HC Deb 24 October 1950 vol 478 cc2703-10
The Prime Minister

Mr. Speaker, I rise to move an Address in reply to His Majesty's Gracious Message as follows: MOST GRACIOUS SOVEREIGN, We Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled humbly beg leave to offer to Your Majesty our most hearty thanks for the arrangements which Your Majesty was pleased to make (with the most willing assent of the House of Lords) for our accommodation in Your Palace of Westminster since the destruction of the House of Commons nine years ago. We also tender our most grateful thanks to Your Majesty for having caused the rebuilding, on the same site, of that Chamber in Your Palace of Westminster which was allocated for the use of the Commons by Your Royal Predecessor Queen Victoria nearly a hundred years ago and which was destroyed by the malice of Your enemies in 1941. In that dark time, when almost all Europe lay beneath the heel of the conqueror, Your Majesty's peoples stood firmly together and freely shed their blood in the cause of democratic freedom. In this same generous spirit those Peoples have given lavishly of the natural products of their soil and of their own skill and industry to brighten and adorn the new Chamber which You have set apart for our use. We thank Your Majesty for the gracious message directing us to occupy the new Chamber on Thursday the 26th day of October and for the arrangements which have enabled the Speakers, Presiding Officers or their deputies of so many countries of the Commonwealth and Empire to be present on this occasion. In all humility we trust that with God's help our deliberations in our new Chamber may result in securing the peace, well being and happiness not only of our own people and the peoples of the Commonwealth but of all the peoples of the world. This is an occasion that is fraught with emotion for all Members of the House of Commons, but especially for those of us who knew and worked in the old Chamber. The House has met in a number of Chambers in the course of its long history. In 1834, St. Stephen's Chapel, which had been the scene of the great orations by Chatham, Pitt, Fox and Burke, was destroyed by fire. For 18 years the Commons had to wait until 1852 when the House of Commons that we knew, the work of Barry and Pugin, was at last taken into use. In that Chamber. too, great orators were heard, Gladstone and Disraeli overshadowing all, and in its last year it was the scene of memorable speeches by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition in our darkest but finest hour.

We can recall that night in May, 1941, when our old Chamber was destroyed. I well remember picking my way over the ruins and my feeling of deep emotion at the loss of something so intimately bound up with the life of the nation. That Chamber was far from perfect, but it was very dear to us. The Government of the day, an all-party Government, decided that without delay the work of building a new Chamber should begin despite all the difficulties in which we were involved, and despite all urgent conflicting claims. I am sure that that decision was right, for this House is the habitation, not merely of a number of individuals, but of the spirit of Parliamentary Government. It is the workshop of democracy.

Here may I express the thanks of us all to the Select Committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton), the Father of the House. It was appointed in October, 1943, and reported in January, 1945. Its report, which was the work of Members of all parties, was accepted by all. What was its main feature? It recommended that the form and size of the new Chamber should be as nearly as possible the same as that of the old. Strangers sometimes ask me why, when a new Chamber had to be built, did we not decide to provide seats for all on the Floor; why did not we provide desks, or why did not we have some variation in the shape and arrangement of the House, something on the lines of that prevailing in some other younger legislatures.

I think the answer is that changes of this kind would have destroyed the intimate traditions of this House; they would have affected the style of debate to which we have been accustomed for so many years, and I think this decision is in harmony with our British methods where so often we preserve the form of our institutions while altering their content and purpose. I think the British have the distinction above all other nations of being able to put new wine into old bottles without bursting them.

The Churchill Arch, built out of stones salvaged from the old Chamber, is a symbol of the continuity of our institutions. On the other hand, without any alteration of essentials, many improvements have been introduced. The galleries have been extended, there is more room for the Press and the public, and the need for this, I think, is shown by the long queues waiting for admission to our debates. I do not think there has ever been a keener interest than is shown today in the proceedings of Parliament. Again, on the lower floors there is a whole range of rooms, beautiful and convenient taking the place of that apparatus that formerly used to blow cold air over our feet.

I am sure that the ventilation of the new House will be a great improvement, and there was surely very great need for this. I never used to appreciate those strange river smells which used to be blown across the Front Benches in old times. I am assured, too, that the acoustics of the new House are to be very good. They have been thoroughly tested on Guardsmen and civil servants, and in the new House I am assured that even my right hon. Friend the Minister of Town and Country Planning and the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Professor Savory) will be heard without difficulty.

The new Chamber will be adorned by gifts from overseas. From 45 countries of the Commonwealth and Empire, from small peoples as well as great, from every continent have come these generous gifts from our fellow members. In the Chamber and outside we shall have a constant reminder that we belong to what General Smuts used to call "The British family of nations." And so we are grateful to the legislatures of so many Commonwealth States for sending their Speakers or presiding officers to take part in our House warming.

I think we have now a House of great beauty, a monument of British architecture and craftsmanship. I should like to pay tribute to Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect, to Dr. Oscar Faber, the engineer, and to all the artists and craftsmen, the masons and carpenters and those who have given of their best to make this a Chamber worthy of the greatest democratic assembly in the world.

The Lord President will be moving later a suitable motion of thanks to their Lordships for lending us their Chamber while our new House was in building. The personnel of this House changes rapidly. To many hon. Members this Chamber is the only Commons House which they have known; yet, within 48 hours, it will become once more "another place." It will, I know, be the wish of us all that the new Chamber, like the old, will ever be the home of free Debate, a temple of tolerance, a strong fortress of liberty. Long may it endure.

Mr. Churchill (Woodford)

I beg to second the Motion.

We are all indebted to the Prime Minister for his speech. We join with him in all that he has said. His speech was full of memories and showed how comprehending he is of the background to our daily political life. We associate ourselves with the tributes he has paid to the work of the Select Committee and my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton), to the designers, architects and engineers, and also to the craftsmen to whom the rebuilding of the House of Commons, was, I am sure, a labour of love. Also we support him in expressing our thanks to the Governments of the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations, whose representatives we welcome and whose gifts we cherish.

I must thank the Prime Minister for his personal references to me. I am a child of the House of Commons and have been here—or there, I am not quite sure which it is—I believe longer than anyone. I was much upset when I was violently thrown out of my collective cradle. I certainly wanted to get back to it as soon as possible. Now the day has dawned, the hour almost come, and I am grateful to His Majesty's Government for the persistence and vigour and efficiency which they have shown in the task of rebuilding in so short a time and amidst many other competitive pre-occupations.

It excites world wonder m the Parliamentary countries that we should build a Chamber, starting afresh, which can only seat two-thirds of its Members. It is difficult to explain this to those who do not know our ways. They cannot easily be made to understand why we consider that the intensity, passion, intimacy, informality and spontaneity of our Debates constitute the personality of the House of Commons and endow it at once with its focus and its strength.

It is likely, Mr. Speaker—I must warn you of this beforehand—that there will be differences of opinion even among ourselves when we meet again in our old Chamber with so many Members who have only known this spacious abode. However, I believe that in 10 or 20 years everyone will be thoroughly used to it. Anyhow, even if they do not, I do not see what they are going to do about it. For good or for ill the old gangs of all parties are united. They are a pretty tough lot when they stand together like that. That is not to say that minor changes may not be necessary, and we can quite easily, without raising structural issues, work our way into the most convenient arrangements for our lighting, heating, hearing, overhearing and ventilation technicalities.

I have been astonished to look what lies behind what I may call the presentation of Government policy in this matter. I trust that all their subterranean designs are not of such a highly elaborate and, on the whole, effective character. An hon. Member who was wounded by being deprived of the pomp and perquisite of a special seat and special desk for himself in the Chamber might find himself fully consoled by the material comforts and conveniences which he can derive from his life underground.

The Prime Minister said—and said quite truly—that the House of Commons was the workshop of democracy. But it has other claims too. It is the champion of the people against executive oppression. I am not making a party point; that is quite unfitting on such an occasion. But the House of Commons has ever been the controller and, if need be, the changer of the rulers of the day and of the Ministers appointed by the Crown. It stands forever against oligarchy and one-man power. All these traditions, which have brought us into being over hundreds of years, carrying a large proportion of the commanding thought of the human race with us, all these traditions received new draughts of life as the franchise was extended until it became universal. The House of Commons stands for freedom and law, and this is the message which the Mother of Parliaments has proved itself capable of proclaiming to the world at large.

I have the honour to second the Motion.

Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)

I count it an honour and a high privilege to be permitted to support this Motion. In the Gracious Message from His Majesty and in the Motion proposed by the Prime Minister, we note and underline once again the continuity of our Constitution, and we glory in our long, centuries-old tradition of which we are the proud inheritors. We are, as for generations we have been, the guests of His Majesty, and we are bid to occupy a new Chamber in His Majesty's Palace.

We humbly present our duty to His Majesty and tender to him our most grateful thanks. The King is the head of this nation, and in himself he symbolises the unity of the British people here in these islands and throughout the Commonwealth and Empire, and of our united desire and will to work together for the peace, well-being and happiness not only of our own people and those of the Commonwealth, but of all peoples of the world.

The rise of the new Chamber on the site of the old, the generous contributions towards its adornment and equipment made by the Commonwealth, and the warm and loving interest in its creation and opening, signified by the presence of the Speakers of their Legislative Assemblies, mark the position of a fresh milestone on the road which we of the Commonwealth have mapped out for ourselves as the way towards universal peace, goodwill and happiness.

In burning down the old Chamber in 1941, an enemy meant not only to destroy that building but to destroy this nation, the Commonwealth and free democracy. That enemy, in seeking to destroy freedom, destroyed himself. So may it always be, and so it always will be, so long as free peoples cherish their freedom, maintain constant watch and guard against those who would overthrow and demolish it, and hold fast to that unity from which they derive their strength.

On Thursday, by His Majesty's pleasure, the Commons will return home. We shall return home with full hearts, proud that under God victory has been vouchsafed to us, and by our very return we shall demonstrate that the cause of freedom is unconquerable. We loyally, humbly and dutifully thank His Majesty.

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

It would be ungracious on my part if I did not rise to thank the Prime Minister most sincerely, and also my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, for the very generous tribute which has been paid to the Select Committee over which I had the honour to preside. I think that I can say without impropriety that it was a very happy and united body, and I was very privileged to preside over it because, quite frankly, there were two members of it who in attainment and status were very considerably superior to myself.

It might interest the House to know that about 100 years ago there was a somewhat similar Debate in this House, though not on the same question—it was not on an Address—when the House was about to enter the rebuilt House after the fire of 1834. I am glad, Mr. Speaker, to be able to report to you, and through you to the House, that the proceedings on this occasion are far more harmonious than they were them, Mr. Bernal Osborne, a well-known Member of the House at that time, suggested that the best thing that could be done would be to take the House down and re-erect it in Hyde Park where it would form a much better home for the Exhibition than the Crystal Palace. He was followed by another hon. Member who said he disagreed with what his hon. Friend had said; personally he thought that the House was well suited to be an aviary and that all it required were a few canaries to twitter in the roof. I need hardly say that these two speeches were greeted with loud cheers and laughter which sometimes characterise the worst jokes made in this House. At any rate, that was the situation.

To be more serious, I should like in the two minutes that I shall allow myself to add to the tributes that have already been paid by the three right hon. Gentlemen who have preceded me to another set of persons. May I say without offence—because I am well aware that either praise or blame of the Chair is usually out of order—that all of us who were connected with the fire watching at the House of Commons—I was an assistant supervisor working, in the democratic system that we had, under one of the custodians as a supervisor—are much indebted to you, Sir, and to the Clerks at the Table, to the officials of the House, the workmen and all the others who were concerned not only for the arrangements that were made for the fire watching but for the extraordinary efficiency and felicity of the moves that were made respectively to Church House and afterwards to this place.

I should like also in that connection to pay a tribute to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition as Prime Minister of the National Government, the right hon. Gentleman the present Prime Minister, and, by no means least, to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House who was Home Secretary, for the manner in which they co-operated and assisted in these changes. In the course of the war there were naturally many successful operations carried out of infinitely greater magnitude and risk than the civilian one to which I have just referred, but no plan could have been carried out more efficiently and with greater devotion to duty on the part of the officials, civil servants and workmen engaged than that which secured the continuance of the life of this House as an institution after its physical home in the shape of the old Chamber had been destroyed. In supporting this Motion I should like to pay my tribute to all those who made that operation possible.

Question put, and agreed to nemine contradicente.

Resolved: That the said Address be presented to His Majesty by the whole House."—[The Prime Minister.]

Resolved: That such Members of this House as are of His Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council, do humbly know His Majesty's pleasure when He will be attended by this House with the said Address and whether His Majesty will be Graciously pleased to permit the invited representatives of overseas Parliaments of the British Commonwealth and Empire to accompany this House in attending His Majesty.".—[The Prime Minister.]