HC Deb 22 January 1963 vol 670 cc40-50

3.33 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

It has been our custom that tributes to the memory of a distinguished figure in our parliamentary and political life should be made at this time, after Questions and before proceeding to other business. I have inquired into the precedents, and I find that it has been our tradition to adjourn the House after the speeches only in the event of the death of a former Prime Minister. In the case of Mr. Neville Chamberlain, whose death took place during the war, the urgency of some necessary business made it impossible to follow this practice. But in every other case it has been applied.

However, I have felt that in matters of this kind precedents should be regarded as a general guide and not as rules to be adhered to pedantically or slavishly. In this case, where we have to mourn the loss of the Leader of the Opposition of the day, I felt that it would be in conformity with the general wish of the House that we should proceed no further with our business when our tributes are completed. It is for that reason that I formally move this Motion.

During the last few days much has been written and spoken in praise of Hugh Gaitskell by friends, admirers, political supporters and opponents in this country. Equally striking has been the great number of tributes which have come from Commonwealth and foreign countries all over the world. These have been widely reported in the Press and have reached a large number of listeners through the radio and television circuits.

Today, we shall speak of him as a parliamentary colleague in the more intimate circles of the House of Commons, where we have all lived and worked together for so many years. The House will, therefore, not expect me to give any comprehensive review or to dwell at any length on the story of his life and achievements, still less at this moment of time to assess his place in history. I would only recall how rapid and spectacular was his rise in Parliament. From a private Member, in 1945, he passed through several offices to become Chancellor of the Exchequer only five years later. He was elected Leader of the Opposition in 1955, ten years after entering the House of Commons. This, I think, is a unique record.

What greater opportunities might have come to him in the future nobody can tell, but it is abundantly clear that he had proved himself worthy and capable of undertaking whatever responsibilities might have been pressed upon him, or whatever burden he might have been called upon to shoulder.

Today, we meet as fellow members and colleagues in the House of Commons. Others have spoken, and will be able to speak, about him as a party leader or a political thinker. I would venture to say a few words about him, first, as a Parliamentarian and, secondly, as a man. As a Parliamentarian he had gifts of a very remarkable character, quite equal to those of the great figures of the past. He had a rare power of lucid exposition even of the most complicated and difficult problems, and yet this did not detract from his capacity to develop a rhetorical and emotional appeal of a very high order. He therefore combined what is not common—two methods of approach to an issue, either of which separately can be very effective, but which, when brought together, can be of outstanding authority and power. These were the instruments, strong and versatile, at his disposal.

What of the arena in which he had to use them? There is, I suppose, no position more difficult and in some ways more unrewarding than that of a Leader of an Opposition—to criticise, to find fault, and, at the same time, of course, to develop his own proposals and policies, without the power to implement them. It is in a sense unrewarding, because any man who is conscious of administrative capacity and the desire to operate his own plans must feel all the time a sense of frustration.

Equally, under our almost unique system of government the Leader of an Opposition has a very special responsibility to Parliament and to the nation. At moments of danger, moments especially of foreign dangers, and particularly also in matters affecting the security and safety of the realm, while he remains a critic he must in a sense be a partner and even a buttress of the Government to which he is opposed. This dual responsibility he must discharge with fidelity.

I feel sure that the House will agree that in all these respects Hugh Gaitskell carried out his difficult duties effectively and honourably. As a debater he was formidable. As a questioner, he would press his point to the full, but never unfairly. To the ordinary conduct of our daily business he brought always courtesy and urbanity as well as a great sense of the traditions of the House. He was, I repeat, a notable Parliamentarian of increasing strength and stature year by year. Had he lived, I feel sure that he would have taken his place in the ranks of some of our greatest figures.

All this refers to the outward and perhaps rather formal aspects of Parliamentary life. I should like to say a few words about another aspect of his character and his special contribution as a man. He was inspired by deep human sympathies. He was probably led, I would imagine, into politics not so much by ambition as by a genuine desire to benefit the conditions of his fellow men. I remember reading a declaration of his faith some years ago which struck me as moving because of its sincerity. Whether one agreed or disagreed with the political policies of which he was an active promoter, it would be a hard man who did not sympathise with the motives which impelled him.

The occasion on which he showed his deepest feeling was when, rightly or wrongly, he believed mat he was attacking something where questions of deep principle were involved, or where an act of injustice had been committed. At the same time, in daily contact with his fellow men he was an attractive companion, respected and admired by all. He commanded deep devotion from his more intimate friends and colleagues.

We therefore mourn today a man of quite outstanding parts, clearly destined, had he been spared, to play an ever-increasing role in the world of affairs. We mourn, also, a colleague who was a good and loyal Parliamentarian in the best sense of the word. He was so considerable a figure among us that his sudden and unexpected removal makes it difficult even now to realise that he is no longer with us. To his memory we pay our tribute. To his wife and family we offer our respectful sympathy.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

3.42 p.m.

Mr. George Brown (Belper)

I rise to support the Motion which has been moved by the Prime Minister and to ask him to accept from us and from me personally our very great appreciation not only of his action in bringing this Motion to us today, but of the very great help that he gave to me personally and all of us at times last week when the crisis of Hugh Gaitskell's illness was very worrying indeed.

The House will readily understand that this is for me a peculiarly difficult and emotional occasion. I had worked with Hugh Gaitskell over a number of years, latterly, as the House knows, as his deputy, and closely on some issues for a long while before that. He and I shared many critical moments and many dramatic occasions, some exhilarating and some, it is only fair to say, markedly less so.

It is inevitable that during the course of an experience like that we should have forged a friendship all the tighter for its never having been formal and all the closer because we ourselves were so dissimilar. Somehow, we instinctively seemed to understand each other's moods. We could almost unfailingly predict each other's reactions. There was never any protocol between us, nor any need for reserve. What either of us thought had to be said to the other was said and was accepted, and he always paid me the tremendous compliment of insisting on a collective sense of leadership.

I find it very hard to pay today the tribute which I should. But this is more than a personal occasion and, clearly, much more than a party occasion. We mark, as the Prime Minister has so graciously said, the passing of one of the great national figures of our time. His claim to be considered that does not seem to me to rest perhaps on the usual judgments or the usual achievements that are required. The Prime Minister has spoken of his capacity for expression, presentation and argument. But I think that it would be accepted that he was not an orator in the way that, traditionally, oratory has come to be judged, although those who heard him in the House and those of us who heard him on two notable occasions in party conferences at Scarborough and Brighton, whether we agreed with him or not, will know that he could be heard to no mean effect.

Equally, he had never held high office in the State for long periods. He had, as the Prime Minister said, become the Chancellor of the Exchequer at a very early stage in his life. But the fortunes of political war prevented him from being able to go on from there during the last ten years.

I think that it is the measure of Hugh Gaitskell's stature and the success of his life that, even though these things be true, his loss is felt today by the entire nation and by most of the world in a way, as they have shown, even more deeply than has been the case with some of the great figures of the past of Whom, perhaps, it could be said that they had those two criteria in rather greater measure. We have had letters, telegrams, gifts and offers of help right throughout his illness literally from every group, every stratum of our society at home, and, equally literally, from the major statesmen of every country in the world.

The reasons for Hugh Gaitskell's stature and the regard in which he was held lie, I think, partly in his own personal qualities, about which we have spoken and will speak, but partly, if the House will permit me to say this, in the nature of the task which he undertook in the Labour Party, a task Which was seen, whether in our party or outside, to be so courageous and so vital that the accomplishment of it captured the imagination of the nation irrespective of one's political alignments and views.

Come what may in the future, politically the impact of Hugh Gaitskell will always be seen very clearly etched from hereon on our party. Change of approach occurred in his time, and largely because of him. Changes of methods occurred in his time, and largely because of him. A definition of unity of a real and not a spurious kind grew up in his time, and largely because of him and largely because of his refusal to eschew controversy and, equally, his refusal to allow it to affect the way in which colleagues, sometimes differing, nevertheless worked together.

Hugh Gaitskell's qualities have been repeatedly enumerated and I shall not try today to repeat or embellish them, for it is one of She more fascinating aspects of the man that after his death almost all the commentators who have spoken or written have chosen exactly the same qualities to mark in him. He was, I think, an outstanding example of a man who looked the same to his friends as to strangers, to his opponents as to his supporters. Whether one was glad of his qualities because one was fighting on the same side, or perhaps a little sorry that he had them when one was fighting on the other side, the fact remains that one saw the very same qualities each time.

This, of course, is the ultimate expression of the utter honesty of Hugh Gaitskell. This is not to suggest that he was, however, an unsophisticated man, or that he did not well understand the mechanics of party politics, and especially the rather complicated means by which the Labour movement works.

I can, perhaps, more than most, testify to the successful, but the always careful, way in which he made use of that understanding. It was that, plus his terrific, unshakeable determination, which stood us in such good stead through many a tough battle. Whereas most great political figures who, to attain the ends that they thought right, have had to use means which inescapably involve what are called party manœuvres, have in the end had their reputations sullied by it, the outstanding thing is that Hugh Gaitskell's reputation has not been marred in the least degree. This, I believe, was because the ends he sought were seen to be totally non-personal, because the issues he chose to fight on were felt to be so manifestly relevant and vital to our affairs, and because his sincerity and his devotion shone so brightly all the time.

Hugh Gaitskell had one asset, above all, which I deeply envied him. Incidentally, it also made arguing with him a nightmare. It was his superb clarity of thought and expression. The debate in his own mind proceeded in the most orderly, logical and clear progression. For that reason, he could become irritated and sometimes impatient with others whom he thought guilty of confused or woolly thinking or, worse, who he thought were uttering slogans or repeating principles, however hallowed, instead of meeting his arguments on the merits they deserved.

This, of course, had its awkward side. Hugh was such a giant among men in this respect that sometimes he failed to recognise the genuine limitations of others of us. I can think now of certainly one national major controversy in which he played a vital part not so long ago where he was utterly surprised and deeply distressed by the reaction of friends to something which he saw so clearly as the only possible logical course flowing so naturally from what had gone before.

The public picture of Hugh Gaitskell, however, is not, in my view, wholly right. He was sometimes pictured as though he were a cold man. This was partly due perhaps to that very precision of thought and speech that I have mentioned, partly, I think, to the fact that he was a shy man and certainly a very diffident man; but it was a hopelessly inaccurate picture. Those of us who were privileged to be close to him know that he was, in fact, the gayest and the warmest of companions and men to spend time with. To his associates he gave unstinting sympathetic support in all weathers. He never needed to know why one was in trouble. It was sufficient that you were his friend and his colleague and that you needed help. The only duty he ever saw then was to give help, sympathy and support, which he always did with the utmost tact and with complete steadfastness. I, for one, acknowledge an enormous duty to him in this respect which I shall never be able to discharge.

As we take our official Parliamentary leave of Hugh Gaitskell let us remember, as the Prime Minister reminded us, that he was not only a public figure. He was also a husband and a father, a member of a very charming and very close-knit family. They must know that we have for them unlimited affection and that they will never lose their place in our hearts.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

3.53 p.m.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

No tragedy of recent years has struck us with the poignancy of Hugh Gaitskell's death. After a long climb his troubles seemed behind him and he was poised for an assault upon the highest office. He was well equipped to hold such office. His ability was conceded by all. So was his determination. No one doubted that he could pass the ultimate test of statesmanship—the taking of decisions under pressure. His courage, too, was proved again and again. Like Burke, he might have taken as his motto, "I shine in adversity".

Hugh Gaitskell could also claim, as Burke claimed, that he was not made for a minion or a tool, nor did he, in Burke's words, "follow the trade of winning the hearts by imposing on the understanding of the people". Indeed, he could not and would not confuse an issue. That was sometimes a handicap, but the honesty of purpose and the clarity of mind which sometimes put him at a disadvantage during the in-fighting of politics would have been of immense service to his country in high office.

Hugh Gaitskell had, of course, more than ability and courage and clarity of mind. He had that conviction without which these qualities are worth very little. It was not cold calculation which had originally involved him in Labour politics. How easy and safe for a man of his background and talents to pursue, say, an honourable career in the Civil Service. How difficult to break away, as he did over the General Strike, from the pressures from his own environment and the opinions of his Conservative friends. It was certainly not calculation of personal gain which persuaded him to fight the 1945 election against the advice of his doctors. If people think that politicians can take the sort of stand that Hugh Gaitskell took—not once, but again and again—against his background very often, against his friends sometimes, and always against the easy course, without great resources of heart as well as of brain, they can know very little of what politics are about.

But anyone who knew Hugh Gaitskell even slightly does not need to study his career to be convinced of his virtues. One had only to meet him to recognise his attraction and his distinction. He retained even at the height of his troubles an air of innocence. He was genuinely astonished that attacks should be made upon him that he would never have dreamed of making upon anyone else. He had the best political manners of anyone I have known and they flowed from deep conviction and a thoroughly generous nature. He kept the level of political discussion very high.

So he has gone, joining that considerable band of British politicians who have left their mark upon our history without ever attaining the office of Prime Minister. He gives the lie to those who think that politics are concerned only with office. We shall miss him sadly; we shall all miss him.

Perhaps I might be allowed to say just a special word of sympathy to his colleagues, to his secretaries, and to all who worked with him in this building. His party has suffered a heavy loss, but it can surely be proud that such a man should have given such loyalty to it. But what is anyone's loss compared with that of his wife and his children, to whom, indeed, this must be a bleak winter? They have our deepest sympathy on this disaster, which has imposed loneliness on them so prematurely. All we can say—it is not very much—is that, while in Hugh Gaitskell's death there is all too much for tears, there can be nothing but inspiration from the story of his life.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

3.59 p.m.

Sir Thomas Moore (Ayr)

In the absence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill), or perhaps I should say our right hon. Friend, the Father of the House, I am acting as his very inadequate deputy on this occasion. I also speak as the oldest inhabitant of these back benches. I should like, in doing so, to pay a very brief tribute to Hugh Gaitskell. I knew him a little better than many of my colleagues and, therefore, possibly I liked him more.

There were so many things in Hugh Gaitskell to admire: his consistent courage—and how often he needed it—his gay streak of humour when he was so minded, his obvious sincerity and his equally obvious integrity. But there was especially that spirit which impelled him to fight and to go on fighting for what he believed to be right.

As others have said and thought, this House will be poorer, his own party will certainly be poorer, and, indeed, the country will be poorer through his untimely death. It is now of some comfort to me personally to recall that a little time ago I wrote to his devoted wife telling her of my feelings and I hope that Hugh Gaitskell knew about them, too. I think that he did. There will now be an empty place in her heart and in her home which, I imagine, not even the love of her daughters can fill.

I know, we all know, that words are useless things in sorrow such as hers, but they are all we have to offer, except sympathy. I wish, therefore, to echo the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and suggest that we take this opportunity of sending her our deepest sympathy, coupled with the prayer that she will be given strength and courage to face what must inevitably be a lonely future.

4.2 p.m.

Miss Alice Bacon (Leeds, South-East)

I have been asked by my colleagues in Leeds to say a few words on behalf of that city and, particularly, on behalf of the people of South Leeds, where Hugh Gaitskell, his wife Dora and their daughters were loved. The people of South Leeds were very proud to have such a distinguished Member of Parliament. But Hugh Gaitskell never went to Leeds as a great man going to his constituency. He went there unobtrusively and unheralded and often stayed in a small house on a housing estate.

However pressing his work, he did all his duties as a constituency Member and held regular interviews at which anyone could see him without prior appointment. He took as much care over the case of a man or woman in need of help as in the preparation of a major speech.

Last weekend the curtains were drawn in the small houses in the streets of South Leeds, not just for a Member of Parliament but for a very dear friend whom they knew and loved.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Four o'clock.