HC Deb 12 November 1940 vol 365 cc1617-23
The Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill)

Since we last met, the House has suffered a very grievous loss in the death of one of its most distinguished Members and of a statesman and public servant who, during the best part of three memorable years, was first Minister of the Crown.

The fierce and bitter controversies which hung around him in recent times were hushed by the news of his illness and are silenced by his death. In paying a tribute of respect and of regard to an eminent man who has been taken from us, no one is obliged to alter the opinions which he has formed or expressed upon issues which have become a part of history; but at the Lychgate we may all pass our own conduct and our own judgments under a searching review. It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.

It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart—the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.

But it is also a help to our country and to our whole Empire, and to our decent faithful way of living that, however long the struggle may last, or however dark may be the clouds which overhang our path, no future generation of English-speaking folks—for that is the tribunal to which we appeal—will doubt that, even at a great cost to ourselves in technical preparation, we were guiltless of the bloodshed, terror and misery which have engulfed so many lands and peoples, and yet seek new victims still. Herr Hitler protests with frantic words and gestures that he has only desired peace. What do these ravings and outpourings count before the silence of Neville Chamberlain's tomb? Long and hard, hazardous years lie before us, but at least we entered upon them united and with clean hearts.

I do not propose to give an appreciation of Neville Chamberlain's life and character, but there were certain qualities, always admired in these Islands, which he possessed in an altogether exceptional degree. He had a physical and moral toughness of fibre which enabled him all through his varied career to endure misfortune and disappointment without being unduly discouraged or wearied. He had a precision of mind and an aptitude for business which raised him far above the ordinary levels of our generation. He had a firmness of spirit which was not often elated by success, seldom downcast by failure and never swayed by panic. When, contrary to all his hopes, beliefs and exertions, the war came upon him, and when, as he himself said, all that he had worked for was shattered, there was no man more resolved to pursue the unsought quarrel to the death. The same qualities which made him one of the last to enter the war, made him one of the last who would quit it until the full victory of a righteous cause was won.

I had the singular experience of passing in a day from being one of his most prominent opponents and critics to being one of his principal lieutenants, and on another day of passing from serving under him to become the head of a Government of which, with perfect loyalty, he was content to be a member. Such relationships are unusual in our public life. I have before told the House on the morrow of the Debate which in the early days of May challenged his position, he declared to me and a few other friends that only a National Government could face the storm about to break upon us, and that if he were an obstacle to the formation of such a Government, he would instantly retire. Thereafter, he acted with that singleness of purpose and simplicity of conduct which at all times, and especially in great times, ought to be a model for us all.

When he returned to duty a few weeks after a most severe operation, the bombardment of London and of the seat of Government had begun. I was a witness during that fortnight of his fortitude under the most grievous and painful bodily afflictions, and I can testify that, although physically only the wreck of a man, his nerve was unshaken and his remarkable mental faculties unimpaired.

After he left the Government he refused all honours. He would die like his father, plain Mr. Chamberlain. I sought the permission of the King however to have him supplied with the Cabinet papers, and until a few days of his death he followed our affairs with keenness, interest and tenacity. He met the approach of death with a steady eye. If he grieved at all, it was that he could not be a spectator of our victory, but I think he died with the comfort of knowing that his country had, at least, turned the corner.

At this time our thoughts must pass to the gracious and charming lady who shared his days of triumph and adversity with a courage and quality the equal of his own. He was, like his father and his brother, Austen, before him, a famous Member of the House of Commons, and we here assembled this morning, Members of all parties, without a single exception, feel that we do ourselves and our country honour in saluting the memory of one whom Disraeli would have called an "English worthy."

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Attlee)

I desire to add a few words on behalf of the Labour party to the eloquent and moving tribute which the Prime Minister has paid to one who was so lately our colleague in the Government, and to one who only six months ago was himself the Prime Minister. It is an old and gracious tradition of this House, when death comes to one who has taken a leading place in Parliament, that controversy should be stilled while leaders of all parties speak in recognition of the loss which has been sustained in common by all Members. At the present time, when war has brought together in support of one Government all the great parties of the State, it might seem, perhaps, unnecessary that anyone should speak from this Bench except the Prime Minister, who can speak for us all. Yet there is, I think, good reason to continue our ancient usages. It is characteristic of the way of life which we are fighting to preserve not to allow political differences to prevent mutual respect and friendship. It is a mark of our democracy to attain national unity, not by uniformity, but by diversity. For all but a few months of his political career, Neville Chamberlain stood for policies in home and foreign affairs to which we of the Labour Party were opposed, and often very bitterly opposed. But this is not the time or the occasion to pass any judgment on those controversies. We are too close to them to gain a true perspective. But opposed as we were to his policy, we never doubted that Mr. Chamberlain was honestly and sincerely following the course which he believed to be right in the interests of his country. We never doubted his deep devotion to the cause of peace.

It is remarkable that one family, in so short a period, should have produced three statesmen of outstanding achievement with such diverse gifts as Joseph, Austen and Neville Chamberlain. Neville Chamberlain brought to the service of this House most remarkable qualities—great industry, an orderly mind, clarity of exposition and readiness in debate, backed by great tenacity and determination. It was always obvious when he spoke that he had not just read a brief but had mastered his subject. Rarely, if ever, was he found wanting in knowledge. Few Ministers were more skilful in piloting through Committee a difficult and complicated Measure, and he was a great administrator.

It was his fate to be called to the office of Prime Minister at a time of very great difficulty. For nearly 18 years I encountered him as a political opponent—a redoubtable political opponent—but although we disagreed profoundly on politics, he never allowed those differences to affect the friendliness of our private relations. In the last months of his life I worked with him as a colleague and I was then better able to appreciate to the full his qualities. I saw the magnanimity with which he worked with those who had been his severe critics. I recognised his devotion to the common cause and his abhorrence of the evil thing which is seeking to destroy our civilisation. Above all, I admired the courage with which he faced the physical disabilities which came upon him, the devotion with which he strove to the last to serve his country and the faith in ultimate victory which sustained him. I wish, on behalf of the Members of my party, to express our deep sympathy with his widow and family in their bereavement.

The Secretary of State for Air (Sir Archibald Sinclair)

I should be grateful if the House would allow me on behalf of the Liberal party to add a very few words to the impressive tributes which have already been offered by the Prime Minister and by the Lord Privy Seal to the memory of Mr. Chamberlain. The Liberal party opposed his policies but respected his character and integrity. More than once, even in the heat of our most controversial Debates, we have paused to pay tribute to his humanity as a social reformer, to his courage, to his high sense of public duty and to his unsparing devotion to the cause of peace. Time and events have obliterated the most acute differences in policy, have united all parties in this House in the pursuit of a common aim—the aim of preserving British freedom from the menace of foreign tyranny—and have enabled us, his erstwhile opponents, to share the present grief of Mr. Chamberlain's family and of his loyal supporters and friends. So, I join with the Prime Minister and the Lord Privy Seal in mourning the loss of a generous and warm-hearted colleague, of a cool, wise and resolute counsellor, and of a brave and faithful public servant, who, with his father and his brother, shared a name which will for ever remain illustrious in the annals of Parliament.

Mr. Lambert (South Molton)

As one of the few Members who served in the House of Commons with three members of the Chamberlain family, may I add a few words to the tributes which have already been paid to Mr. Neville Chamberlain. I remember so well Sir Austen Chamberlain making his maiden speech. On that occasion Mr. Gladstone, always the soul of chivalry, complimented him on having made a speech, which was "dear and refreshing to a father's heart," and Mr. Joseph Chamberlain was moved by that expression. Sir Austen Chamberlain never became Prime Minister, nor did his distinguished father. That office fell to Mr. Neville Chamberlain, and he inherited a troubled heritage. No one can say that for the past few years our foreign policy has been conducted with vision or with vigour, but that was not entirely due to Mr. Chamberlain. When he assumed office he endeavoured strenuously, and at great personal inconvenience, to secure peace. He was baulked only by a cold-blooded and unscrupulous perjurer. But his name remains as that of one who strove for peace. How fervently we must wish that he could have been successful. Had he been successful, tens of millions of people in Europe would have blessed his name. But the great action at Munich—and I think it was a great action—has brought criticism. I would remind those who criticise, that Munich, at least, gave some tens of thousands of our young British boys another year of life and enabled this country to build up its armaments.

Those days are past and history will record its verdict. After the Debate of May of last year, although Mr. Chamberlain had a comfortable majority, he did not hesitate for one moment to sacrifice his great position on the altar of national unity, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who has paid him such an eloquent tribute, will agree that he never had a more loyal and unselfish colleague. Intrigue was foreign to Neville Chamberlain. We mourn him; we shall miss him, and if I had to search for an epitaph for him it would be: Neville Chamberlain, a selfless patriot, who gave his life to his country.