Denis MacShane – 1994 Maiden Speech in the House of Commons

Below is the text of the maiden speech made in the House of Commons by Denis MacShane on 16th May 1994.

I have addressed many audiences and many chambers, but none quite as intimidating as this, with my true friends behind me and my real opponents facing me. I gather that convention demands that one must be polite, so polite one must be.

I am very conscious of coming to the House in place of Jimmy Boyce, a man who came from a part of our society about which not enough of us know. He was unemployed for many years, a victim of the very cruel policies that have cost so much for some of the great talents of our nation over the past 15 years. I come from a different background, but I will fight for the causes that Jimmy supported. I hope that I can in some way measure up to the service that he provided to Rotherham in the short two years in which he was a Member of this House.

I am also conscious of the fact that I follow in the footsteps of Stan Crowther who is well known to the House and was a great public servant to Rotherham over 50 years of political life. I am also conscious of following in the footsteps of Brian O’Malley, the man who inspired me when I first became involved in politics. He collapsed at the Dispatch Box, another victim of the stress of public life. Like everyone else, I was glad of the tributes paid to John Smith in the press. We speak no ill of the dead; perhaps from time to time, my old friends in the Gallery may speak some good of the living.

Last week was for me the best of weeks and the worst of weeks. When I came to the House on Tuesday, John Smith greeted me and said that it would be a day that I would remember for the rest of my life. John Smith talked of a dream, but the dream was extinguished when, on Thursday, he left us. He spent a whole day with me in Rotherham, seeing the steel plant and the college, and talking to Asians and to party members. He left a message of hope for a new and better Britain.

I am proud to have been elected by the people of Rotherham to represent their interests in Parliament. They have not always been so happy in their choice. The first Member for Rotherham—a Member for Yorkshire in those days—was Sir Thomas Wentworth, later the Earl of Strafford. Older Members of the House may remember that he was executed on a Bill of Attainder in 1641. He was promised that his life would be saved by none other than King Charles I, but he was, of course, sacrificed.

Alas, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) and the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) are not with us today. They must know how poor Thomas Wentworth felt as they, too, were given the full support of a Prime Minister—a sure sign that they were about to mount the political scaffold. ‘Put not your trust in princes’, were Thomas Wentworth’s last words. The spirit of Rotherham and, indeed, of Yorkshire ever since has been one of sturdy self-reliance and a rejection of authoritarianism and the centralising forces that Toryism has represented throughout the ages.

Rotherham was the place where Thomas Paine, that most noble of commoners, who brought democracy to America and the ‘Rights of Man’ to Europe, even as he was forced into exile by the Pitt Government, built his great suspension bridge. I do not know how many hon. Members know that Thomas Paine was a great manufacturer as well as a great democrat. The bridge was a feat of great engineering, as important as in many ways as his enunciation of the rights of man. Paine’s bridge was built by the Walker Brothers of Rotherham, whose cannons sunk Napoleon’s fleet at Trafalgar.

What would Tom Paine find if he returned to Rotherham today? The great manufacturies, on which Adam Smith based his ‘Wealth of Nations’, have all but disappeared, 25,000 jobs have gone since 1979 and the coal mines, which once promised Britain its own energy source safe from the perils of foreign disturbances, are now capped. The local council, with the money and the will to build homes for the homeless, is prevented from doing so by the most centralised administration since that of Charles I.

Paine would find poverty in Rotherham, I am sad to say, as bad as anywhere in Europe. Indeed, he was dismissed from Government service for arguing for fair wages for public servants. Poorly paid public service, he argued, attracts only the ill-qualified and breeds corruption, collusion and neglect. He went on: ‘An augmentation of salary sufficient to enable workers to live honestly and competently would produce more good effect than all the laws of the land can enforce.’ I offer that to our low-wage merchants on the Government side of the House. We already knew that Thomas Paine was a great democrat and a friend of Rotherham manufacturing, but it came as news, even to me, that he believed in a statutory minimum wage 200 years before its time.

For all those problems, Paine would find, as would anyone who visits Rotherham, a town and a people whose spirits are unbroken despite all that has been thrown at them in the past 15 years. The pedestrianised town centre, which is one of the nicest in Europe, is spoiled only, alas, by the pressure on shopkeepers arising from the declining purchasing power of the citizens of Rotherham.

One of the world’s most advanced engineering steel plants, UES, is at the cutting edge of modern technology. I must to say my hon. Friends, talk not of steel as an old industry. Steel is one of the most modern and advanced sectors of our economy.

There are new partnerships between the chamber of commerce, the training and enterprise council, the local council and the trade unions, which support unity and a common cause to promote Rotherham.

Tom Paine would also find a very great sense—Tom Paine was, if nothing else, an internationalist—of feeling that, if Rotherham is to succeed, Britain must play its full part in Europe, because Britain is part of Europe as surely as Yorkshire is part of Britain.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), the Father of the House, who, since 1938, has stood for, yes, a Tory vision of internationalism against isolationism and that yellow streak of appeasement and opting out, which has always shamed the Conservative party, as it shames it in so much of its policy today.

We are part of Europe and the Euro-septics on the Government Benches may want their cash-and-carry Europe, in which each state takes what it wants. They decry centralisation, yet they have gone through the Division Lobby voting for measure after measure after measure to transfer power from local authorities—indeed, from the House—to give it to their friends in privatised companies and quangos. I want to see power shared downward to the regions, to communities, horizontally to the sister units of civil society in Europe, but, above all, I want to see power made accountable.

If we are to live in an international community in which trade and travel and money and ideas can go through porous frontiers, at least we, as human beings, as subjects of Her Majesty, as citizens of Europe, should have the right to have the human spirit protected through regulation of trans-frontier activity. Yes, Europe is too important to be left to Brussels, but if we are to fight for British interests, we must do so by promoting transparency, democracy and accountability in all European institutions. R.H. Tawney described the hereditary disease of the English nation as ‘the reverence for riches’ and went on: ‘If men are to respect each other for what they are, they must cease to respect each other for what they own.’ I apologise to the hon. Ladies present and to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the references to the rights of man and quoting men. I see myself, after post-modernism and post-industrialism, as the first ‘PPC’—post-politically correct—hon. Member.

England is the most money-obsessed country in Europe. Switch on the BBC and every five seconds there is some Brylcreemed spokesperson for the bond markets telling us how the dollar is doing. The BBC and ITV tell us the price of the stock market at any moment, anywhere in the world, but have ceased to report on the values needed to bring cohesion back to our communities. I do not blame them. They take their lead from those who rule our society and until we get public interest hands on the tiller of the state, instead of the sticky fingers of so many of the Conservative Members and their friends in the till, the media can do no more than take a lead from those who put a price on everything, but know the value of nothing.

For all our obsession with cash, Britain remains the poor man of Europe. Italy’s gross domestic product per capita in 1960 was exactly one half of Great Britain’s. Now, it has overtaken us. We have been so busy preaching at Europe and trying to teach Europe the secrets of the United Kingdom’s economic record, we have committed, to use James Fenton’s phrase—how pleased I was to see my old friend become professor of poetry at Oxford on Saturday— ‘the fault of thinking small and acting big’. Perhaps we have forgotten that we have some lessons to learn; lessons about partnership, lessons about the successful countries in Europe. Germany, even after unification, has a lower unemployment record than our own. The Benelux countries and the new entrants are successful, too. Those who proclaim themselves Thatcherites, such as in the Prime Minister’s favourite holiday country Spain, have the worst record of job creation and balanced development.

The core answer from Europe—one of vital importance to Rotherham and one to which I intend to commit myself in the House—is that manufacturing is not dead and, despite all the best efforts of the Government, should not die. The rising sun has been coming here continually to try to save a sinking England, but we now find that Japanese investment is going to Germany, to France and is leaving these shores.

If I may refer, as a socialist, to my favourite Sunday reading, The Sunday Telegraph tells us how well Germany is doing, that the Japanese research and development centres are installing themselves there and that the Japanese now prefer to be in Germany because of its high skill base, good labour relations and its position as Europe’s engine of growth.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) blamed our balance of trade on Europe. I have to say to him that it is 15 years of anti-manufacturing policies, of the destruction of partnership, of the lack of investment and the money that has flowed overseas that has been at fault. In fact, if we would learn from our European partner competitors, Britain would be in a much better shape.

It is not only an economic question. I was privileged to have many conversations with John Smith when he was in Rotherham and he talked of the constitutional changes that Labour would like to introduce, such as the end of the absurd spectacle of hereditary Members in another place making and casting laws, the need for national Governments for Scotland and Wales and regional assemblies, and the need for a referendum—not on electoral reform as I see it, but on re-thinking the way in which we govern ourselves. That is part of the constitutional package that I think is necessary for a new Britain.

As with John Smith’s commitment to full employment and to trade union rights, we are seeing fleshed out a new programme to reconstruct our lives in Britain as great as that which we saw after the war, but, this time, with us secure in the heart of Europe.

A Europe of what? Is it a ‘Europe des patries’ as General de Gaulle said? That is difficult for us. We have four nations, but what is our fatherland? That is not a word that we can use easily as British people. It is not a united states of Europe or a stepping stone to Tennyson’s ‘Parliament of the World’, either. After many years working in Europe, I find the Germans more German, the French more French and the Italians more Italian. It is only we in Britain who seem to live in a permanent identity crisis about who we are and what it means to be British. That is because the old Toryism is dying. The new Labourism is not yet born. As a consequence, the morbid symptoms of corruption and xenophobia that lie at the heart of the Cabinet are everywhere to be found where the Government are at work.

Those who are hostile to Europe are to be found in all nations. We have the Euro-sceptics here, there are the French communists and now we have the Italian fascists. I have with me the programme of Philippe de Villiers, the conservative right-winger in France. He wants Europe to be protected against any imports from outside the Community. He wants also a Europe in which national controls stop immigration. Like the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my father came here in the 1930s. He was a refugee from fascist Europe. The Europe that is described by Philippe de Villiers is not one of which I want to be part. Indeed, I am not even sure whether Conservative Members believe in such a Europe.

Closing the door to foreign immigrants and to exports from around the world is not a Europe in which we need to believe. We in Europe should defend our interests, but, at the same time, we in this country should deepen our friendship with countries such as Germany and—I declare an interest because my wife is French—France. In the words of Victor Hugo, ‘France is the adversary of England as the better is the enemy of the good.’ I am conscious of returning to the country that made me. I have returned from elsewhere in Europe, where I worked for many years. I have learnt much, and some of that learning I might bring to the House. I am not ‘A steady patriot of the world alone, The friend of every country but his own.’ I remain British. I am proud of the schools that made me and of the health service that put me together when I cracked my head open in the 1950s. I am hopeful that such again could be the kind of United Kingdom in which my children can grow up. It is a country in which we always refer to faith, hope and charity. But greater than any of those concepts is justice.

I will argue for justice for the people of Rotherham. I will strive for economic justice for the unemployed and social justice for the weak and disabled people of Rotherham. I so much agree with those who say that the best tribute that we could pay to John Smith would be to pass the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, which was recently talked out. There must be ‘plain justice’—justice for the criminals who walk free in an England that opts out of Europe. In so many parts of our communities, unfortunately, it seems to opt out of decency and law and order. If I can deliver any part of that message during my time in the House on behalf of the people of Rotherham, I shall be well pleased.