HC Deb 20 March 1930 vol 236 cc2161-71
The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Ramsay MacDonald)

The newspapers this morning show the national sorrow, widespread and deep, at the death of Lord Balfour, and, before we resume the clashes and the conflicts, I ask the House of Commons to unite in doing homage to the work and the memory of one who sat in this House for just short of half-a-century and who led it for nearly 12 years. As was befitting, while his voice was heard here and his hand was felt in office, he was the centre of many a hot battle, both of gallant assault and of cautious defence. The dust of some of them has not altogether cleared away, and our minds at this moment wander back to those battle days, and we see him in imagination standing at this Box and at that leading his party with so much distinction.

Those who were in those battles and who felt the hot spirit of the conflict never denied their admiration for the leader. Who had more resource? Who had finer skill? Who was more surprising in the deftness of his strokes and his counter-strokes? Who sniffed the fight with more zest, and yet who struck a deadlier blow with more disarming charm? Who withered an opponent with more graceful suavity? It has been said that the world was too lenient to him; that he knew none of the oppressive experiences of hard circumstances. He was indeed the embodiment of the leisured mind, expansive, hospitable, curious, interesting, cultured; the product of the garden rather than of the field or moorland. He saw much life from afar. I remember when by chance the "Defence of Philosophic Doubt" came into my hands and I read it on my way out and home from school, it mirrored to me a most unfamiliar type of mind; it was a revelation of a new being, a new world over which the winds never blew loudly, so remote from mine and yet so attractive, so baffling in its cleverness, so enticing in its movement of thought and so delightfully provoking to direct contrary convictions.

There is a stimulating charm and sobering wisdom in such a personality. It is always interesting. It is always young. It is always on the pilgrim way in search of knowledge and of truth, even if its pilgrim way is softly carpeted. That is why Lord Balfour, the doughty politician, the man of affairs, the party leader, the object of angry attack, never lost his personality in his work. His politics were a philosophy; his methods were intellectual plans. He himself was always a genuine living being. His mind was so alert and so inquisitive that years did not make him an old man. He was as interested in the life and thought of the world at 80 as he was at 20. There are few men who can grow old with good grace, says Richard Steele. One of these men was Arthur Balfour.

We cannot venture as yet to sum up his public services. For the last 60 years he has played a part in every movement of our national life. At an age when he might have enjoyed the serenity of a peaceful afternoon and evening he returned to activity on the national call, and in these later years as an elder statesman, coming again to the battle, looking upon events with no blazing eye but calmly realistic, he has had more influence than ever before on our public life.

His work for the League of Nations is embedded in its foundations. His handwriting is enshrined in the charter of freedom now being developed by our Dominions. The world which has emerged from the War bears his name on many of its gateway". His insight is recorded in the happier relations which grew up between ourselves and the United States of America. Writing to Mr. Page, the American Ambassador in London in 1918, he says: I have now lived a long life, and most of my energies have been expended in political work, but, if I have been fortunate enough to contribute even in the smallest degree to drawing closer the bonds that unite our two countries, I shall have done something compared with which all else that I may have attempted counts in my eyes as nothing. The last message I had from him was a generous greeting on my return from America last year. Now, Mr. Speaker, his long day has closed, and he has passed away. Beyond these portals is peace.

4.0 p.m.


The Prime Minister's eloquent testimony will have profoundly moved the House. It is a difficult task in a few words to give to those who did not know Arthur Balfour an idea of what the man was, what he did, and what he thought. He was a Cabinet Minister four years before any single Member now sitting in this House was a Member of this Assembly. He had been 34 years a Member of this House when I entered. It is 52 years since he went in an official capacity with Lord Beaconsfield and Lord Salisbury to the Berlin Congress. He entered Paris in the first train which entered that city after the fall of the Commune, and a short time after William of Prussia was proclaimed Emperor of Germany in Versailles. In that very palace of Versailles 48 years later he was to be present with the right hon. Member for Carnarvon (Mr. Lloyd George) as a signatory to the Peace Treaty after the Great War. He led his party in this House for 21 years, and, if there be one characteristic which was with him all his life in politics and in every aspect of his life, it was his rare courage, physical and moral; a courage shown during those years when he held the office of Chief Secretary for Ireland, when he had to administer the Crimes Act. Even in those bitter fights he did much for Ireland in the congested districts, never lost sight of her future, and always retained the respect, even a popularity, among the Irish Members in this House and among the people of Ireland themselves. He faced, during the short time of his own Administration, two problems that had baffled statesmen to that date, education and licensing, and laid the foundations on which all subsequent work in either direction has been accomplised. But, perhaps, the greatest work he did at that time was the formation of the Committee of Imperial Defence, to which, I have no doubt, my right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) may desire to allude when he speaks, because his knowledge of the part that Mr. Balfour played during the War is so much greater than my own. His loyalty was a rare characteristic, rare, I mean, in this sense: Yon saw him retire from the leadership of his party, you saw him succeeded by a man many years his junior, and his junior in experience of office and of Parliament. He did not, as so many leaders do when they retire, leave the House of Commons. He remained a private Member, but he always served his successors with unquestioned loyalty, and his services were always at the disposal of the party bringing together recalcitrant members and healing any breach which might make itself evident in the composition of the party.

At 63 he retired from the leadership, and his career appeared to lave finished. The career of the statesman in party politics was finished, but there, was a glorious aftermath, which, I believe, will be remembered as long as the history of this country is written, that is, his career as a national statesman both in and out of office from the first day of the War until the last day of his life. He served at the Admiralty and at the Foreign Office. He went on a special mission to America in the middle of the War, a man 70 years of age. He represented this country at the Washington Conference. As the Prime Minister said, no man took a more prominent part than he, and no man could have taken it then as he did at the League of Nations in those early and difficult days. He interested himself in the Jews, and was a powerful advocate of that national home which he did more than any living statesman to secure for them. He set up, during the period of the last administration, on lines similar to those of the Committee of Imperial Defence, the Committee of Civil Research.

I want here to say a word on one aspect of Arthur Balfour which I have hardly seen commented upon at all in any life of him which has appeared this morning. There have been great Parliamentarians, and there have been great dialecticians. It is not for me to attempt here to classify them. Suffice it to say that he holds place amongst the highest and the most distinguished. But there was one thing which he possessed which no English statesman, to my knowledge, has ever possessed, and which no English statesman possesses to-day, that is the scientific mind, the mind trained in scientific methods, and many of his efforts at intermittent periods during his life, and more towards the end of it were directed, as Lord Haldane's were, into making the government of this country and of the Empire, and the administration of this country and of the Empire, make use of natural knowledge. He kept himself abreast of all modern scientific thought. He had been accustomed to do that from his youth, and in his views as a statesman he was far ahead of his time.

It is 30 years since he brought into being in its present form the National Physical Laboratory, and he was more responsible than any statesman for having co-ordinated, under the Privy Council, the various branches of scientific and medical research, and it was always his desire to bring in agricultural research as well. He wished all men who looked with pride upon the estate of man to be convinced that in science is to be found the most powerful engine for the material prosperity and the health of mankind, and that was why he devoted so much time in setting on foot inquiries into those problems of health in the Tropics, of pests which devastate crops and herds, and make whole, vast territories of the earth infertile and infelicitous for man to live in. His mind was of a wide and comprehensive nature. He realised that the great field of science all through Africa and all through the East was unscratched, and he wished to turn the minds of men towards it, and bring workers into the field. Among the last regrets, and the few regrets he could have had in his life, was this, that he had not years ago, when in office, himself advanced more quickly and more surely into those regions into which he was trying to lead us during his last years.

What am I to say about the man? I suppose the first thing that struck everyone about Arthur Balfour, whether he knew him intimately or not, was that exquisite urbanity and courtesy, a courtesy not merely of manner, a courtesy which those who knew him well knew to be a courtesy of the whole heart and spirit. No finer intellect, no greater dialectician has been engaged in politics. It was said of Mr. Asquith that he was the last of the Romans. It might be said that Arthur Balfour was the last of the Athenians. His mind was an all-embracing mind that took all knowledge for its province, and he would probe, analyse and apply that acute scepticism in the true sense, and not the popular sense of that much-abused word, to all subjects which came before him. The things of the mind and not of the market place were what filled his thoughts, and it was because of that that he possessed a peculiar detachment unlike most men of his profession. If it be true that that detachment is not without drawbacks in public life, yet it was of immense value in counsel, and he proved, if any man did, that detachment of spirit is attainable without withdrawing yourself from all the clamour and the vulgarity inseparable from that dusty arena in which most of our days are spent.

He was a lover of science, a lover of music, and a lover of philosophy. Of philosophy I have no time to speak, nor am I competent to speak of it, but I will say one thing that always struck me, that in that, as in all else, his fine courage was in evidence. There are fashions in philosophy. There is orthodoxy in philosophy, and the man who runs counter to orthodoxy in intellectual thought is a bold man. With Arthur Balfour, the sense of spiritual values that was always with him made him critical of that materialistic philosophy which was dominant in England at the time when he was a young man. He pursued his own lines of thought fearlessly and boldly. There was in him no vanity, a complete lack of self-consciousness, and there was, perhaps rather hidden from the world, an intense love of his own country, an intense pride in her, and an intense belief in her for his own country herself, for the part she was playing in the world, for the part she would play in the world, and he visualised, as the Prime Minister said, that co-operation of the English-speaking peoples to which we all look forward as one of the securities of the peace and progress of the world. I would say that I am confident that America will mourn Arthur Balfour no less truly than we do.

When I saw him only a week ago last Friday, the body was frail, the end was near, but the mind was burning as clearly and brightly as ever—keen, eager, interested. I have seen him often during these last few months. Our conversations have related little to the past. He wanted to hear all that was going on. He was eager to learn of reputations being made in this House amongst all parties. He looked to the future, and he would trace where the currents of thought in all parts of the country were leading. He thought much in those last months of the great things of the country and the Empire. India was much in his thoughts, too. It was late when I came into his life, but he is one of those men of whom I say unaffectedly and naturally, I was proud of his friendship. We do not sorrow to-day for him. His was a full life. He has come home bringing his sheaves with him, and at these times there always come into my mind those words of Andrew Marvell: But at my back I always hear, Time's winged chariot hurrying near; And yonder all before us lie, Deserts of vast eternity. Into that vast eternity, one by one, our great men are passing, and they are at peace. They would not have us mourn them; they would have us work while it is yet day and carry on as far as we are able the great traditions which they have left us. For us the dust and the struggle for a little longer, and the feelings which surge up in our breast to-day and which animate the whole House are feelings common to the human race, feelings which have existed from the beginning of time. Across the centuries, like the sound of a passing bell, rings the message of the Roman Emperor to his people: Principes mortales, rempublicam œternam esse; Proin repeterent sollemnia. Princes die; the State is eternal. Let us take up our duties.


When the news reached me of the death of Lord Balfour I was discharging a certain engagement down in Wales, but I felt that I would like to be present to pay my humble tribute of respect to the memory of the great statesman who has passed away. I was very struck at a meeting last night, when the announcement of Lord Balfour's death was made, how widespread and how deep was the respect for him among all classes of the community. In him, the last of the great statesmen of the Victorian era has passed away, and we seem, in his death, to have finally severed a link with that great epoch. It was an era of high statesmanship in this country. There was no country in the world that could boast such an era of statesmen of supreme quality. When I entered this House, there were among the leaders on both sides, here and in the Upper House, at least a dozen men who from their experience, from their great abilities and from their personalities could have filled with distinction the position of chief Minister of the Crown. Among those Lord Balfour will always take high place. In the variety as well as the quality of his intellectual needs, in his unselfish devotion to the services of his country, in courage, none excelled him among them all. In personal charm, in serenity of temperament there was none equal to him among them. As has been very truly said by the Leader of the Opposition, that personal charm was not superficial. It came from a genuine kindliness of heart. His serenity was not affectation; it came from a courage that never knew craven fear, which enabled him to face the problems of life, yea, and the mystery of death, with a dauntless heart.

I have had perhaps a longer and more varied opportunity than anyone in this House of measuring his great powers. I was in this House with him for 32 years. He, I think with Mr. Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Randolph Churchill, and, of course, Mr. Gladstone, were great towering figures at that time. I had also the privilege of serving with him for 7½ years as a colleague in two Administrations, and he was also my principal colleague in the great Peace Conference at Versailles. At every stage and in every aspect, in every sphere, my admiration for him grew, the more I knew him—and my real attachment for him.

Something has been said about his Parliamentary gifts. He was, indeed, a superb Parliamentary debater; superb in his prime. There was hardly anything comparable to the deftness, skill, readiness and power which he displayed. I would rank him with Mr. Gladstone as the two most formidable Parliamentary debaters that I have ever heard in this House, and I might say I suffered at the hands and from the qualities of both. I knew from both sides what their dexterity in the use of the two-edged sword might mean. A prepared speech he always regarded as a bore, and he gave the impression, when a speech was prepared, of a man who was wondering when that anguish would come to an end. When he half rose from the place occupied by the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition, leant forward, and picked up two or three of those long envelopes, took out a fountain pen, and started making notes, we all knew of the treat which was in store for us, and that in a short time we should be enjoying a supreme exhibition of the Parliamentary art of debate. I have never seen a man who had such a ready and complete command of all his faculties. At any and every moment they were there, right to his order and sprang to his command. After all, the art of the Parliamentary debater is a more or less ephemeral one which is like that of the actor. It may have results which are temporary, but they may be permanent.

The greater part of Lord Balfour's career—and I am not sure that was not indicated by the Leader of the Opposition in his eloquent speech—came after he had retired from the arena as a gladiator. Years afterwards, his gifts—and I think the Prime Minister in his extremely appealing and eloquent speech indicated the same thing—his gifts were better adapted to the part which he played during the War and after the War than they were to the supreme position of party leader which he held. It gave him a free play for his faculties, which were rich. They were not cribbed by the exigencies of any temporary professional or partisan play. He was able to take a broader, freer, less restricted view. His faculties were at their best when he applied them to the grave problems of the country and to the post-War period. I saw him then a good deal. I saw him before he joined the first Coalition Ministry. He helped very largely in adjusting certain difficulties in connection with trade union regulations in the matter of munitions. But I saw more of him when he was a member of the second Administration, and there I saw a courage that never flinched or quailed in the darkest moments; a calm that was never flustered. There he added to his long experience of affairs his penetrating intellect and his ripe judgment, and I felt then, and I feel more and more as I remember those days, that he was one of the most valuable assets which the British Empire had during those terrible days through which we have passed.

After the War, when passions were still raging, when volcanic fires were still un-quenched, his calm judgment was a treasure. In Paris, I see it suggested to-day that he had no part there. That is not true. This is not the time to correct inaccuracies in biographical notices. I never took any step there without being in constant consultation with him, and I know the value of his judgment. Whether in Paris, in America, or, as the Leader of the Opposition has pointed out, in the League of Nations at Geneva, he was during those years the outstanding representative of Britain outside our shores, and we owe a good deal more than we know to that fact. His fine intelligence, his tact, his urbane dignity, his freedom from irritating prejudices, and his personal fascination—these qualities everywhere made a deep impression on all of every race with whom he came in contact. He was a great gentleman, and everybody realised that when they came into touch with him. It is not too much to say that his representation of Britain in the counsels of the nations added to the weight and influence of this country.

There were three outstanding questions which will give him a lasting name in history, and it is very remarkable that they took place 10 years after his retirement from a great leadership and years after he had passed his seventieth birthday. One of them was the Washington Conference, the success of which was largely attributable to the wonderful courage with which he accepted the responsibility of a bold decision that might easily have provoked adverse comment in these islands. It was the only disarmament conference that has ever disarmed. I am not referring to the present conference, but to past conferences. It was the only conference that had ever met that ended in disarmament and put an end to the competition in those cumbrous and costly battleships which had such a share of responsibility in provoking the Great War. That was largely due to his great courage.

There are two other events associated with his name which are still in debate. Therefore I should not dwell upon them except to say that there is one thing that is not in debate or doubt and that is that they will have their place in history and that his name will always be associated with them. One is the Balfour Declaration with regard to Palestine, which will always be remembered in the history of one of the greatest historic races of the world. The other is the Balfour Note. Whatever may be said about the Balfour Note, it will pass into history. It has formed the subject matter of great conferences, and it was the only offer ever made by a creditor country that the huge international debts of the War should be wiped out. It was a great gesture, worthily made by a great man.

The Leader of the Opposition said that he only came late into his life. Twenty-eight years ago, sitting where my hon. Friend the Member for Leith (Mr. E. Brown) is now sitting, night after night for six months, it was my duty to criticise and attack a Measure which Lord Balfour was piloting through this House. From May until December, three or four nights every week until 12 o'clock and very often until three o'clock in the morning, he sat on the Treasury Bench getting his Bill through, and I was here criticising it. At the end of it we were friends, and I am proud of it. From that friend ship he never swerved. He did me many acts of kindness. I mourn his loss as the loss of a personal friend. His friendship I retained to the very end. I had the painful privilege of seeing him very shortly before his death. He was courageous, serene, even gay. He faced death, not with a boastful gaiety, but with a confident gaiety. In a long life of unceasing political conflict one makes many enemies and not too many friends. I mourn the loss of one with whose friendship I was deeply honoured, but I am here to pay my humble tribute on wider grounds than that. A man of great and spotless renown has passed away from amongst us. His countrymen will always think of him, to the ends of the earth, not only as one who attained high distinction in an honoured calling, but as one who in doing so conferred an added distinction on that calling itself.