HC Deb 28 November 1957 vol 578 cc1292-8

3.54 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

I beg to move, That this House will, upon Tuesday next, resolve itself into a Committee to consider an humble Address to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will give directions that a Monument be erected within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster at the public charge to the memory of the late Right Honourable The Earl of Balfour, K.G., O.M., with an inscription expressive of the high sense entertained by this House of the eminent services rendered by him to the Country and to the Commonwealth and Empire in Parliament, and in great Offices of State. The House has rightly established for itself a rule that a Motion of this character should not be introduced until ten years after the death of the statesman for whom the memorial is proposed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill), in referring to this general agreement two years ago, made this observation: Ten years is long enough to allow partisan passions, whether of hatred or of enthusiasm, to cool, and not too long to quench the testimony of contemporary witnesses."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th March, 1955; Vol. 539, c. 40.] In fact, twenty-seven years have passed since the death of Lord Balfour. At the time, generous and eloquent tributes were paid to his memory by the Prime Minister of the day, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, by Mr. Baldwin and by Mr. Lloyd George.

Alas, there are very few of us who sit in the House at present, with one very notable exception, who can have full, first-hand personal knowledge of Lord Balfour's outstanding qualities. But I think there is no one who would not agree that in his case there can never have been any need for animosity to cool, and there are still, fortunately, some of us who have a lively recollection of his greatness, both of intellect and character.

The initiative for this Motion comes really from the whole House, and is made to the whole House. It was a recommendation of the all-party Committee which was set up last Session to consider the arrangements for a memorial to David Lloyd George. I think that we are all grateful to the Committee for giving us an opportunity to support this tribute today.

The life of Arthur Balfour spread over a period of eighty-two years. He first became a Member of the House of Commons in 1874, at a time when the Irish problem was at its height, and Mr. Disraeli was Prime Minister. There have been many great changes in political parties and electorates since that time. I observe, for instance, in reading a volume of admirable biography by his devoted niece, that the last sentence of his first Election address ran as follows: As far as time will permit before the Election, I hope to wait upon every elector and to explain personally my views on the political questions of the day. I am afraid that with the size of modern electorates, even the most assiduous canvasser among us could hardly achieve this. And yet, with so much change, the essential character of the House of Commons remains; and, in spite of all his other activities and powers, it is primarily as a House of Commons man that we like to think of Arthur Balfour.

His achievements are part of our history and they covered every aspect of government, from the part he played in the formation of our educational system, to his labours in the creation of the League of Nations after the First World War. It is not part of my task today to speak of his achievement as a statesman, nor am I competent to do so. I would prefer to recall, as far as I am able, his qualities as a man and as a Member of this House.

Arthur Balfour will always be associated with three characteristics: his great qualities of mind, his personal charm and capacity for friendship, and, thirdly, his invincible courage. Very few of our statesmen can have had higher intellectual qualities. His mind was refined to a degree that might be almost thought a disadvantage in a politician. But he was able, even at the height of his political career, to turn his mind from the arduous work of politics to the pursuit of philosophical inquiry.

His "Foundations of Belief" and "A Defence of Philosophic Doubt" have placed him high in his own right as a scholar and a philosopher. He had an immense range of learning, and read vast quantities of books. He observed once that he had never met the person whose intellectual gifts had been overloaded with learning. He added: No doubt many learned people are dull, but not because they are learned. True dullness is seldom acquired, It is a natural grace, the manifestations of which, however magnified by education, remain in substance the same. There are some still of the older Members of this House who will recall his charm and friendship. I remember, as a very young man, when I had the privilege of meeting him on one or two occasions, taking away a very vivid memory of his extraordinary courtesy. He could make every young man believe that it was his opinions that were worth seeking and his conversation the only one worth listening to. This was not a pose or mere politeness; it was because he was genuinely interested in people. Yet, though he enjoyed friendship and society, he was, I think, at heart a rather solitary man and it was difficult for most people to penetrate the deep recesses of his character.

Equally marked was his modesty. A fine example of this is the record of his career at the beginning of the First World War. He had, after all, been Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party, and he might have thought himself entitled to an honourable period of retirement. When the first Coalition Government was formed, in 1915, he wrote to Mr. Asquith that he would serve if his services were desirable or useful, and he added, "I am quite indifferent as to what office I take."

Indeed, he was fortunate in this, as it were, Indian summer of his political life. It had seemed that his public career was over, but perhaps the most memorable of his work for his country was done in the second phase of his life. His deep human sympathies were always aroused by human suffering. He will always be remembered in connection with the Declaration which bears his name with regard to a home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

As to outward appearances, when Balfour first entered this House he was regarded as something of a dilettante among politicians. It was not thought that he had the fibre to make a great statesman. Yet, in 1887, he was, to the surprise of many people, appointed to the office of Chief Secretary for Ireland, at that time perhaps the toughest assignment that could be given to any Minister. Balfour fulfilled it with a firmness and courage that was the wonder of all his contemporaries.

For many years, under the Administration of Lord Salisbury, he was Leader of this House, with all that that entailed when the Prime Minister was in another place. His devotion to the work of the House has rarely been surpassed and he always regarded himself as the servant of the House. It may be worth noting that it was during this period, when he was Leader of the House, that the present procedure by which the choice of the subject in Supply rests with the Opposition, came first into existence.

Perhaps I might be allowed to conclude with the last sentence of Mr. Lloyd George's most eloquent tribute in this House when Lord Balfour died. He said this, and I think they are wonderful words: His countrymen will always think of him, to the ends of the earth, not only as one who attained high distinction in an honoured calling, but as one who in doing so conferred an added distinction on that calling itself."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th March, 1930; Vol. 236, c. 2171.] No man could have a finer epitaph. In honouring Arthur Balfour we are honouring the whole parliamentary system which he served so long and so faithfully.

4.4 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Gaitskell (Leeds, South)

I rise to support the Motion moved in such eloquent terms by the Prime Minister

As the Prime Minister said, it is twenty-seven years since Lord Balfour died. Like most other hon. Members, I did not have the privilege of knowing him personally so shall speak only very briefly. We all wish to listen rather to those Members who did know him personally. The Motion is one that the House of Commons should pass, because we should not, and could not, decide such matters according to our party allegiance but according to our views of the life, character, achievements and public service of the statesman in question. Judged in this way, there can surely be no doubt about the merits of this Motion.

The Prime Minister has described Lord Balfour's career; I need not add more than a few words. Balfour was a Member of this House for nearly half a century, leader of his party in the House of Commons for twenty years, leader of his party in the country for nine years, Leader of this House from 1891 to 1892 and then for ten years from 1895 to 1905. As we know, in addition to being Prime Minister, he held many of the high offices of State. He has been described, I think it was by Mr. Lloyd George, as the last of the great statemen of the Victorian era."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th March, 1930; Vol. 236, c. 2167.] Indeed that is so.

It is interesting to reflect that Balfour served under Disraeli and that he debated across the Table of the House with Mr. Gladstone, both from the Government side and from the Opposition side, and that he attended the Congress of Berlin in 1878 as private secretary to Lord Salisbury; while, of course, he was a great figure in the twentieth century as well, not only as Prime Minister and as Leader of the Opposition in the stormy years from 1906 to 1911, but later on, after he had given up his position as party leader; and most notably as Foreign Secretary during the First World War. Balfour was not only a great Parliamentarian, but a great humanist as well. It has been said that he was admired by philosophers because he was a statesman and was admired by statesmen because he was a philosopher.

The Prime Minister has quoted Mr. Lloyd George's tribute to Balfour. I would wish to add some words from that notable occasion, when Mr. Lloyd George described Balfour in this House as a man of great and spotless renown."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th March, 1930; Vol. 236, c. 2171]. We do well to honour his memory in this way.

4.7 p.m.

Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)

I had the honour of serving on the Committee which put forward the proposal which is contained in the Motion which has been proposed by the Prime Minister. As one who has been throughout a member of the party which was in Opposition to the policy of the party which Earl Balfour led, I am grateful for being allowed to say a few words in support of the Motion.

It may be that we, who are in opposition, are often better able to judge a man's character, appreciate his power and form a just estimate of his stature, than are others. Arthur Balfour served his country in this House and in the House of Peers for five and fifty years and throughout that long period he was an illustrious and outstanding leader whose views were held in respect even by those who profoundly disagreed with him.

Arthur Balfour's was a personality of rare distinction. He was a philosopher, a statesman and, in science, a keen searcher after further knowledge. One always admired his vast ability but, above all, we ever paid tribute to his high character. Throughout his long career he held an exceptional position in the intellectual, social and political life of his time.

I remember him as a master of debate, not fluent and often hesitant; but that was due to his desire to find the precise word to express accurately his thoughts. When he found it and gave it utterance one felt at once that it was exactly the right word. While we, who were opposed to him, fiercely fought him, we always admired his high courage and his imperturbable temper and, what is more. his effective use of delicate irony. In all the great offices of State which he held he served this country and its people with selfless devotion.

As the Prime Minister has said, there is one people who will hold his memory in reverence for his Declaration, signed as Foreign Minister in November, 1917—the famous Balfour Note—which gave, for the first time in 2,000 years, a new hope to the Jewish people, and was the foundation of the State of Israel.

For his long, arduous and devoted services we shall always revere him. I am proud to be allowed to be associated with this proposal to show our profound admiration, our respect and our gratitude to Arthur Balfour.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, nemine contradicente, That this House will, upon Tuesday next, resolve itself into a Committee to consider an humble Address to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will give directions that a Monument be erected within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster at the public charge to the memory of the late Right Honourable The Earl of Balfour, K.G., O.M., with an inscription expressive of the high sense entertained by this House of the eminent services rendered by him to the Country and to the Commonwealth and Empire in Parliament, and in great Offices of State.