Maiden Voyages: Pre-Christmas debuts
In his occasional series, Patrick Kidd looks at maiden speeches of note.
There are only six speaking days left before Christmas for Samantha Dixon, the newest Labour MP, to open her account with Hansard. Some December arrivals have been quick to get off the mark – four of the 2019 intake were up and away within a week of election, while Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney, who like Dixon came in a by-election on 1 December, in her case in 2016, made her maiden speech before Christmas.
It is rare, though, for a newcomer to be so swift to rise; almost as rare as it is for a maiden speech in the week before Christmas to be full of festive joy. Gyles Brandreth, a former MP for Dixon’s seat of City of Chester, did talk about Christmas in his maiden in 1992 – his comments about politically correct pantomimes had Teresa Gorman in giggles behind him – but it came in May. Surprisingly for one so adept at talking, who once held the world record for the longest after-dinner speech, Brandreth read his maiden from notes. Even the most skilled burblers can fear drying up in the Commons.
Generally, pre-Christmas maidens have been serious speeches. Colum Eastwood, of the SDLP, was the first out of the traps in 2019 and, like the three others who got in before recess, he rose to speak against Brexit, what the SNP’s Alyn Smith called “a grubby, shabby bill”, in his first speech. “We may be few in number,” Eastwood said, “but we intend to be very, very loud in voice.”
Other sombre maidens in the week before Christmas came from Albert Russell, a Scottish unionist, on miners being made unemployed in 1932; from George Schuster, a Liberal National, on National Service in 1938; and from Lord Willoughby de Eresby and Arthur Tree, whose speeches on agriculture on the last day before recess five years earlier were overshadowed by an adjournment debate on what to do about that Mr Hitler.
Surprisingly for one so adept at talking, who once held the world record for the longest after-dinner speech, Brandreth read his maiden from notes
On 21 December 1964, four MPs made their debuts in a debate on the death penalty. Mark Carlisle, the future education secretary, admitted this broke the tradition that maiden speeches should be uncontroversial, but said that while some would not approve of his argument, others would find it wholly reasonable. Carlisle favoured abolition, while Wyndham Davies, a fellow Conservative, for Birmingham Perry Barr, spoke against, saying polls showed the country wanted it.
The other two maidens came with the weight of experience. William Wilson (Lab, Coventry South) was a lawyer who had handled seven murder trials while Sam Silkin (Lab, Dulwich), a future attorney general, had presided over war crimes trials in Singapore. “I have sentenced to death a number of human beings,” he said. “They were guilty of the most bestial crimes. But if I were asked whether the thought of capital punishment deterred them in any way, the answer would be: ‘Indubitably not.’” He called on MPs to “have the courage to do that which it believes to be right, even if public opinion should be against it”.
Not much festive cheer there, then. Robert Rhodes James did at least have entertaining moments in his maiden on 21 December 1976, when the former Commons clerk noted the over-romanticised hyperbole he had heard others practise. “If it is a county constituency, it is the most beautiful in the kingdom,” he said. “If it is a seaside constituency it is the only place for sensible people to have their holidays.” As MP for Cambridge, he let the city speak for itself.
Even he, though, finally roamed into bah-humbuggery. “We are feeling the icy chill of the collapse of the pound, of appallingly high interest rates, a rampaging inflation, of high taxation and the abrupt decline in national confidence,” he said. Any Christmas maiden this year would doubtless sing from the same carol-sheet.
Patrick Kidd is editor of The Times diary column and author of The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics
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