HC Deb 06 April 1955 vol 539 cc1181-8
Mr. C. R. Attlee (Walthamstow, West)

Mr. Speaker, I ask leave of the House, before we proceed to the business of the day, to refer to the event which is in all our minds, the change of Prime Minister.

I recall very well speaking from this Box eighteen years ago on a similar occasion when Mr. Baldwin, as he then was, relinquished the high office of Prime Minister. Today, we are parting with a Prime Minister who led this country through some of the most fateful years of its history and who has served in this House for more than fifty years. For the greater part of that time he has been one of the outstanding figures in the parliamentary arena.

The retirement from active political life of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) does, indeed, mark the close of an epoch. He is the last survivor in this House of those who served in Queen Victoria's reign. He held high office before and during the First World War. In the length of his political career he rivals Palmerston and Gladstone. He gave a leadership to this country when it needed it most, and in history, as one of the greatest of all Prime Ministers, his place is assured.

This is not an occasion, Sir, for an appraisal of the right hon. Gentleman's career either as a most illustrious statesman on the world stage or as a great parliamentarian. Fortunately, we were enabled to give expression to our appreciation of a great man not long ago, on his eightieth birthday. We hope that the day may be still far distant when more formal tributes will have to be paid.

We feel, today, the loss from the Government Front Bench of a great parliamentarian whose speeches have lent lustre to our debates; and we shall also miss those witty replies which so often enlivened our debates. It was only last week that we were enjoying them. Above all, perhaps, we shall miss a familiar figure for whom, despite the many differences we may have had with him, we could not help having a warm affection.

I do not know whether there will be occasions on which the right hon. Gentleman will address this House again, but he is now leaving the front line. He is to have a well earned rest; instead of continuing to make history we hope that he will be continuing to write it. But he carries with him the warm good wishes of us all.

I should now like to offer to the right hon. Gentleman's successor our very sincere congratulations. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir A. Eden) has had a long apprenticeship in high office and has earned the esteem of hon. Members in all parts of the House. He has, I am sure, no illusions as to the weight of the burden which he now takes up in these troublous times. We all wish him health and strength, but we on this side cannot, of course, wish him a long tenure of office. Indeed, it is our duty, as soon as opportunity offers, to try to give him a period of rest. But as a Mr. Young said to Lord Melbourne when that statesman was hesitating to accept the Premiership, "Why, damn it all, such a position was never held by any Greek or Roman, and if it only last three months it will be worth while to have been Prime Minister of England." So we are glad to congratulate him.

Mr. David Grenfell (Gower)

This is a day of leave-taking and of generous acknowledgement of great services. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) has no need of praises, but he has fully earned them and we should be very unworthy if we did not now tender our appreciation of his great service to the House and to the country.

The right hon. Gentleman was a great statesman and leader in world affairs. I have already expressed my admiration of his broad-minded and practical attitude towards the new technical and social revolution in progress all over the world. Statesmen have a duty to lead public opinion. They have to take note of the scientific as well as the political revolutions which are extending their area of impact and their influence in world affairs. The right hon. Gentleman has made himself familiar with modern problems at home and overseas.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford has probably seen more of the world than most of his contemporaries in this House. He has written with great literary skill on many subjects. I had the privilege of serving in his war-time Administration as Secretary for Mines and he then won my profound admiration for his industry and determination. I am sorry that he has resigned. I wish to say "Thank you" to him, particularly for his war service, and to wish him many years of peaceful coexistence with all his well-wishers and friends.

I should like also to support the welcome extended by my right hon. Friend to the new Prime Minister. We have known him in the House for a long time and I am sure that there can be very few here who have not been conscious of a personal esteem for the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir A. Eden). The right hon. Gentleman is facing the most important responsibilities on the world stage today. We hope that he will have authority adequate to meet his responsibilities. He does not represent the same school of politics as I went to, and in which I remain, but I have a very strong personal admiration for him and a large measure of confidence in his desire to do the right thing.

Mr. Walter Elliot (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)

The Leader of the Opposition and the Father of the House have each spoken friendly words of welcome—at least, reasonably friendly words of welcome—to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. From this side of the House, Mr. Speaker, may I, through you, redouble that welcome on perhaps a more intimate note?

My right hon. Friend the new Prime Minister is one of the very few persons obviously destined for a great post who has, in fact, eventually attained that post. So not only does the House wish him well but his party, in particular, wishes him well. He has served a long and arduous apprenticeship and he comes to his gigantic task vigorous and mature. Fortunate is the country which has such inheritors.

My right hon. Friend succeeds one of the greatest men whom our records know. As has been said, this is not the moment to make any appraisement of my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill), but one has to go far back into the past to reach any comparable figure. His ancestor Marlborough stamped himself on Europe as few Englishmen—indeed, few Europeans—have done, and he became a legend. When Napoleon was watching the rout of all his armies, it was the tune of the song about Marlborough, that legendary figure, that rose to his lips. Here is one who has surpassed him. He has become a legend while still alive, and not in Europe only.

Despite our rule against commemorating anyone in this House until he has been dead for ten years, it is already more than ten years since, by common consent. the very gateway to our Chamber was christened the Churchill Arch. We, for all our parliamentary lives, have risen and sat down with this legend. To us he is flesh and blood, the most human of men. His rolling eloquence and his irreverent quips have been familiar to us in Parliament, generation after generation.

Last night Lord Samuel, on the radio. compared my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford to Shakespeare's Henry V at Agincourt and also, a little inappropriately I thought, to Hamlet, to the melancholy Jaques and even to Puck. But none of these had his humour. There is only one other Shakespearian figure appropriate in this context, and that is Falstaff himself. If, by some alchemy. we could melt down these two figures, Falstaff and Henry V, into a single man, we would get a figure comparable to my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford, not merely because of his humour but because of that enormous zest, that gusto of life and experience, that common humanity.

We would also get that power of transition which is one of the chief characteristics and one of the greatest charms of the right hon. Member for Woodford. It is, for example, the outstanding feature of his oratory. When he said: Give us the tools and we will finish the job one sometimes forgets the build-up of the noble phrases before he came to those hammer blows of monosyllables. When he began, he said: We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Having so built up, then came the 10 blows of these great Anglo-Saxon monosyllables.

The House has today lost one of the greatest Front Benchers in all its history, and in that we are all the poorer. But the back benchers have gained the greatest back bencher of all time. By this at least we can say that each of us is ennobled; and all the House enriched.

Mr. John Maclay (Renfrew, West)

On this occasion my National-Liberal and Conservative colleagues on this bench would wish me to join in welcoming the Prime Minister and in offering him our congratulations and our warmest good wishes. The right hon. Gentleman has already given many years of hard and devoted service not only to our own nation, but to the whole civilised world. In recent months some of us have seen for ourselves his personal intervention change, in a matter of days, a situation that was producing something close to despair in the hearts of a great many people in the nations of free Europe into one of optimism and constructive hope.

The contribution that the right lion. Gentleman has already made to the maintenance of peace is one which must give confidence in his ability to lead our nation, at a time when, possibly more than ever before in time of peace, Britain's leadership may well determine the fate of free Western civilisation. We wish him well, and, not unnaturally, we wish him a long period of office.

We would also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill). It is beyond my power to express adequately our feelings. All I would add to what has already been said so effectively is to express our profound gratitude for having had the privilege of serving under his leadership in time of war and in more recent years.

For myself—and, I believe, for countless others, not all of whom may invariably have agreed with him—the knowledge over the years that my right hon. Friend has been there has been a continuing source of strength and comfort, above all in moments of doubt or anxiety. I find it difficult to contemplate a world without that knowledge. Fortunately, it is not necessary to do so. In fact, so long as those who have known that source of strength are living, they will be conscious of it, as will our successors, and history will confirm that our values have been wisely placed.

Mr. Donald Wade (Huddersfield, West)

In the absence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies), who has asked me to say how very greatly he regrets his inability to be here today, I should like to add a few words of tribute to one whom the Leader of the Opposition has rightly described as the outstanding figure of our parliamentary life, and, if I may say so, also one who is beloved by the whole House.

I cannot claim to have had the privilege of close association with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill), either in office or out of office, a privilege which many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen have, I know, enjoyed. I can speak only as a very humble Member of the House and a comparatively young one. If, for that reason, my remarks are very brief, I can assure you, Mr. Speaker, that they are none the less sincere.

As a very small boy I can just remember the late Percy Illingworth, who was a member of Mr. Asquith's Government and a near relative of my father, speaking in glowing terms of the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Member for Woodford. It seemed to me in those days that he had already lived a very full and colourful life. Through the eyes of a small boy, it seemed that he had already well-nigh reached the zenith of a brilliant career; and yet, as we know, there were still forty years and more to unfold.

Today, the right hon. Gentleman is still full of vigour. Thank God for that. Last week we had evidence of it. We saw that puckish smile, if I may so describe it, the sparkling eyes, and we heard the sparkling replies. Even if I had the gift of words, no eloquence of mine could adequately convey the deep affection which this House has for this great man. May I therefore simply say what is in the minds of many outside the House as well as many within it? It is that we hope he will enjoy a well-deserved holiday and a well-earned rest, and that when he returns we shall have the joy of seeing him here for many more days to come.

Before I sit down, may I add my congratulations to the new Prime Minister? We wish him good health in the heavy burden which he has accepted. He has given much of his life to arduous and patient work in the cause of peace and, whatever our political views may be, I am sure that we most earnestly desire that the untiring efforts of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir A. Eden) in the cause of peace will ere long bear fruit.

The Prime Minister (Sir Anthony Eden)

I must, first, try to acknowledge the very generous words which have been used by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and all those who have spoken in the House this afternoon—in well-deserved terms—about my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill). The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Attlee) rightly said that this is not the time for us to appraise my right hon. Friend's work. For one thing, he is, fortunately, still among us; and we all know quite well that whenever he returns to us from his holiday he will still be the dominating figure among us.

But while we admit that this is not the time for such an appraisal, perhaps the House would permit me a very few words on this subject, because for more than sixteen years we have been so intimately associated in political work, and, as it so happens, I have never spoken about this before. As I reflect over those years, and think of them in the terms of what we yet have to do, certain lessons seem to me to stand out for us in the message of what we have done.

First, I think, in work, was my right hon. Friend's absolute refusal, as his War Cabinet colleagues knew so well, to allow any obstacles, however formidable, to daunt his determination to engage upon some task. With that, courage; and the courage which expresses itself not only in the first enthusiastic burst of fervour but which is also enduring, perhaps the rarer gift of the two.

Although my right hon. Friend has perhaps the widest and most varied interests in life of any man we are likely to know—and that is true—I still think that his great passion was the political life and that he brought to the service of it a most complete vision. No man I have ever known could so make one understand the range of a problem and, at the same time, go straight to its core. I believe that in statesmanship that will be the attribute which many who knew him would place first among his many gifts.

Apart from these things, in spirit there was the magnanimity, most agreeable of virtues; and, let us be frank about it, not one which we politicians find it always easy to practise, although we should all like to do so. In part, perhaps, this was easier with him, because I think he always thought of problems not in abstract terms but in human values; and that was one of the things which endeared him to all this House.

Finally, as has been so well said, there was the humour—the humour based on the incomparable command of the English language, which was so often our delight, not least at Question Time. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be deeply moved by the things which right hon. and hon. Gentlemen have said of him this afternoon, for he loves this House—loves it in companionship and in conflict.

The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and others have been kind in their welcome to me. I enjoyed very much the Melbourne reflections. The right hon. Gentleman, with his deep knowledge of history, will not, however, have forgotten that Melbourne, although always talking of leaving office, contrived to stay there for a very long time indeed. But I have no desire, I beg him to believe, to emulate that in its entirety. For the rest, I can only say to the right hon. Gentleman and to the Father of the House, too, that I have been deeply touched by what has been said this afternoon and that, for my part, I will do all I can to serve our country.