HC Deb 07 July 1960 vol 626 cc702-11
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

By a long-hallowed custom, this House marks the passing of one of its more eminent members by special tributes to his memory. Judged by any standard, we are right to follow this tradition today, for by the death of Aneurin Bevan we have lost a great personality and a great national figure.

Nothing was more striking than the surge of sympathy at the time of his grave illness some months ago. This feeling was spontaneous; and it was shared by men and women of every class and every party, including those whom he had in the past attacked most fiercely. This is perhaps typical of our way of life in this country. Yet it may perhaps be wondered why a man who had been all through his life a somewhat controversial figure should have ended by commanding such general admiration and affection.

I think that it was, perhaps, for two reasons. First, he was a genuine man. There was nothing fake or false about him. If he felt a thing deeply, he said so and in no uncertain terms. If he had a strong opinion—even prejudices—he expressed them strongly, but sincerely. Secondly, he was a bonny fighter—and a chivalrous one. If he struck blows which sometimes aroused angry retaliation he was always ready to receive blows in return. Moreover, if he sometimes spoke violently, he was never dull. He was sometimes harsh; he was never trite.

Finally, he expressed in himself and in his career, in his life, some of the deepest feelings of humble people throughout the land. Unlike many prophets, he was specially honoured in his own country. He was a keen politician, but he never played at politics. He was something of a revolutionary; he was always a patriot. And, beneath the charm and ebullience of his Celtic temperament, he was a deeply serious man.

In addition, with growing experience, he found many contacts with life in many forms. He was a highly cultivated man; fond of art and artists, of literature and writers; he mixed in a wide circle. But with all this, he retained his natural simplicity. There was no pretence about him, none of the sham culture of second-hand opinions. All through his life he was true to himself.

To us in this House his death makes a gap not easily filled. He was a great Parliamentarian and he became a supreme master of the strangely elusive art of Parliamentary speaking. He could be an orator in a way which is now supposed to be out of fashion. At the same time, he could argue a detailed case with consummate skill. In neither mood was he ever commonplace; whether in sustained rhetorical effort or in detailed Parliamentary debating.

During the years between the wars we were back benchers together and, in a sense, something of rebels together—hence our friendship, for he was a friend everywhere in the House, in the Chamber and in the Smoking Room. He belonged to the House of Commons. He was always an agreeable and stimulating companion. I remember vividly some of his speeches during that period, only equalled and hardly surpassed by the rhetoric of "Jimmy" Maxton. His tongue was sometimes harsh—I have more than once been under the lash myself —but he had a great sense of fun and, amid the storms, the sun kept coming out.

By younger members of this House who have only seen him in recent years, he will be remembered as a great Parliamentary performer, but also as a man who never failed in a speech, whether a good one or a bad one, to say something unusual, interesting, paradoxical perhaps, epigrammatic, but with a touch of real philosophy behind it.

We who have lived intimately with him so many years in this House feel a great blank. To his widow we would wish to pay a tribute of respectful sympathy. For all those in his own party and in the movements with which he was associated this sad event is, of course, a special loss. But, more than that, it marks the passing of a man who has impressed his character upon all those who were privileged to be in contact with him. We all, inside and outside the House, of every party and of every shade of opinion, are the poorer by the death of Aneurin Bevan.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Hugh Gaitskell (Leeds, South)

I thank the Prime Minister for the moving and impressive tribute, delivered in such well chosen words, to our right honourable Friend.

This is for all of us an immensely sad occasion. It is not only that Aneurin Bevan was pre-eminent—as the Prime Minister has said—in those arts of Parliamentary speech, debate, question and answer, repartee and exchange on which the reputation of this House rests. It is that he was also a man of warmth and passion, of imagination and humour, of gaiety and of vitality and conviction, of independent, fiercely held, forthright opinions, of towering personality.

So it seems to me that his death is as if a fire had gone out—a fire which we sometimes found too hot, by which we were sometimes scorched, a fire which flamed and flickered unpredictably, but a fire which warmed and cheered us and stimulated us, a fire which affected the atmosphere of our lives here and which illuminated all our proceedings. Now that it has gone out, I think that we are peculiarly conscious of the change, of a certain coldness and greyness that has come.

Here in this House most of us would think, first, of Aneurin Bevan's speeches —and there are many great ones from which we can choose our favourites, according, no doubt, to whether we were the victims or the accomplices. I recall two, in particular, which he made during the period of the Labour Government. One was his reply to the criticisms of our economic policy in 1949, which had been levelled with great force by the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill), when Mr. Bevan, in a famous phrase, welcomed the opportunity of pricking the bloated bladder of lies with the poniard of truth."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th September, 1949; Vol. 468. c. 310.] The other was his winding-up speech in the defence debate of February, 1951. which I heard Mr. Attlee afterwards describe to him as the finest of all his speeches.

Whether we were his friends or his victims, we join in tribute to his extraordinary powers—the devastating metaphors, the superb imagery, the far-ranging vocabulary, the search—I so much agree with the Prime Minister here —not only for the original phrase, but for the unusual idea, looking beyond the hill, as it were, or, as one correspondent described it recently, for the back of the moon. These are all so fresh in our memories.

Aneurin Bevan seldom used notes, and when he did it was often a failure. I was always nervous when I saw a large package of notes on the Box. Once, when I told him how much I envied his gift of spontaneous eloquence, he said, "I have far more difficulty than you. I just cannot speak from notes. So I have to prepare my speeches all the more carefully". No doubt he did prepare them in his mind, but there was no question of learning by heart. Perhaps the general shape and most of the ideas were thought out beforehand, as well as some of those flashing phrases, but the speech, as all who watched him know, was the most natural, spontaneous affair, and no rehearsed, artificial performance.

There are others here who knew Aneurin Bevan longer and more intimately than I did. But it was my lot to be thrown together with him much in these last fifteen years—first of all, in the Labour Government. His public record there is part of history and needs no words of embellishment from me. What is perhaps not so universally known is the great respect and admiration felt for him by his civil servants. To have a good Whitehall reputation is not everything, but those who have held office know what a shrewd and objective critic the Civil Service is of its political masters. And in the case of Aneurin Bevan, this highly favourable judgment of those who worked for him was to be added to his other, more obvious and well-known qualities.

No one would describe him as an easy man. His tempestuous temperament and his forceful personality made it inevitable that he should make enemies. Sometimes I thought that he did so unnecessarily. But he also had immense charm. I recall many occasions on which this was used to our great advantage. I remember one evening in particular, when Sir Stafford Cripps was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had arranged in those days for a group of Ministers chiefly concerned with production, but including Aneurin Bevan, to dine together regularly to try to clear out of the way, informally over the table, any disputes which had arisen and generally to see that we were keeping in step.

Occasionally, we had visitors, including visitors from overseas. Once we were to entertain an American Congressman, the chairman of a vitally important committee who was said to be notoriously anti-British. We looked forward with some trepidation to this dinner. We were not quite sure how it would turn out, and, in particular, we were not quite sure how "Nye" would get on with our visitor. We need not have worried. He completely entranced the Congressman by his wit and humour and good temper, and by the end of the evening they were bosom friends, bursting into laughter at this sally or that.

It is well known that for a few years after 1951 he and I were very much at odds, and our personal relations were strained. The House will understand if I pass over this unhappy period. But it is a measure of the stature of Aneurin Bevan that when it was over he was willing and able to overcome any feelings of bitternees and hostility which he may have had and to work together with me in what I feel was a loyal and fruitful partnership.

I am very glad that we had these years together. We did not always agree, even then. In committee, as well as in Cabinet, he was a forceful and persuasive advocate. With his great personal drive and his intellectual brilliance, he was not easy to resist, and of course, occasionally there were clashes. But, in fact, they were remarkably few. For the most part, surprising as it may seem, after the earlier clashes between us we found ourselves in agreement. He was an exceedingly shrewd and experienced Parliamentary tactician whose advice was of great value to us, and as a colleague, once the course was determined, he was the most vigorous partner one could have wished for —staunch, courageous, forthright and dominant.

Yet if I am asked for my strongest impression of Aneurin Bevan, it is not as a brilliant speaker, or as a forceful colleague, but as a great and human personality. We went to Russia together last summer, and I have especially happy memories of that visit. I am not thinking of any international value it may have had, but of the experience which I gained of being with him at this time.

Despite the shadow of his approaching illness, he was in brilliant form throughout the whole period. He was utterly frank with our Russian hosts, never for one moment disguising his criticisms of their system but spicing his comments with wit and humour which charmed them. I remember especially one extraordinary evening in which he bewildered our Russian companions with a tremendous onslaught on what he regarded as the bourgeois puritanism displayed in the Soviet Union, and in doing so he revealed a huge range of knowledge of literature, of poets and of history, exploding into laughter at the end of each sally.

This brings me to the last thing which I want to say about him. He was a man of passion and prejudice, but his prejudices and passions were completely honest and natural. He believed passionately, for instance, in personal liberty and the right to privacy. He hated passionately vulgarity and squalor and snobbery and injustice. He was, as the Prime Minister has said, an exceedingly cultured man, very well read and very interested in the arts. He was a great admirer of modern painting. I once stayed with him in one of our embassies abroad where, to his delight, he found that the ambassador was a collector of abstract art. They had a very good time together. Later, we visited the Brussels Exhibition of Modern Painting, and for me it was a great experience to be with him there.

Aneurin Bevan was always fearless in advocating what he believed and, with all his magnetic qualities, he did not court popularity. He was without guile. He made enemies as well as friends, but even his enemies never failed to recognise his outstanding qualities and the power of his presence. Even those who were his victims came to have not only respect but a deep and abiding affection for him.

I know that all of us here, regardless of party, are filled with sorrow that he has gone and are proud that we have known him. We send to his widow, our friend and colleague, our very deep sympathy. In these last months she has borne, and borne nobly, a most cruel strain, and on her now falls the heaviest burden of all. I hope that she may be sustained by the universal outburst of sorrow, not only in this House or in Britain but throughout the world, which has followed his death, and by the moving and sincere tributes paid everywhere to one of the great men of our time.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)

Throughout the House, irrespective of party, and, indeed, throughout the country, we mourn the passing of a great leader, a superb fighter for human rights, and a fighter for the suppression of inequality and suffering. From everywhere in the world this morning come expressions of deep genuine sorrow.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me to pay my tribute to such a distinguished fellow countryman, with whom I was so closely associated for over thirty years. But Aneurin Bevan was more than a fellow countryman of the Welsh people. He was, in sympathy, the fellow countryman of any man of any nation throughout the world, ever ready to defend that man, whatever his race, his colour, or his creed, and demand for him equality of rights with all his fellow beings on earth. He hated suffering. He hated inequality. He hated injustice. He hated domination, however and by whomsoever exercised. But, above all, he hated hypocrisy.

Aneurin Bevan's supreme qualities were superb, unflinching moral courage, deep sincerity, and complete selflessness. That was his supreme strength. Once he had decided upon the course to pursue, decided its rightness and its purpose, he never hesitated to follow it, and to follow it unswervingly. I have never known a man less concerned with his own personal welfare, or his own personal advancement. Whether his advocacy on a particular policy or a particular action would advance his own position, or would harm his own position, never received from him the slightest consideration. He was not interested in that. To him such a matter was beneath him and beneath his contempt.

Had he been more of a politician and more concerned about himself, he would not have suffered the setbacks and humiliations that would have struck dawn many a lesser man. It has been said, and rightly, that he attacked the big men of his day. Yes, he did so; but he did not attack them because of their greatness. Still less to draw attention to himself as one who was not afraid of the seemingly unconquerable foe. No, he attacked because he felt that an injustice was being done and that the injustice caused suffering and humiliation to his fellow human beings. He attacked to remove that injustice, that pain, that suffering, and that humiliation.

If, perchance, a great, well-known and respected person was, in his opinion, in the main responsible for that injustice or suffering, that was the one to attack. He would do so vehemently. He would do it eloquently. He would do it fiercely. He would do it effectively. The personality of that particular man did not matter. It was the injustice that had to be removed that mattered.

I well remember his maiden speech, which caused as great a sensation as that of Mr. F. E. Smith in 1906. He attacked with knowledge, with purpose and with effect the one whom he considered to be responsible for the low wages of the miners, for the dangers which faced the miners, for the suffering of the miners, and for the suffering of the miners' families.

The House has lost a great Parliamentarian. The country has lost a great leader. Not only is this House, not only is his own country of Wales, not only is Britain and the great Commonwealth poorer, but the world itself is the poorer for the passing of a great, broad-minded, intensely human leader and an inspirer of the highest and noblest thoughts which he would, whenever he could, have translated into action for the benefit of humanity.

There was nothing mean or petty about Aneurin Bevan. He was upright; he was downright; he was forthright. Statesman, administrator, Parliamentarian, orator, incomparable advocate for the weak and the suffering and for justice everywhere, he was, at the same time, a true, sincere, lovable friend, whose memory every one of us will long cherish. To his widow, who has long been our colleague, every one of us desires to extend our deepest sympathy.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. James Griffiths (Llanelly)

Mr. Speaker, I am grateful to you and to the House, for its courtesy in granting me this privilege of joining in the tributes to a very old friend and colleague. I want to associate with the tributes, in particular, those colleagues of mine who, in the miners' group and in the Welsh Labour Group, were so closely associated with Aneurin Bevan. We also desire to convey to his widow and to his family our heartfelt sympathy in their grief and sorrow.

This is a sad day in every mining village in this land. In every coalfield and in every coal mining village they will be sorrowfully saying to each other today, "Our Nye has gone", for he was. "Our Nye" to all of them. They were proud of the pitboy who reached eminence in the councils of the nations and prouder still that, having risen, his heart was always back home in the valley and with his old mates.

I was privileged to know Aneurin Bevan over very many years and I know that if he were here today he would want to say, and would want me to say, how much he owed to the community in which he was reared. I know that he would want me to say a word about Tredegar. He was deeply rooted in the life of his valley and deeply attached to his native town. The valleys and villages, torn and scarred by a century of industrialism, are nothing much to look at, but they are wonderful places to grow up in. They contain homes that are sanctuaries for all that is best in the mind and the spirit. They are communities with a deep sense of neighbourhood, where one man's success is everyone's joy and one man's adversity is everybody's burden. I am thinking today of Tredegar and of those valleys. We have lost one of our greatest sons.

We used to exchange stories about our country and about our people. There was one story of which he was very fond, because he thought that it expressed something profoundly true about the background of our life. It is said that one day a stranger came to the valley and climbed the hillside. In the garden outside a cottage he saw a collier, still in his working clothes, digging the rocky soil. The stranger looked for a while, and then said to the collier, "My good man, what can you possibly grow in soil like this?" The collier looked up, and replied, "Men." That is what the valleys produce.

In paying this tribute to this greatest of the sons of the valley, I pray that our beloved valleys may yet, in the years to come, have the privilege of producing men of the calibre of our dear Aneurin Bevan.