called Birmingham Aston, made his maiden speech when the world, as now, echoed to the sound of gunfire and bomb blasts. With respect to Hamilton, her experience as a district nurse cannot match that of Commander Redvers Prior, who squeezed in his by-election between spells as a prisoner of war and the D-Day landings. Few maiden speeches have been as powerful.

 

When he said “I lived with an SS division and watched their training”, he meant that he had been their captive and escape

Not many, for a start, include the lines “I have spoken to a man whose eyes were put out by the Gestapo because he would not talk and give away his friends”.  Nor have many talked about conversing with a German who had seen 7,000 Jews “lined up in front of a trench and mowed down”. The ditch was then filled and used as a road, Prior said to what must have been a stunned Commons.

With English modesty, he alluded to his own role in the action. When he said that he “had the good fortune to inspect a portion” of the Nazis’ Western wall, he meant that he had been the senior beachmaster for the Dieppe Raid, having earlier won the Distinguished Service Medal at Dunkirk.

When he said “I lived with an SS division and watched their training”, he meant that he had been their captive and escaped. “They are hard, ruthless men trained in war,” he said. “In my opinion they are not as good as seasoned British troops.”

Prior was an MP for only two years. When peace broke out, the electorate did not return him. Defeated by the ballots, but not the bullets. His third speech came in August 1944 when he said he’d “had the good fortune” – that phrase again – “to take part in the operations in Normandy on 6 June. He spoke of how his godson had been killed in fighting near Caen and argued that “if, from all this toil and sweat and blood, death and carnage, we can all become citizens of the world and assist our fellow men, I feel sure we shall not have striven in vain”. How Parliament could do with a dash of that aspiration today.

Another politician to make his maiden speech during that war was John Profumo, who became the youngest MP when he won the Kettering by-election in 1940 and swiftly voted to remove his prime minister, Neville Chamberlain. “You contemptible little shit,” his whip, David Margesson, told him.“On every morning that you wake up for the rest of your life you will be ashamed of what you did.”

It turned out greater shame awaited him, but Profumo’s maiden speech, three months later, marked him out as One To Watch. The peroration, in particular, was poetical. “While we breathe, we live!” he said. “While we live, we fight! And when we fight, we win.” It would have been them day’s most memorable line had Mr Churchill, the old glory-hogger, not opened the debate and made some remark about how never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. 

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

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