Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. Due to covid, this maiden speech risks being something of an old maid—no comments in the Gallery, thank you. I rise to give this speech in tribute and with thanks to the wonderful people of South Ribble who, throughout this horrible once-in-a-century pandemic, have kept their heads, asked sensible questions and looked out for each other in myriad ways, small and large. Their humour and perseverance truly are the best of British, and I am chuffed to bits to serve them in this House.
I must also pay tribute to that fantastic Lancastrian, my predecessor Seema Kennedy. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] From her work securing millions to prevent flooding in Croston and Penwortham to her championing of our communities with Jo Cox, she is an intelligent, warm, generous, true lady. I extend my very best wishes to Seema and her young family and look forward to working for her at some point in the future.
And so to South Ribble and our history. Around 15,000 years ago, as the ice sheets retreated, fertile soils were carried down off the majestic Pennine hills to form the deep rich loams of Rufford, Longton and beyond. This soil of the very best grade, along with the skilled farmers and horticulturalists who look after it, produces some of the best produce in the world. Who in this House can say that their white turnips grace Harrods food hall? Not many, I’ll warrant. I pay personal tribute to all our growers, whose skill is legendary.
In advance of the next bit, I am going to have to apologise to Professor Mary Beard and her colleagues, because this is not something I have been taught. I have just read it in books, so I am going to get something wrong. If we look at Lancashire in the Roman era, we have the first written evidence of our proud culture. The ancient historian Tacitus describes how the northern tribes prepared for war: singing, chanting, drinking, tattoos and blue woad, and even being roused to laughter by a man at the front of the group. It strikes me, 2,000 years later, that Peter Kay has an ancestor and that Tacitus would have recognised the same in the people of Penwortham as they walk to Deepdale, Old Trafford, Anfield or, if you must, Ewood Park. Plus ça change!
Before you think our northern history is all about blokes, let me introduce a peer of the famous Boadicea, Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes. The Brigantes were the iron age tribe of the north, and at the time of the Roman invasion we were ruled by Queen Cartimandua. Now, that was a politician! As Channel 4’s “Time Team” found, to its televisual disappointment, our lands are not covered by huge Roman forts, temples or mosaics. In doing pragmatic deals with local leaders, Queen Cartimandua protected her peoples, focused on trade, avoided oppression and avoided being killed by the Romans—in many ways, a woman who would approve of recent Bills in this House. For example, in her later years, when she tired of her king, she divorced him and took up with a handsome man in uniform, the head of her guard—[Laughter.] A development that I can see has caught the imagination of several genders in the House.
Slide forward another 1,000 years and South Ribble is at the heart of the Danelaw, the proud lands above the line between Chester and the Wash. Here we find the first reference in history to southerners up north. In about 1069, a bunch of people with silly accents—apparently they were Normans—rolled up in helmets and said “Gud moaning, we own all of this now.” Funnily enough, the north of England’s response was, “Er, no thanks!” There then followed quite a lot of genocide and burning people in their houses. In the recent history books, this is entitled the harrying of the north. Something of an understatement, that. While the he details may be largely forgotten, the sentiment of mistrust is not.
To my friends in the north, I say in the here and now: what is in the interests of the north is in the interests of the Tory party and the country. Full stop. You have made the right choice. Despite what you may hear from those who want you to know your place, I see no conflict at all in being proud to wear both the red rose of Lancashire and the blue Conservative rosette. We want a fishing rod, not a fish. We do not want a force-fed narrative of being downtrodden and oppressed; we want to rewrite a century of complacency. We need infrastructure to get to our work quicker and get back to our families without getting stuck. We want to be respected and cherished, and in all honesty we probably want to win the premier league every year with about 2 billion people around the world watching, although I am happy to concede to the House that there is a tiny bit of internal division about which team should actually do it.
A few hundred years later still, we enter the age of machines and steam. Take one look at the skills in Leyland, the trucks they built and still build, and their contribution to engineering across Lancashire, and it warms my heart. I am a sister, cousin, niece and friend to engineers across the north, but I must mention one in particular: my dad. A man who comes from the same political tradition as Mr Speaker, as you well know, Mr Deputy Speaker. Having a daughter who comes home and announces she wants to be a Tory MP was something of a surprise to him.
When we used to go on holiday as a family to Llandudno, there were people on the front selling see-through plastic macs that had emblazoned on the back in large, colourful letters, “The views of this child are not necessarily those of the parents.” It has been a family joke for some-ty years that I should have been bought one. However, attending the work’s old buffers’ buffet this winter, shortly after the general election, my dad was assailed with an astonished, “Fletch, I didn’t realise you were a Tory. Is it your daughter that’s just been elected next door?” With shock, he has now realised that the shoe is on the other foot; it is he who now needs a badge that says: “The views of this child are not necessarily those of the parents”. That is no way to repay a man who made huge sacrifices to feed his family, climbing in toilet windows to earn a wage but break a strike, moving halfway across the world to work on his own when jobs were tight in the early ’80s. Dad, I am sorry that you need the badge, but thank you anyway.
For those who do not know us, it is easy to think that the innovations of the industrial revolution were all brownfield, so what if I told you of the canals and land reclamation delivered for more rural areas such as Tarleton or the village—the clue is in the name—of Banks? Banks possesses the wonderfully named road Ralph’s Wife’s Lane, a long, wide thoroughfare that on first introduction leads to a couple of immediate questions. Who on earth was Ralph? Arguably more importantly, why was he so awful that his wife had to live down a long, massive, wide road to get away from him? And why did she not have a name? I look forward to hearing her story.
In fact, let me highlight the continued strength throughout the ages of the northern female. Rightly, there are wonderful statues to the Pankhursts and the fight for women’s votes, but I argue to the House very strongly that the movement’s success was due in part to symbiosis with a Lancashire culture that has roots far deeper than the industrial revolution. Step into Edwardian shoes in a Manchester terrace—can you imagine the conversation between the educated middle classes and a bunch of working-class Lancastrians like Annie Kenney and Mary Leigh? “Actually, we have campaigned for votes since the 1860s and have yet to succeed in our aims.” “Right, yeah, we’re just going to have to blow something up.” I add my voice to their quote:
“I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”
My grandma passed grammar in Salford shortly after the votes for women movement succeeded. My auntie won prizes for academic achievement, but at 12 she had to leave and work in a shirt factory. Her experience means that my family values education beyond anything else as an engine of getting on—we aspire. “Do your best. Try harder. See what you can get up to.” My mum was the woman who said to her daughter, “No, you can’t go and knock-on and go out and play; you’ve got to do this next practice paper for your exams”. She regularly said: “Katherine, I’ve been saying since you were two that you’ll either be a stripper, a social worker or a scientist.” Well, mum, given that I have a biology degree, and with the nature of modern politics, there is a very good chance that I have achieved all three. Thank you, mum—you were right about the exams.
You may have guessed that I am very proud of what I am and where I come from—a community that says, “Go on, succeed, but don’t get too big for your boots. Don’t be patronising or ignore us or make assumptions about who we are or what we want. Definitely don’t come up here with southern accents to gain access to safe seats and explain how oppressed we are. You will get two words to that: ‘Look, love’”. Call it the northern powerhouse, call it levelling up—I am interested in labels only if they help communicate real action, and I will tirelessly advocate for exactly that. Championing the old lands of the Danelaw will guide my actions in Parliament.
To conclude, I think the ultimate lesson we should take from the suffragette movement is not actually one of women’s lib. It is that we are always only going to achieve big things—huge changes—when the people who say, “Actually—” and the people of different cultures and classes work together. We are best as one nation, not divided by class war or political tribalism. Look around me on these Benches. Look at the breadth of experience of culture, of vowel sounds—it is true. I can report to you that while some of the accents in this place are still silly, I have yet to see a southerner in a northern helmet, and I am struck by how serious they are about investment and growth and jobs. In short, they’re all right.
This flipping covid. It is a huge test for us, and we will pass it only if we take a leaf out of the suffragettes’ book and work together equally. I say to South Ribble, the north and the country: “Let’s combine our efforts, turbo-charge business and trade the hell out of our current position with all the peoples of the world.” I look forward to working with the descendants of everyone to make that happen, and I almost definitely promise not to metaphorically blow something up to make that happen.