HC Deb 04 April 1933 vol 276 cc1595-9

Considered in Committee.

[Sir DENNIS HERBERT in the Chair.]

4.2 p.m.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Ramsay MacDonald)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty praying that His Majesty will give directions that a memorial tablet be erected in the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter, Westminster, to the memory of the late Right Honourable the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, and to assure His Majesty that this House will make good the expenses attending the same. In submitting this Motion for the acceptance of the House, I am convinced that it will be supported by all sections here. When Mr. Balfour, as he was then, supported a similar Motion that a memorial should be erected to the memory of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, he made an observation that he hoped that it might be the last. I am quite certain that Mr. Balfour, when he made that observation, had the form of the memorial in mind rather than the idea that this House should commemorate its great men. He did not mean, I am perfectly certain, the carving, by command of the nation, of the name of one who was illustrious in public service, who was a Member in this seat of Government, who was Prime Minister and Leader of this House—as I say, I cannot believe that Mr. Balfour had in his mind that in future this House should never erect a memorial to such great public service. It is well to reflect, however, that the surer is the dead of a resurrection in the history of his country, the simpler, the more reserved and the quieter can be the expression of our gratitude and the form in which we do him honour. A simple name is the greatest memorial that can be carved for the great.

Lord Oxford and Asquith has surely won a place in our nation's record which demands this little from Parliament. The story of the most momentous events in the domestic and international annals of his generation cannot be told except in relation to his life. He came here in 1886. He entered his first office, that of Home Secretary, in 1892. He became Prime Minister in 1908. He died in 1928, and the Government of the following year, 1929, deemed it desirable to ask his family to allow it to place a memorial tablet in Westminster. There have been delays, and only to-day are the Government in a position to move, but to-day I move this Motion, which asks that a tablet be placed in Westminster Abbey bearing his name, so that we may give him an assigned dwelling-place among the illustrious ones whose shades move hither and thither within those sacred walls chosen by the whole of our race to recall living and inspiring memories in reverent keeping.

4.8 p.m.


On behalf of my friends and myself, I rise to support the proposal of the Prime Minister. It is a rather curious fate for me that I should be the person representing my friends to support this Motion. I had not the privilege of personal friendship with Mr. Asquith or Lord Oxford, but I met him, I think, in 1887, when almost unknown in politics. I either took the chair for him, or moved the vote of thanks which is usual at such meetings, at a meeting held in Mile End in those days when the Liberal party was torn, and politics were very distracted for the side which Lord Oxford then represented. I always remember him, and I remember him all through his career from that day, because, small though the meeting was, he took a very great deal of trouble to explain to us that very difficult Measure—not the Home Rule Measure, but the Land Bill, about which there was almost more controversy than about the Home Rule Bill itself. I can say that on that occasion, as, I think, on every occasion I ever heard him—and I heard him many times—he was able to make clear in a wonderful manner the most abstruse propositions, and all of us felt when he had finished his speech that a new force, a new figure had come into the Liberal party, and one who would most certainly play a very great part.

I came in close contact with him once or twice afterwards, but there is one occasion which I would like to recall to the Committee, and that was in connection with the suffrage movement. The incident to which I am going to call attention is, perhaps, not the one my hon. Friend remembers, but Lord Oxford had no reason to receive me with extra courtesy or with extra kindness. We hesitated a great deal to persuade Lord Oxford to receive a deputation of working-class women on the subject of the suffrage, and, after a good deal of negotiation, the then Chief Whip, Mr. Illingworth, was able to arrange it, and Lord Oxford asked that I should go with the deputation and that I might see him beforehand. He just swept me along by his charm, his courtesy and his complete good will, and none of us who sat in the Cabinet room that morning with those women, drawn from the very poorest districts of London, could ever forget the patience, the good will and, more than anything else, the understanding which he showed towards them.

In supporting this proposal to erect a tablet in Westminster Abbey, I would like to say that it is good, probably, to leave a stone record of some sort for generations to come, but I myself believe that the best memory of him will remain certainly with those women and their descendants, and also with another great body of people in our country, for, when the story is told of the last 50 years, as it will be told, it will be recorded that Lord Oxford's Budget was the Budget that made the first provision for old age pensions. Therefore, in supporting this proposal I am supporting it from the point of view that the good that men do is not interred with them. I disagree with Shakespeare in that respect. I believe that the good that men do lives after them, and that it is absolutely true that you cannot do a good action, you cannot bring forward anything beneficent without it being remembered, and Lord Oxford will be remembered by me, at any rate, for the two or three incidents I have mentioned and for something else, which, I believe, stands to his credit. I believe Lord Oxford was a man who, however much you might disagree with him, and however much you might fight him, never had any personal rancour against anyone. He was a man who when he gave his word stuck to it. I admired him for his courage and tenacity and for his loyalty and devotion to those things in which he believed. In my opinion, it is a great thing, a very great thing indeed, that he died relatively a poor man so far as money is concerned. It is in that spirit that I support the proposal.

4.16 p.m.


The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have spoken in most kindly and appreciative terms of Lord Oxford and have dwelt upon the esteem in which he was held by those who were his political opponents. Perhaps I may be permitted to add a few words on behalf of those who throughout his public career were his closest associates, and I have been asked by the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) to express his great regret that a previous commitment has made it impossible for him to attend the House to-day and express his support of the Motion. Mr. Asquith, as we still love to call him, was above all a Parliamentarian. He was a scholar, an eminent advocate, an orator, a statesman; he was at home in the universities, in the courts, on the platform, and in the Cabinet, but I think it is true to say that he was most at home here and the appreciation of this House is what he would have valued most. The time has not yet come when a worthy memorial can be erected to him in these precincts for it was decided by general agreement a few years ago to lay down the rule that a decade must elapse after a statesman's death before the erection of a memorial in the Houses of Parliament should come forward for consideration, but the time has arrived now when Parliament can order that his name should be inscribed in the nation's shrine of fame.

The course of events made his premiership a time of violent political controversies and, like all men engaged in public life, Mr. Asquith had much to endure. It has been written, To the dead the roses, to the living the thorns. But through it all, through the most arduous times, while he retained the full confidence and deep affection of his colleagues and supporters he never lost the personal respect and good will of his opponents, and, when in 1914 the great ordeal came, the whole nation was glad to gather itself together round his strong and trusted personality. He was a man serious, religious, philosophic, full of the pietas et gravitas of the Romans, while he had their equanimity and magnanimity as well. He was also very human. He had geniality, humour, and a kindly tolerance, qualities which endeared him to the House of Commons, just as the House was impressed and influenced by the power of his cogent thought and by the excellence of his clear and vigorous expression. Let us then show our gratitude to a statesman who was devoted to the service of Parliament and who never failed to uphold the reputation of this House and the dignity of the State.

Question put, and agreed to, nemine contradicente.

Resolution to be reported To-morrow.