HC Deb 17 March 1937 vol 321 cc2099-108

3.54 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Baldwin)

It is the practice of this House, before proceeding to the ordinary and sometimes contentious business, on an occasion when we have lost one of our most distinguished Members, to pause for a moment, and for the whole House as a House to pay tribute to that man's life and work. A most painful duty has fallen to my lot on more than one such occasion, and I would indeed that I could have been spared this duty to-day.

It is just 29 years since I entered the House, and on that occasion I had a letter from Austen Chamberlain, whom I knew slightly, and had known slightly for some years, asking if he, as the representative for East Worcestershire, might have the pleasure of introducing me to this Chamber. I need not tell the House with what gratitude I, a young and unknown Member, accepted that compliment from one who had already held high office as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He introduced me, and from that day till now I have had nothing but kindness and consideration from him through all the changes and chances of political life; and, though there was a brief period when there was between us a fundamental difference of opinion, that, I rejoice to think to-day, never affected the regard we had for each other, a regard which, I believe, existed on his side as it did on mine. Though there will be one speaking later in this Debate whose knowledge of him goes back many years before that time, I felt that I must just strike that personal note before I say what I have to say about him. During that period, of course, our relations changed. At one time I sat supporting him on the back benches, and then ultimately he was Foreign Secretary in the Government that I formed in 1924, where no man could have had a more loyal and true colleague than he was, and where he accomplished work for which, I believe, history will give him the credit which I always feel he has scarcely had yet.

Austen Chamberlain was, I think, above all, a very great Parliamentarian. He loved this House. He loved the life of it. He was trained to it. He lived in it, and he has died in it, as I think he would have chosen to do. He was equipped for his task at all points. He was brought up in a hard school, at a time when political controversy was raging with an intensity that, in these more calm days, we find difficult to realise; and he learned to play his part among the most effective of those on the bench where he worked. He was always a formidable figure in debate, courteous and chivalrous, but capable of giving hard blows and capable of receiving them. There was never in his whole composition, even through those bitter years before the War, anything of malice, anything underhand; he was the open, chivalrous foe when fighting had to be done, and he never flinched and never lost his courage. I think the whole House was proud of him as a type of a great Parliamentarian. It will seem to all of us the poorer now that we shall never again see him in his place.

It is remarkable to think that, great as his political career was, and numerous as were the great offices which he held, it was during the last years of his life that he exercised in this House a far greater influence than he had ever exercised before. I attribute that partly to this. It is never easy to grow old, but he passed from the position of an active and administrative statesman to the position of what is now called an elder statesman in an extraordinary way. He gradually seemed to drop that partisan character which is essential to some extent to those who are fighting on the Front Benches in the House of Commons, and he displayed prominently those gifts of candour and wisdom which were his. While always ready to criticise if he felt that criticism was necessary, he never criticised for the sake of criticism, and you always felt that, if you had his approval, it was the approval of that honest mind of his, while, if you had not, you might well search yourself to see what you had done to merit it. Many of us, of course, often felt, in listening to him and seeing him, that he was one among us as though he had come from what we sometimes think of as the great days of Parliamentary tradition. We felt that when he left us—and we prayed it might be long before he did so—there would be no one who could take his place. I know that that is often said of men, but with him it is true. He has passed away. Yet, do not let the House misunderstand me. Although he was that, and although in so many ways he loved the old ways, and was faithful to them in that studied courtesy of his, in the style of his eloquence, yet there was no man who had a profounder sense of the organic nature of Parliament and confidence in its ability to meet all the changes and chances of life in this country for centuries yet to come.

There is no young man in this House but would say that one of his most remarkable and lovable characteristics was his interest in and his kindness to young men. No one would ever go to him to consult him on any point without his taking the keenest interest in what they were interested in. To no one did it give greater pleasure to hear a young man make a good speech. No one was looking out more eagerly in every quarter of the House to see the men on whose shoulders, in his opinion, the mantle of the great men of the past might descend. His pride in this House, his belief in its capacity, was life long. As we know, his conversation used often to turn to the incidents of his younger life in this House. So in these latter days there was no one of the older ones among us to whom I could appeal with more confidence on questions as to how the House of Commons might regard certain actions and certain proposals, or how to deal with a difficult situation. His judgment in those matters was generally unerring and it was always at the disposal of his friends.

It is for history to relate the accomplishments of our great men and it is for the Press of the day to give the facts and the details of their lives. But here we dwell for a short period on the man we knew, and if, indeed, our words spoken here to-day should live at all, they will live for the instruction of those who come after us, to show how a sudden and swift blow could affect the hearts and minds of those who sat with him for so many years. If I wished in a word or two to sum up his characteristics I would say that his chief characteristic may be summed up in that well known line: He reverenced his conscience as his king. Among the things most deeply embedded in that conscience was a sense of loyalty. That is a word which is used in many senses and is often on men's lips. In Austen Chamberlain I would say that it was the supreme and unshakeable loyalty to everything that he honestly believed to be right and believed to be the best. It was a loyalty that was shown to his family, to his party, to the House of Commons and to his country; and whether it be colleagues, whether it be friends, whether it be relations, whether it be the Members of the Civil Service who gave their service to him in those many capacities in which he served—each and all I think would mark out that loyalty as perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of his. I have never known him let a man down; he was always prepared to take the blame and always prepared to shoulder responsibility.

There is one other characteristic which his friends will recognise, and again I would quote a well known line which may be found quite close to the one I quoted a few minutes ago: He spoke no slander, no, nor listened to it. I have known him intimately, and I have never heard him say anything about anyone—mainly, of course, in discussing political matters, when feelings often run high—I have never heard him say anything derogatory about a man or anything on hearsay or rumour. Not only that, he was one of those rare men who are incapable of listening to anything of the kind that anyone may desire to put before them. It was the reflection of a singularly simple and candid nature, in its best and truest meaning. One remembers, and always will remember those two things, the loyalty not only in action in big things, but loyalty of thought and word where so many of us go wrong. He has left us. In the remote parts of that countryside where I was born and where old English phrases linger, though they may now be dying, even now I hear among those old people this phrase about those who die "He has gone home." It was a universal phrase among the old agricultural labourers, whose life was one toil from their earliest days to their last, and I think that that phrase must have arisen from the sense that one day the toil would be over and the rest would come, and that rest, the cessation of toil, wherever that occurred would be home. So they say, "He has gone home."

When our long days of work are over here there is nothing in our oldest customs which so stirs the imagination of the young Member as the cry which goes down the Lobbies, "Who goes home?" Sometimes when I hear it I think of the language of my own countryside and my feeling that for those who have borne the almost insupportable burden of public life there may well be a day when they will be glad to go home. So Austen Chamberlain has gone home. The sympathy of this House from the heart of every one of us will go out to those who are left. The relationship of father and son is not a thing on which I shall touch here, except to say that no more beautiful relationship ever existed. In all his domestic relationships it was the same—with his wife, with his brother. There is not a soul in this House but will give that sympathy from the bottom of his heart. For us the best thing we can do to honour his memory is to cling more closely to the two things to which he clung throughout his life. He always maintained that public service was the highest career a man could take. In that belief he fitted himself for it and in that belief he worked and died. Let us renew our efforts from to-day to take further pride in this work to which we have been called.

As I said earlier, he had an infinite faith in the Parliamentary system of this country. Let us resolve once more that we can best keep his memory bright by confirming our own resolution that government of the people by the people shall never perish on this earth.

4.13 p.m.

Mr. Attlee

It is difficult to add anything to the beautiful and moving tribute which the Prime Minister has paid to one who was the friend of us all in this House. I desire to express, on behalf of the Members of my party and myself, our sincere sorrow at the loss which this House and the country has sustained by the death of Austen Chamberlain. This House has lost in him one of its most distinguished Members, a great House of Commons man, a devoted servant to his country, a kind and courteous and generous man. For nearly 45 years he has played a leading part in our public life. He was one of the few who link us with bygone times, one of the last links with the Gladstonian era. When most of us in this House who now take part in these Debates were still at school, he was already a Minister of the Crown. He became Chancellor of the Exchequer at an early age and for very many years he has taken a very high place in the councils of this country. When the history of the 20 years that lie on each side of the great War comes to be written, his name will stand out as that of one of the great protagonists in our political life. In the party controversies of the pre-War era, those controversies that seem to be far off from us today, controversies over Home Rule, the Budget and the rest, he took his full share as one of the leaders of a great political party. During the War he shared in the heavy burdens of Government until, from scruples that were characteristic of him, he resigned office.

After the War he entered on a new phase of his career. He had the task, as Foreign Secretary, of dealing with the tangled problems of a world which had passed through a terrible ordeal, and he became a great international figure. The work that he did in his life, whether they were acts which were wise, whether they were acts which he afterwards thought less wise, will be judged by posterity. There will be no doubt, however, as to his single-minded devotion to what he thought was right. Whether one agreed or disagreed with him in the policies that he advocated in foreign affairs, there can be no doubt as to his sincere desire for peace. I would particularly recall his constant endeavour to make personal contact with the leading statesmen of Europe so that by that personal understanding difficulties might be removed. I recall the work that he did for the League of Nations. I think, perhaps, most of us in the House will remember him best for his work during those last few years when, having laid aside all ambition, he occupied a position of detachment. He was, as it were, almost above the battle and, when he spoke to us from the wealth of his experience on those occasions, it seemed to me sometimes that he voiced most truly the opinion of the country. I recall the long hours of work that he gave on the India Committee.

Above all, I think I would recall his personal relations with Members of this House, to whatever party they belonged. He was always generous and always kindly. The strokes that he delivered in Debate never left any ill feeling behind. I recall the kindness that he showed me on many occasions. When I had to undertake work which was rather difficult for me, he generously gave a word of encouragement, which meant a great deal to a young Member from one of his great experience. I think the Prime Minister was right in recalling the close touch that he kept with young Members and the interest that he took in their successes. We shall all miss his presence. We shall look across and see for a long time that empty seat on the other side of the House. We shall assure his widow and his family of our very deepest sympathy in their great loss.

4.19 p.m.

Sir Archibald Sinclair

I should like in a few words to associate my hon. Friends and myself with the eloquent tributes which the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have paid to the memory of Sir Austen Chamberlain. His achievements in the service of his country, the great offices of State which he held, his struggle for peace and understanding between the nations of the world after the storm and fury of the War, his championship of freedom and democracy—all these things will be recorded in history—but we shall remember him with pride as a great Commoner, a stalwart party man, tenacious of his principles, frank and outspoken in Debate, but a generous opponent and, in all that vast field in which we in this House work together, and which lies outside the bounds of party controversy, a loyal colleague and a true friend. He taught us that courtesy, and even punctiliousness do not detract from but add to the trenchancy and effectiveness of Debate. His dignity was of the essence of his style, yet no man was less prone to assert it or to resent the criticism of an opponent, for in Debate he loved, and was wont to prompt others to enjoy, the full rigour of the game.

We think to-day of his family with grief and sympathy, heightened by a sense of the tragic conjuncture of events in the life of one of them who is also our colleague. But, in mourning his loss, we who are Members of this House may find some source of pride and consolation in the reflection which occurred to both the right hon. Gentlemen who preceded me, the reflection that, after spending most of his life in great public offices and enjoying world renown as a statesman, it was in the last few years that he attained to the summit of his power and influence as a Parliament man sometimes rallying the supporters of the Government to its defence; at other times inspiring Members from the back bench where he sat to assert the authority of Parliament over the executive. May his example long inspire those who come after him to cherish that high ideal of Parliamentary duty and responsibility of which he was the accomplished, faithful and unselfish servant.

4.23 p.m.

Mr. Lloyd Georģe

I rise to associate myself with the very eloquent and tender words uttered by the Prime Minister, and the tributes which have been paid by other speakers. I should also like to associate myself with the expressions of sympathy with Sir Austen Chamberlain's family. I have only one claim to make any contribution to this Motion, and that is that I knew the late Sir Austen Chamberlain from the beginning of his career in this House right to the end, when I saw him walk down there for the last time last week. He was in this House for 45 years. He came in two years after me. Mr. Balfour was then a young man just promoted to the Leadership of the House. There were two outstanding figures in the House of Commons. One was Sir Austen's father, Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, a man of unsurpassed force and dynamic power. The other was Mr. Gladstone, who had served in the same administration as the Duke of Wellington. He was then leading the Opposition and was on the eve of his fourth Premiership. That was 45 years ago.

I heard Sir Austen's maiden speech delivered, as far as I can recollect, from that seat which is now vacant. It was a characteristic speech, faultless in matter and in style. I also remember that historic salutation, when he sat down, from Mr. Gladstone, who was the greatest Parliamentary orator of his day, and who, turning to Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, his redoubtable antagonist, congratulated him upon having listened to a speech which would be dear to a father's heart. It was a memorable occasion. During most of the 45 years that he was in the House with me we sat on opposite sides, and we crossed swords times out of number. He led the Opposition to all my Budgets, and I remember more particularly one of the Budgets which happened to be more controversial than the others. He and I fought night after night from May till late in December. We were here at all hours of the day and night, often till broad daylight. It is difficult for Members who have only entered the House of Commons since the War to realise what the Parliamentary struggles were before the War, as the Prime Minister pointed out, and the subdued party cries of to-day when one compares them with the ferocities of those days. But, although Austen Chamberlain led many attacks, right in the front, he never once delivered a foul blow. He was the fairest and most chivalrous as well as one of the most effective of Parliamentary antagonists.

I served also with him in two administrations as a colleague in probably the greatest crisis which has ever befallen this country and the British Empire. So I am one of those who have been able to observe him from two angles, as an opponent and as a comrade, and it is difficult to know which is the severer test for a man. All I can say is that those who have observed him in both capacities—and I am one of them—say unhesitatingly that Austen Chamberlain emerged from both trials without a shadow of doubt upon his loyalty and integrity. He was one of those men who, when a proposition was put before him, never thought of asking the question, "What do I get out of it?" There was only one question that he always asked of his judgment and his vigilant and sensitive conscience "Is it right?" He was a man who strained the point of honour always against himself, and there is no public man of our time who sacrificed more to integrity, to honour and to loyalty to friends, to his party and to his country.

When I heard last night, after nine o'clock, the news of his sudden death, I heard it with a pained shock. He and I fundamentally differed on a great many things, but we were always friends; and sudden death is a blow unto the heart. But I was not alone. There were millions of men who heard it last night and who read it this morning who were sorry because a man who gave them confidence in the working of democratic institutions has for ever disappeared from the watchtower. It is meet that this great assem- bly, representing now a united people, should do honour to this man of honour who has passed away.

Mr. Maxton

I rise, not because I think that I can add anything to what has been said, but it has so often been my lot to rise here and utter dissent on matters on which otherwise there is a unanimous House, that I feel that, on this occasion, it is my bounden duty to rise and say that in this quarter of the House there is no dissent from the sentiments that have been uttered.

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