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Maiden Voyages: Nancy Astor

Illustration: Tracy Worrall

3 min read

The 100th anniversary of a landmark in parliamentary legislation occurred during recess. On July 31, 1923, royal assent was given to the first Private Member’s Bill that had been introduced by a woman.

An occasion to raise a glass, though not if you were under 18 thanks to Nancy Astor’s Intoxicating Liquor Act.

The act, which raised the legal age at which you could buy alcohol from 14, had been Astor’s goal for more than three years, ever since the first woman MP to take her seat in the Commons had delivered her maiden speech on this subject. Responding to criticism before the bill’s Second Reading that it was a “subtle plan” to introduce prohibition, Astor remarked: “I did not know that my chief fault was subtlety; I thought I annoyed the House by my brutal frankness.”

Those who had been in the chamber at 9pm on February 24, 1920, already knew that. The new MP for Plymouth Sutton had given a barnstorming first speech, in which she was heavily barracked, on the evils of drink. She began by comparing herself to Raleigh, Drake and the Pilgrim Fathers, saying: “The world is all the better for those venturesome and courageous West Country people.”

The speech contained gruesome anecdotes about the damage caused by drink

There were none of the traditional maiden embellishments: no tour around her constituency, no praising her predecessor (her newly ennobled husband) and certainly no avoiding controversy. She got straight down to the nub: “Do we want the welfare of the community or do we want the prosperity of the [drinks] trade?” She threatened to talk for five hours on “the moral gains” of abstinence but in the end kept her thirsty and increasingly argumentative audience to 30 minutes.

“How I wish that I was really an orator,” she said, with huge self-deprecation if the words were delivered half as powerfully as they come across in Hansard. The speech contained gruesome anecdotes about the damage caused by drink and thunderous warnings from the pulpit. “We know where John Barleycorn, as you are pleased to call him, leads to,” she lectured. “It is not to Paradise ... too often it leads to Hell!”

Astor did not – yet – push for full prohibition. “I hope the time will come when the working man will go dry. But we are not yet ready,” she conceded. But she warned that this was the consequence of extending the franchise. “Women have got a vote now and we mean to use it, and use it wisely,” she said. “Not for the benefit of any section of society, but for the benefit of the whole.”

She even had the bottle to question whether David Lloyd George, who had said during the war that “drink was a greater enemy than the German submarine”, had the balls to control alcohol in peacetime. “I want to see whether the prime minister is master in his own house,” she said. Or was he, Astor implied, in the pocket of the drinks trade?

“You know, and I know, that drink really promises everything and gives you nothing,” she said. How like some political leaders!

Her speech certainly made an impact. Sir Donald Maclean, who two weeks earlier had been leader of the opposition, called it “very brave, thoroughly informed [and] distinguished by diction which we might all endeavour to emulate”. Three years later, after a petition presented by 116,000 teachers, Astor secured her anti-alcohol legislation, albeit watered down so as merely to protect the young, whose “animal instincts” she said were excited by beer. “It is in no way my bill,” she said. “I am simply the godmother, and I hope a fairy one.” 

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

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