HC Deb 06 July 1914 vol 64 cc847-55
The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

I beg to move, "That this House do now adjourn."

We have, Sir, to-day to mourn yet another gap in our ranks, which is not the less marked or the less felt because he who filled it has for some time past been withdrawn, through no fault of his own, from the fighting line. Mr. Chamberlain was for thirty years in the forefront of our Parliamentary life. That he never held the title of Leader of this House or of the head of the Government is felt, by friends and by foes alike, to be an accident in his career. During the whole of that time his name is, and will be, imperishably associated with all our great public controversies. He would never, in any circumstances, have incurred the penalty which the ancient law-giver imposed upon the citizen who refused to take sides on the occasion of civil strife. Neutrality was impossible to a man of his temperament and of his convictions. To the arena of our political conflicts here Mr. Chamberlain brought, not only a combination of most unusual gifts, but, what is rarer still, a new type of personality. When he entered this House in the year 1876 almost all the places of authority, both in the Legislature and in successive Administrations, were still held by men who had received their Parliamentary training in the era of a restricted suffrage. Mr. Chamberlain was the pioneer of a new generation. He brought with him from the world of business and of municipal life a freshness of outlook, a directness of purpose, and a certain impatience of conventional and circuitous methods. He may be said with truth to have introduced and perfected a new style of speaking, equally removed from that of either of the great masters of speech who then had the ear of the House and the nation—Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Bright, If he kept, as a rule, closer to the ground, he rarely digressed, and he never lost his way. He had, indeed, at his disposal all the resources, natural and acquired, of an accomplished artist, not excluding raillery, sarcasm, invective, But more perhaps—so at least it seems tome—than any orator of our time, he gave the impression of complete and serene command both of his material and of himself. As has been the case with not a few great men, speech, the fashion and mode of his speech, was with him the expression and the revelation of character. In that striking personality—vivid, masterful, resolute, tenacious—there were no blurred or nebulous outlines, there were no relaxed fibres, there were no moods of doubt and hesitation, there were no pauses of lethargy.

This is not the occasion, even if the time had yet come, to review or to attempt to pass a judgment on his political career. Nor can I personally speak of him with the advantage of that special and intimate knowledge which only comes to men who have shared one another's counsels, and who have fought side by side year after year. But there are certain characteristics stamped on his work which are independent of the vicissitudes of political judgment, and some of which, I think, are the more worthy of remark because he was a man of severely practical aims. First I note genuine sympathy, which never failed him, with the precarious lot of those who in one way or another fell victims to the stress and strain of our social and industrial life. Another is the imaginative quality which suffused and coloured, not only his language, but his ideas when he confronted the larger issues of national policy. Lastly, may I not say, no statesman of our own, or, perhaps, of any time, surpassed him in the two great qualities of confidence and courage—confidence, buoyant and unperturbed, in the justice of his cause, courage, persistent and undismayed, in its steadfast pursuit. Such a personality naturally and necessarily attracts both enthusiastic support and determined hostility. He and I have exchanged many blows, particularly in the latest enterprise of his active career. Though he was an unsparing, he was always a generous antagonist, and I rejoice to remember that we never ceased to be friends. It was the will of Providence that the closing years of his life should be darkened by a great affliction. The hero of countless fights in the open field was called upon to show that he had also the passive courage which can face with undimmed eyes the most tragic fate that can befall a man of action. The hours of weakness and weariness borne with manly patience and fortitude, have passed, and he has been granted his release. It is fitting that within these walls—where the echoes of his voice seem to many of us still to linger—we should suspend for a few hours the clash of controversy, while we all join in acknowledging our common debt to the life and the example of a great Englishman. I beg to move that the House do now adjourn.

4.0 P.M.


Death, the great reconciler has come, and it is fitting, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, that for the moment the strife of parties should be hushed round the grave. We, on these benches, are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the tribute which he has just paid to the leader whom we admired and loved. It is not easy for any man to speak, not only with fairness and candour, but with generosity and sympathy, of an opponent, and the most formidable of opponents in conflicts which are not yet closed. But that difficult task has been accomplished by the Prime Minister. That is not my difficulty. At the time when I first entered this House I was still young enough, and, indeed, I hope I still am, to be a hero worshipper, and for me at that time, the essence of my political faith was belief in Mr. Chamberlain. In the interval I have formed a higher and I think a juster estimate of some others, but everything I have seen of him, in public or in private, in strength or in the weakness, to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, and which he bore with such heroic patience—everything which I have seen has added to the admiration I then felt. The public work, even of the most active men, is only a part, and to them, perhaps, not the chief part of their lives. Mr. Chamberlain was intensely human in his affections, and anyone who was privileged, as I was, to catch a glimpse of the inner tabernacle of his home, carried away with him a picture of what family life can be at its best. The hearts of all of us, not only here, but throughout the Empire, go out to-day in deepest sympathy in a loss which is ours as well as theirs to the sons and daughters who loved and worshipped him, and to the wife who during, the long years of his illness found, if not, happiness, something higher than happiness—found blessedness in the noblest work of woman in being the gracious companion, the wise confidant, and the tender friend of a man who was worthy of so much love.

Of Mr. Chamberlain's public life I shall say little. My right hon. Friend will speak of it, and to him, if it had been possible, I should gladly have left the duty and privilege of expressing for our party what every Member of that party feels. Mr. Chamberlain, as the Prime Minister has reminded us, was a great fighter, but, as Lord Morley, who knew him well, said, he had the "genius of friendship," and he was a great friend. In turn he was the object of the bitterest attacks, and he was the idol of both political parties, and he accepted with equal magnanimity the censure and the praise. Throughout his career, as it seems to me, there were two principles which were at the basis of his political action, to one of which the Prime Minister has referred—a desire to improve the condition of the people, and an intense, and perhaps almost aggressive, national pride.

It was in connection with the latter principle that he came, as he thought, in conflict with his party, and he left it, although no one foresaw more clearly than he the consequences to himself of the step which he then took. He was one of those of whom Burke said:— He will preserve his consistency by varying the means to secure the unity of the end. That, as I see it, was his history. He changed his tool, but he never changed his aim, and that aim was ever the good of his countrymen and the greatness of his country. The Prime Minister has reminded us that, from the point of view of personal ambition, his career was in part a failure. He never filled the post for which his great qualities seem specially to have destined him. He never was Prime Minister. But what is success and what is failure? "It is not what man does that exalts him, but what man would do." He almost alone has changed the whole spirit of the relationship of the different parts of the Empire towards each other, and has thus laid strongly the foundation on which other men may build. I think there is no instance in our history of any statesman who has not filled the highest post whose name has become like his, a household word, and the tributes to his memory which are flowing in from every quarter of the King's Dominions are themselves evidence of the value and the enduring character of his work. Mr. Chamberlain is dead. In the words of Carlyle— All dies except the spirit of man, of what man does. He is dead, but the spirit of what he did, and of what he tried to do, is living still. And then, the last song When the dead man is praised on his journey— Bear, bear him along, The land has none left such as he on the bier. Oh, would we might keep thee, my brother!


I do not rise because I think anything can be added to the two exquisite tributes which have just been paid to the great man who is departed by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and if before the House adjourns I still detain them for one or two moments, it is because I have the melancholy honour of being one of the very few left on this bench who served with Mr. Chamberlain in Cabinets, and who, in the words of the Prime Minister, fought side by side with him and shared his counsels. I think it would perhaps be thought that there had been an omission if one so long and closely associated with the great man we have lost were silent on an occasion of this kind. The Prime Minister has dwelt, as was right and natural, upon the characteristics of Mr. Chamberlain as a great Parliamentary figure—one of the greatest Parliamentary figures of his time, a figure that would have been great in any time. I do not wish to dwell further upon that aspect of his public character after what the Prime Minister has said, but I remember, as the Prime Minister cannot remember as a Member of this House, the time when Mr. Chamberlain first came amongst us. He came with a great reputation deservedly earned by work at Birmingham. He came, therefore, to this House, not in early youth, but with fame and reputation already acquired in another sphere of activity, and I need not tell the House that when any man comes amongst us with these credentials, they are critically scrutinised by the Assembly which he is joining, and many ask themselves whether the reputation earned elsewhere will survive the new atmosphere into which he has come. Mr. Chamberlain came, I think, into the House in 1876, and when there was a change of Government in 1880 the universal opinion had designated him already, although he had only been four years amongst us, as undoubtedly a man who must be a Member of any Liberal Government, and in whose hands probably the destiny would lie of any party to which he might belong. I cannot imagine any greater tribute to Mr. Chamberlain's Parliamentary capacity than the fact that a career, begun from a Parliamentary point of view relatively late, should have been crowned with the triumphant success which came to him.

It is not so much of Mr. Chamberlain as a great Parliamentary speaker, a great debater, a great orator, and a man who showed that most important of all characteristics as a Member of this House, that the greater the difficulties to the greater heights did he rise—it is not on that aspect of his public career that I would dwell, for I almost feel—I do feel—that when posterity weighs what he has done for his country, and when the time has come when a perfectly impartial estimate can be formed of all that he did and of all that he endeavoured to do, it is not upon Mr. Chamberlain as a Parliamentarian that the historian of the future will chiefly fix his gaze. I think it will be felt that it was as an Imperial statesman, as Colonial Secretary, that he has done the greatest and the most, unique work which perhaps has ever fallen to a single statesman in this country. Nobody is better aware than I am how many and bitter are the controversies that may be supposed to range round the thesis I have just laid down. I hope it is not necessary for me to add that I am not going on an occasion like this to say anything from which any Member of the House I am addressing would dissent. The way I should describe, apart from controversial details, the great work which Mr. Chamberlain did for the Empire is this: Statesmen before his time had realised that in the self-governing communities we had established overseas it was impossible, and, if possible, undesirable, that after the period had passed when our power was required to watch and guard over their early progress, any species of control should be maintained. Many statesmen had realised—all statesmen had realised in this country—that absolute equality as between these great self-governing communities and ourselves was and must remain an essential element of this Empire. What I think was not always realised was that if this policy remained unqualified, its natural end would be—I will not say separation, but a kindly indifference, or more than a kindly indifference, a friendly feeling between the units composing the Empire, which could not and would not stand any real shock of Imperial danger. He felt—and I think that the feeling is now shared on all sides of the House—that if that current of policy which I have just described was to be pursued, as pursued it must be, a counter current must also be set up; and if we were to recognise, as we all do recognise, absolute equality between the Mother Country and her Dominions; if we recognise, as we all do recognise, that these great self-governing communities, born of ourselves, have every right that we possess, and must be treated for ever on terms of perfect equality, it was necessary at the same time that there should be aroused, both here and elsewhere, the feeling that we belong to a common Empire, and require to make common sacrifices for that Empire; and that it was not merely in a kind of neutral friendliness that the Empire was to sink into insignificance, but that there must, in all parts of the King's Dominions, be that bracing feeling of common patriotism which, whether it ever finds a constitutional organ, or any constitutional arrangement in which all shall bear a part, may, even before that time comes, and even if that time never comes, yet make this country not merely a collection of separate and relatively indifferent communities, but one whole, organised, if not constitutionally organised, on the firm basis of mutual service, mutual interest and mutual devotion to a great ideal.

I think that it will be admitted by all, whatever our opinions may be, that that is not an ignoble ideal, but that it is the ideal that should be shared by every British citizen; and no man has done more to bring that ideal home to the hearts and bosoms of every citizen of the Empire than the great man whom we have just lost. He was, indeed, like all great men, a great idealist. I have heard his critics say, not, indeed, very recently, but in earlier life, that he learned his politics in the relatively narrow sphere of municipal work. It is a profound mistake to suppose that he brought a different spirit into his Imperial work from that which animated him in his municipal work. In both cases he was filled with this high idealism, and whether it found an outlet in the Midlands of this country, or whether it found an outlet in those great national and Imperial objects of which he was so eloquent and so powerful an exponent, the same principles, the same high idealism, the same practical business spirit ran through it all, and never was there any career in which there was a more fundamental and essential unity from beginning to end than the career of Mr. Chamberlain. If high courage, if an unconquerable soul, if qualities that made him capable of grasping not merely the official details of administrative work, but gave him a glance that could embrace the largest questions, if a courage that feared no odds, if industry which defied fatigue, and a courage that quailed not even under disease—if all these qualities constitute, as surely they do constitute, a great man, nobody ever had them in a greater measure than Mr. Chamberlain. We who worked with him could tell by personal experience what the public outside could only conjecture. We knew how rapid was his decision, how quick was his grasp of the most complicated problem, how clearly he saw the line which should in his opinion be pursued in any great emergency, how, when that line was once determined upon, with what courage, what loyalty, what resource and what eloquence, he was always prepared to pursue it to the end. He was a great statesman; he was a great friend; he was a great orator; he was a great man; and the House does well to mark in a signal and exceptional manner its sense of the loss that this country has suffered, and its sense of the greatness of him who has now become one of the heroes of the past, one of those great characters who illustrate our Parliamentary and public history, and on whom after all more than on anything else, the greatness of our Empire must depend.


Will the right hon. Gentleman state the business I for the remainder of the week?


Tomorrow, the Motion for the allocation of time for the discussion of the Finance Bill.

On Wednesday, the Committee stage of the Finance Bill.

On Thursday, the Board of Trade Vote, as already announced.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House do now adjourn.