A landmark for Plymouth and country
Describing Nancy Astor’s maiden speech, the historian and Liberal MP Herbert Fisher told the Commons that her maiden speech was one ‘brilliant and vivid eloquence’.
He added that he felt it appropriate that ‘the first speech delivered in this historic assembly by a woman should have been delivered upon a topic in which the interests of women are so closely involved’. The Commons debate was on whether or not there should be a relaxation of the restrictions imposed on the alcohol trade during the Great War.
The motion was brought before a nearly full House, so over 500 MPs were there to hear Nancy Astor oppose the move of a fellow Unionist MP, Sir John David Rees (Nottingham East). Rees claimed that the current controls were ‘vexatious and unnecessary’. Lady Astor rose to her feet to argue that they were neither.
Throughout, Plymouth and her knowledge of the impact of an unrestricted liquor trade there, were at the forefront of her eloquence.
All those who heard her agreed that she spoke passionately and well, even if they disagreed with her stance. It was, unequivocally, a landmark moment in national – and in Plymouth – history.
She made a two-fold plea for the continuation of existing controls (while rejecting the Prohibition policy of her country of origin, the USA). It was, she claimed, a matter of national efficiency – that was why the restrictions had been brought in, at the urging of the Admiralty and War Office – and the impact on national efficiency had been dramatic. It was also a question of the moral responsibility of the state to consider the welfare of the community.
Her role in the debate, she insisted, was to give voice not just to the women of her own constituency but also to the thousands of women across the country who now had the vote.
She was, she believed, speaking for the ‘hundreds of women throughout the country who cannot speak for themselves’ (almost certainly a reference to the restricted franchise for women, which she strongly disapproved of).
She challenged her fellows in the Chamber to accept that MPs had ‘no right to think of this question in terms of our appetite, and we have to think of it in something bigger than that’ and that meant considering the positive effect of the existing restrictions on women and families.