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Maiden Voyages - Winston Opens His Account

Maiden Voyages - Winston Opens His Account
3 min read

The guidance provided to new MPs on how to make a maiden speech says it should be brief, uncontroversial and contain remarks about their constituency and a tribute to their predecessor, regardless of party.

Naturally, Winston Churchill ignored all this when opening his account 120 years ago this month.

Some MPs have a couple of bracers in the bar before making their debut. Churchill stiffened his sinews by positioning no fewer than four of his aunts (maiden aunts, perhaps) in the Ladies Gallery to offer support for when young Winston rose at 10.30pm on February 18, 1901, from his corner seat by the gangway on the second bench.

His speech, on the British conduct of the war in South Africa, went on for some 3,200 words, none of them about his Oldham seat, nor of Walter Runciman, the MP whom he had deposed by only 222 votes the previous October, and it was pugnacious from the start, tearing into David Lloyd-George, the previous speaker, suggesting it would have been better if he had moved his seemingly moderate amendment and shut up rather than removing it and making what he called a “very bitter” attack on the government. 

With his next point Churchill then turned the guns on his own side, expressing sympathy for the Boers and saying that if he were one then he would be fighting Britain too, which prompted Joseph Chamberlain, the colonial secretary, to remark: “That’s the way to throw away seats.” Churchill didn’t care about that. The whole purpose of his oratory, which was eloquent and nimble as well as argumentative, was for the ambitious 26-year-old to grab the attention. He sat down to cheers and morning headlines.

Churchill casts a shadow over all new MPs. They walk into the chamber past his gleaming left toecap, burnished by so many superstitious pats. Many maiden-makers quote him, sometimes to stir, sometimes to express faux modesty. Leo Docherty (C, Aldershot) ended his maiden in 2017 by saying that Churchill believed that “courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen”. Not advice Churchill applied to himself, of course.

The maiden speech of Robert Courts (C, Witney) in 2016 was laced with Winstoniana, since he made it on Churchill’s birthday and represents the village where he is buried, though he ended by recounting the tale of when his great-grandfather, a Labour MP, had intervened on one of Churchill’s speeches in 1945. “The great man paused, told him he was ‘ignorant’ and went back to his speech,” Courts said. “I hope I will avoid such a rebuke.”

Churchill has also been invoked by those not of his party. Gordon Brown, for instance, ended his first speech in 1983 by quoting Churchill in defence of the state’s ability to help those in need. “What has happened to the Conservative party,” Brown argued, noting that the minister for social security had recently described himself as a centre forward, “when the spirit of Winston Churchill is relegated to ‘outside left’?” Thirty-four years later, Lesley Laird, representing the same Cowdenbeath seat as Brown, repeated the same Churchillian concerns for “the gaping sorrows of the left-out millions”. Call it rhetorical jiu-jitsu, using your enemy’s strength against them.

Many try, and few succeed, to match the flair, but all MPs know that when they make their maiden speech, they are following in his footsteps by undertaking what Churchill described as a “terrible, thrilling, yet delicious experience”. As the DUP’s Jim Shannon noted in his own first effort in 2010, a maiden speech “is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”.

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