Maiden Voyages: Sir David Amess
Sir David Amess did not believe that new MPs should rush to make their maiden speech, calming the nerves by getting it out of the way when no one is looking. Rather, they should wait for an occasion with a decent audience. “The only time that the House will really listen to what honourable Members say is when they make their maiden speech,” the Southend MP said in 2001. “So I am not in favour of throwing that opportunity away when there is no one to listen to it.”
His own maiden moment came in 1984, seven months after he was elected, in a prime-time debate on the subject of rate-capping. Prime-time in the Commons, that is, for Sir David was a lifelong opponent of televising proceedings, which began five years later, saying it was pure vanity, turning politics into entertainment. He craved only good viewing figures among his fellow MPs and received a packed House. At that time the member for Basildon, he had the rare, possibly unique, experience of having no fewer than five predecessors who had represented that town still sitting as MPs through boundary changes or moving seats.
Amess began with humility, admitting that for as long as he would be a member of that place, anything he would say would probably have been said by someone else first – “and put more eloquently”. The theme of his oration was profligacy by Labour councils, something he could speak on with authority since he was the only Tory MP in that parliament whose seat didn’t have any Conservative county or district councillors. His council, he said, had “gone out of its way to thwart the government’s economic policies, expanding services in the most cavalier and irresponsible fashion”, with grants for CND groups, a peace festival, £26,000 (worth about £85,000 today) on a “caring friend caravan” that lost its wheels after a month and £52,000 on a sex advice centre. This was, of course, catnip to the Tory backbenches.
He had no desire to end up as Father of the House. Five children was plenty for him, not 649
His side enjoyed his faux magnanimity, too, when he argued that Labour MPs, many far more moderate than their grassroots, were not really committed to a “vigorous defence of prodigality and inefficiency” because they believed in wasting money. They just did it to avoid being deselected, he said.
He did first argue, though, that, “Charity has been described as that amiable quality that moves us to condone in others the sins and vices to which we ourselves are addicted,” showing that his earlier remark about lacking eloquence was unfounded. It was not his own line, however, but borrowed from The Devil’s Dictionary, a 1911 lexicon by the American satirist Ambrose Bierce, who also defined politics as “a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles”.
The speech was described by Jack Straw, then shadow environment spokesman, as “spirited if slightly controversial”, perhaps because Amess had proposed replacing the rates with a poll tax. “It has an irresistible attraction for me,” Amess had said. Mainly because he wanted to see how many would disenfranchise themselves to avoid paying it.
Labour’s Nick Brown, a fellow member of the class of ’83, was more generous, congratulating Amess and saying that while he didn’t agree with what he said, it was the equal of the minister’s speech that opened the debate. “I wish the honourable Member well in what time he has in Parliament,” he added. They were both still there 38 years later. At his tragic death, only three MPs had sat in the Commons for longer, though Amess once said he had no desire to end up as Father of the House. Five children was plenty for him, not 649.
Patrick Kidd is editor of The Times diary column and author of The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics
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