First steps in the chamber: making a maiden speech

For the one hundred or so new MPs who were elected in June, many have already achieved one of the major milestones of their Commons’ careers: the maiden speech. Here we share some of our oral history project interviewees’ memories of the first time they spoke in the Chamber…

We always ask our Oral History Project interviewees about their maiden speech. It is one of the most important ‘firsts’ for any new MP, and over the years very specific traditions have emerged for it. According to a House of Commons Library briefing,

By tradition, a new MP is called ahead of other MPs who may have indicated their wish to speak in the same debate. A maiden speech is usually uncontroversial, fairly brief and includes a tribute to the MP’s predecessor in the seat, irrespective of party, and favourable remarks about the constituency. [Read report here]

Many former MPs describe speeches to us that very much kept to this tradition in content and style. They also noted the other traditions that surround the conduct of the speech. For example, it is conventional for other MPs not to interrupt a maiden speech, and to congratulate the new MP in debate afterwards. Labour MP Ken Weetch described his reception as “all very polite” with a kind response from an opposing member. When our interviewer commented that it must have been well-received, however, he responded “Oh no, when I spoke it was largely empty… it’s always courteously received.” The Social Democrat MP Rosie Barnes also remembered a polite response to her maiden speech, which helped put her at ease about speaking in the Chamber. This lasted until her second speech, when Conservative Norman Tebbit “really savaged me”. The welcome in the Commons chamber is very brief.

One major difference between the experience of MPs now and their predecessors (most of our interviewees entered the Commons before 1997) is how quickly maiden speeches were made. A quick google search shows at least forty new MPs have already spoken in this Parliament, and in 2015 143 of the 177 newly-elected MPs spoke before the end of June (Parliament was opened on 27 May). Yet many of our interviewees took their time to make a maiden speech, doing so early was even considered a little presumptuous. Conservative MP David Madel described waiting from June until October to give his, stating that MPs who gave their maiden speeches early were expected to be “always jumping up and down and bumptious.” He went on to mention a colleague who had made three speeches in the Commons when “most of us hadn’t even started.”

Most of our interviewees planned their maiden speeches very carefully, whenever they chose to do it. Often they can clearly remember the debate and how they felt, with many admitting to nerves. Labour’s Denis Healey described his speech as “bloody awful” but that he was pleased to be complemented on it. In response the question whether he could remember his maiden speech, Conservative Sir Robert Hicks responded:

Yet on the other hand, Labour’s Ted Graham described the speech as something that “had to be done.” He was sure that he would have followed conventions, but that the memory “makes no real impression on my mind.”

Of course, a maiden is a chance for a new MP to be noticed. Conservative Ken Baker told us how his speech led to a connection with Ian Macleod, who treated him as something of a “protégé”.  In 2015 the ‘baby of the House’ Mhairi Black’s gave a very well-received speech, and this year Laura Pidcock, the new Labour MP for North West Durham, has caused a stir on social media with her unconventional attack on both a Parliament that “reeks of the establishment” and the Conservative government. In our archive, some of our interviewees tried to use their speeches to cause a stir, for example Labour’s Nigel Griffiths in the early 1990s:

 

For Labour’s Ivor Richard, however, speaking for the first time in the 1960s, remembered how his planned conventional speech went out of the window in response to the debate:

 

As this year’s new MPs battle to make their mark, and to get their speeches in before the summer recess, they might take heart from Conservative MP and later Deputy Speaker Janet Fookes’s experience, after waiting a year to make her debut:

EP

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This entry was posted in 20th century history, oral history, Post-1945 history and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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