HC Deb 31 May 1937 vol 324 cc682-7
Mr. Attlee

I ask leave of the House, before we turn to the business of the day, to make a reference to the changed circumstances in which we are meeting this afternoon. We have said good-bye to one Prime Minister and we are greeting his successor. Such a change in any circumstances means much to this House, but especially on this occasion when we are parting with a man who for 14 years in office or in Opposition has led a great historic party, and who has for the greater part of that time borne a heavy weight of responsibility in difficult and anxious days. We are, I feel, closing a notable chapter in our Parliamentary history. I remember very well the day when Mr. Stanley Baldwin, as he then was, became Prime Minister for the first time. To the majority of Members this House will seem a strange place without him. I believe I am voicing the feelings of all hon. Members irrespective of party when I say that we all greatly regret his departure from our midst, but we are all glad that his retirement from the great position he has held is not due to any infirmity of mind or body. He has, indeed in the last few days given abundant evidence that his powers are unabated. He has brought to an end his career in this House, but he will still be taking a big part in our national life, and it is the hope of all of us that lie may long be spared to enjoy health and happiness and the rest and the leisure which he has amply earned.

This is not the occasion on which to attempt any appraisal of his work as a statesman and public man; it is, indeed, unfinished. Future historians will, no doubt, disagree, as we in this House disagree, about the merits or demerits of his policy and his actions, but I am certain they will be at one in acclaiming him as a great parliamentarian who possessed in a singular degree the faculty of judging the temper of this House and responding to its mood. They will, I think, also recall him as one who inspired affection as a man even in those who were opposed to him as a politician.

I turn to offer our most sincere congratulations to the new Prime Minister. For 60 years now members of the Chamberlain family have played roles of great distinction in this House, but it has been left for the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Edgbaston (Mr. Chamberlain) to attain the highest office under the Crown. Many hon. Members will join with me in regretting that his brother was not spared to hear these rejoicings. We know well the ability of the new Prime Minister and the sharpness of his weapons in debate. It will be our constant endeavour to make him exercise these weapons. I am afraid that I cannot wish him a long tenure of office, and I cannot say that we shall do anything to make his position easier. Indeed, we shall do all we can to ensure that as soon as possible he and his colleagues may be relieved of the burdens and responsibilities which weigh so heavily upon them, and that they may have a chance of showing what they can do in Opposition.

Sir Archibald Sinclair

I desire to associate my friends and myself with the sentiments which have been so felicitously expressed by the Leader of the Opposition on the occasion of the departure of the right hon. Member for Bewdley (Mr. Baldwin) from this House. I should also like to add that, deeply as we regret that event, we rejoice to see that another right hon. Gentleman who has held the same high office, for only a slightly shorter period of time, is still remaining with us as Member for the Scottish Universities. As Leader of a party the right hon. Member for Bewdley was a generous and chivalrous opponent; as the Leader of the House we knew that its honour and dignity were safe in his hands; and as long as spaciousness of mind and spirit, and therefore breadth of human sympathy and understanding, are qualities which are honoured in this country, so long will he be reckoned among the greatest of our Parliament men. But we have not come here to bury Caesar, and there is no ground for that deep melancholy which brooded over this House on the last similar occasion, when the shadow of death already lay across the right hon. Gentleman who was then retiring from the post of Prime Minister. The right hon. Member for Bewdley goes from this House to another place, and our confident good wishes go with him for his health and vigour. We may be sure, not only, as the Leader of the Opposition said, that he will enjoy his leisure and rest but that he will yet play a formidable part in the affairs of the nation.

Before I sit down may I, too, be allowed to congratulate the new Prime Minister on his assumption of his high office? Time was, let me confess it, when I regarded the new Prime Minister as a soulless and efficient bureaucrat, and I had the temerity to express that view in this House. Let me frankly confess that I discovered when I served with him for a short time in the Government that that was a false judgment; but my brief association with him in the Government did not reconcile me to his political views; and we on these benches see in him an adversary whom we shall not make the foolish mistake of under-rating and whose policies it will be our duty to oppose.

The association of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bewdley with agriculture is well-known. The new Prime Minister has made a hobby of an even older profession, that of the fisherman. I have always thought there was something just a little shadowy about the pigs of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bewdley. I never saw a photograph of the right hon. Gentleman leaning against the wall of the pigsty. There was something almost legendary about those pigs, like Mary's little lamb. But the skill of the new Prime Minister as a fisherman is attested every April by photographs which appear in all the newspapers. For my part, I can claim to be only a humble and incomplete angler, but I ask to be allowed to offer to the Prime Minister, as one angler to another, my best wishes for his personal happiness in his new office, for his success in those wide fields, of policy which transcend party divisions in this House.

The Prime Minister

All Mr. Baldwin's friends—and who in this Rouse is not his friend?—must have listened with the keenest pleasure and satisfaction to the tributes which have just been paid to him by his former political opponents. I would like to add my thanks to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caithness (Sir A. Sinclair) for his appropriate and courteous references also to my right hon. Friend the Member for the Scottish Universities (Mr. Ramsay MacDonald) who has retired to a less conspicuous place. It is, perhaps, a sign of the lessening bitterness between opposing parties that such high praise could be bestowed upon one who but yesterday was the head of a Government and responsible for a policy which has been the subject of unremitting criticism and denunciation; but the paradox is very easily explained, because no one in our time has done more to curb the acerbities of debate and to establish a sense of the common humanities that lie in us all, than Mr. Baldwin himself. The two right hon. Gentlemen who have spoken have enlarged upon his kind nature, his sincerity, his.understanding of the character of his fellow-countrymen, and his power to move this House on great occasions which he made greater by words which were simple in themselves, but which were always spoken from the heart.

I still think there is perhaps something to be added to what has been said by one who approaches the subject from a different angle. It was my good fortune to work side by side with Mr. Baldwin for 14 years. Thereby I have stored up a memory which will always be treasured by me, a memory of a leader who gave his confidence fully and freely to his colleagues, a wise and sagacious counsellor, and an affectionate friend whose friendship has been above all price to me because it was not only a delight in itself, but was a liberal education as well. You cannot watch a man at close quarters for so long a period, seeing him in good times and in bad, in his triumphs and in his failures, without penetrating a long way into his heart and mind. Mr. Baldwin certainly did not wear his heart upon his sleeve, but even his natural reserve could not indefinitely conceal certain features which were a part of his very nature. As I came to know him better, I found in him a fundamental nobility of character, based upon a profound conviction of the rightness of certain rules of conduct. When he thought it was necessary to vindicate those rules, no consideration of popularity or personal ease of mind stood in his way.

There was something else which I found in him which, I think, is a rare and an unusual quality, and that was a power of discrimination between what is permanent and essential and what is ephemeral and unimportant in human affairs. It was that power of discrimination, I think, which gave to his greatest speeches their timeless quality which, over and over again, evoked a response and an echo in the country, until the people came to recognise in him the exponent of what was best in themselves, expressed in words which, perhaps, they might not have been able to articulate, but which they all understood. In one of his most famous addresses he referred to the pietas and gravitas which formed the basis of the Roman character. I think those words could equally well be used as the basis of his own, coupled also with a love of truth which only wavered occasionally when—a deceit which soon ceased to deceive anybody—he was wont to describe himself as a plain, ordinary man.

Though he is no plain, ordinary man, though he is a combination of poet, philosopher, sage and statesman, for which I think our political history finds no parallel, he has a singular and instinctive knowledge of how the plain man's mind works. Often I have sought his counsel as to the effect which would be produced upon the public mind by some contemplated course of action. He did not always give me a confident expression of his opinion, but when he said he was sure, I never knew him to make a mistake. Now he is retiring from active public life when, so far as his mental powers are concerned his eye is not dim nor his natural force abated, he takes with him into his retirement the gratitude and admiration of the whole Empire. We regard him as one who during a long career Nothing common did, or mean. one who showed how politics can be conducted without violence and yet without loss of dignity; one who sought peace and ensued it, one who has handed on to those who come after him a splendid example of unselfish patriotism and true humanity. Many comparisons have been made between Mr. Baldwin and other great men. For my part I have often thought, after making all due allowances for differences of education, of upbringing, of country and of time, that he comes nearest to Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps I might fittingly conclude by applying to him Lincoln's own words: With malice toward none, charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gave him to see the right, he strove to do all, to achieve and to cherish a lasting peace among ourselves and all nations. I cannot sit down without offering my sincere thanks to the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Member for Caithness for their kindly welcome to myself, and to the Leader of the Opposition for his willingness to relieve me at the earliest possible moment. No doubt we shall have many battles in future, but, at any rate, it is pleasant for me to think that on the first occasion when I have appeared before this House in my present position we are all agreed in doing honour to a great parliamentary figure.