HC Deb 23 October 1967 vol 751 cc1355-67

3.37 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

Since we last met the House and the country have suffered a grievous loss by the death of Lord Attlee. He was a Member of this House for 33 years, and since 1955 had maintained his connection with the Parliament he loved through his membership of another place.

Clem Attlee was born and brought up in the Victorian age, but there are few men, if any, who have done more in our own generation to speed the process of change from the country he knew as a young man to the country in which we are living today. The need for that change he saw when, as a young man, down from Oxford, he threw himself into social work in the East End of London. His keen brain and his deep social conscience enabled him to translate the problems which he saw all round him as a social worker at Toynbee Hall into the policies which found expression in the minority Report of the Poor Law Commission in 1909, a Report which he worked on with the Webbs and Beveridge, a Report which charted the course of social reform for the next 40 years.

His service in the war of 1914–18 equally opened his eyes to world problems and to the causes of war. He came back to his social work hating war, but, equally, as a result of all that he had seen, reinforced in his dedication to a classless society. He entered local government. He became Mayor of Stepney and, when he came to the House in 1922, he not only knew the problems of poverty in an area where to be old, to be sick, to be disabled, to have a large family entailed conditions which meant, as he saw it, a denial of fundamental human freedom; he felt these problems himself, and he dedicated himself to ending them.

Thirteen years later he became Leader of the Opposition—a stop-gap appointment, as it was then regarded, but an appointment which his Parliamentary ability and his personal and political integrity made a lasting one.

His experience, first in junior and then more senior office, strengthened his administrative grasp and, at the same time, he extended his knowledge of world affairs.

The India Commission gave him a knowledge—and a mission—which he could never lay aside. His early realisation of the Nazi threat led him with great courage to proclaim the need for adequate British defences at a time when for him, as for Winston Churchill on the other side of the House, this needed courage in dealing with those who did not see the issues as clearly as they did.

When the fateful decisions had to be taken, his resolve was never in doubt. He led his party into the great wartime coalition. As Deputy Prime Minister, he played an invaluable part in the war, not least in forging with Winston Churchill the national unity necessary to mobilise our people for victory.

Loyally playing his full part in every major war decision, he took charge of the Cabinet Committees dealing with the home front, and in the later war years—as the requirements of the war and of allied consultation meant that Winston Churchill had to be away from this country for long periods at a time—Attlee presided over the Cabinet, as Sir Winston later testified, with imagination and crisp effectiveness.

In 1945, he led his party to a great electoral victory and became Prime Minister of a country shattered by the war but determined to rebuild our industry, our economic strength and our influence in the world.

The vast problems occasioned by the transition from the war economy to peace economy were overcome with calm efficiency and the minimum of social disturbance, in marked contrast to the years after the First World War of which Attlee had such vivid memories.

Never for one moment in those years of unprecedented economic difficulty did he lose the vision which had launched him into national politics—the vision of a social revolution. Fainter hearts than his would have used the nation's economic difficulties as a reason for postponing social advance. He felt, on the contrary, that the greater the economic difficulties, the greater the need for social justice.

So the creation of the Welfare State, the attack on poverty, was given a very real priority in the work of his Government and the work of the party which he led. Before he laid down office, he could have claimed—though it was not in his nature to claim—that Britain's social services led the world and were a model for the world to copy.

His personal identification with this task—and here I know that I can call to witness my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. James Griffiths)—his support, when support was needed, in launching the National Health Service, I believe gave him the greatest satisfaction of anything that he achieved in the whole of his public life. He insisted on speaking on the Second Reading of the National Insurance Bill, and those of us who heard and were moved by that typically brief speech know why he had chosen to speak and how much depth of feeling and experience, too, lay behind the words which he used. I remember noticing his insistence on the role of the local authorities in the Welfare State when he spoke that afternoon.

These were the years, too, of post-war reconstruction of a shattered Europe and a divided world. With Ernest Bevin, he set out to exert a moral influence in world affairs, as Ernest Bevin reminded us, far beyond the influence which Britain's military position and run-down economic position might have been thought to justify.

Clem Attlee was one of the first to see the need for the Western Alliance and played a historic part in creating it. But his vision was always of a world in which regional alliances, though envisaged in the United Nations Charter which he had helped to create, would disappear in a wider world unity leading to his vision of a world Government.

But the greatest expression of his vision for the future was his historic decision to give freedom and self-government to the people of India and Pakistan, of Burma and Ceylon. This, for him, was the logical consequence of his work on the Royal Commission. It was the logical outcome, too, of all he had seen during a war which, by its world-wide character, by its very nature, had liberated forces which history and common sense demanded must be given expression. A historian to his innermost being, he applied the lessons of the nineteenth century to the problems of the twentieth. He recalled that the hopes of the new Europe after Napoleon were frustrated by a Holy Alliance, which attempted to hold back the forces of nationalism, of self-determination, which were then sweeping Europe.

Equally, he recognised that after the First World War the League of Nations, which he had so firmly supported, had died, not only because it lacked authority, but because it failed to assert the need for change. The lessons which, as a historian, he had learnt from Europe, as a citizen of the world he knew must be applied to Asia.

When, therefore, he decided on Indian independence—none knew more than he all the problems that had to be solved—he insisted on the magic of the time-table which has become an essential part of constructive decolonialisation. It was a conscious decision to realise and not to contain the forces of history. But it was more than that. It was an irreversible blow for the dignity of man being struck by a man who had come from Stepney to this House determined to assert the dignity of man.

It was also a signal that the old imperialism had ended and that a new Commonwealth had been called into being. Lord Attlee was the architect of the Commonwealth as we know it today. It was his decision at one stroke—to give freedom and self-government to 400 million people, to give to them the means not only of controlling their own destinies, but of raising themselves from the primeval poverty of centuries. Because it was done in friendship, those millions were able to go forward—and had the good sense to go forward—on the basis of an administrative machine which Britain had created. But, against a wider background of history, it created a new alternative in the world, a third road which was neither the Communist road nor the road of old or new imperialism.

Mr. Speaker, when that decision was taken, nothing gave him more satisfaction than the moment—one of those moments we will all remember—when, across the Floor of this House, Winston Churchill ended a generation of controversy by praising not only the outcome, but—with a generosity that moved all of us—the man who had made that outcome possible.

The day Clem Attlee died, I said: Centuries from now when the history of our age comes to be written, this act of statesmanship will be recognised as one of the most important events of our time". I am confident that that judgment will stand the test of time.

Mr. Speaker, as one of those who were privileged to serve in Clem Attlee's Administration, there are many things, many stories of his greatness and of his humanity, which today, had I time, I would feel like recording.

I have referred to his essential greatness of vision, vision for his own people here at home and vision for the world. But that vision was made a reality by his sharp administrative grasp, and his insistence that Cabinet government must be made to work. He laid down the rules for his Government like a martinet, and he enforced them. Except in an emergency papers had to be circulated in good time and had to bring out the essentials of the problem, the points for decision.

Woe betide—and there are right hon. Friends of mine today who will confirm what I am saying—the Minister who submitted a paper that was sloppy in its expression, or who was not on top of his job, or who relied on civil servants to do his thinking for him. His rebukes—whether in Cabinet, or in private meetings at No. 10 when he summoned the Ministers to his presence—were fierce and devastating. But, equally, when understanding and help were needed, Clement Attlee never failed.

Today, we mourn one of our colleagues, a great Parliamentarian and an orator who let words—and as few of them as possible—and facts speak their own message. We mourn a man who, in his quiet, effective, modest way, led a great democracy out of the age in which he was born and had spent his youth, into the world in which we are now living. We mourn a colleague who had a vision of the world he wanted to see, and who had the courage to play his part in making that vision a reality. But for very many of us, not only those who served under him in that great post-war Administration, but of all parties here, we mourn the passing of a friend, a friend who was generous to his colleagues in success, who was understanding in times of difficulty and stress, a man of enormous courage, and not only in his public life.

To those in this House who knew him best, he was a man who drew great strength from his family life, even after the tragedy which overtook him when Lady Attlee died. Because that was what his life was about. It was his devotion to his own family which enabled him to express in his public life the social conscience which had brought him into Parliament, the Socialist faith which inspired him for 60 years, and which, in his public life, found expression not in political abstractions and arid controversies, but in seeking to use the power—power which he never sought for himself —to enrich the lives of countless families in this country, and by his fight for peace and democracy to give to others far beyond our shores the happiness that he had found for himself.

3.53 p.m.

Mr. Edward Heath (Bexley)

I rise to join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the late Lord Attlee, and I do so on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

The Prime Minister has been able to make his eloquent tribute as one who served in Lord Attlee's Administration, and knew him intimately. For most of us here Lord Attlee came from another political generation. Most of his work, first as Leader of the Opposition, then as Deputy Prime Minister in time of war and this country's greatest need, and finally as Prime Minister, was accomplished before many of us were Members of this House.

I only once had the opportunity of talking personally to the late Lord Attlee. It was an entirely unexpected encounter towards the end of the war, when, late one night, I was on my way to rejoin my regiment. I happened to meet Mr. Attlee's Parliamentary Private Secretay, the father of the present Home Secretary, who had shown me great kindness at Oxford. He was waiting for the Deputy Prime Minister so that they could relax together after a long day's committee meetings.

When the Deputy Prime Minister arrived, I was introduced to him. We chatted together for some time, and the Home Secretary's father having told Mr. Attlee of my somewhat rebellious Conservative tendencies at Oxford, suggested that I might be pushed a little further and be a promising member of the new Labour Party which was to emerge, which was to sweep the country at the election which was bound to come soon. Mr. Attlee adopted what I came later to know as his most quizzical expression, sucked at his pipe, and we pursued the matter no further.

From this side of the House we speak from the outside. It is not for us to judge Mr. Attlee as a party political leader, but a man who was able to lead his party, broken and defeated as it was in 1931, to the overwhelming triumph of 1945, must have had very remarkable qualities indeed. We can pay full tribute to him for his work as Deputy Prime Minister, when he complemented so much that Winston Churchill did to win the Second Word War. Mr. Attlee showed great courage in taking his party into that Coalition, and the Prime Minister has rightly paid tribute to the part that he played in achieving national unity.

As Prime Minister Mr. Attlee must, I suppose, have been one of the most criticised men of modern times, and after his retirement he received perhaps all too fulsome praise which I cannot believe he really relished. The judgment of history will probably be somewhere between the two, but that is for the historian. I suggest, however, that by any criteria Mr. Attlee must be considered one of the most effective Prime Ministers of modern times.

The way in which he handled the great events of the Parliaments of 1945 to 1951 must surely show that. At home, an immense programme of social legislation, and the development of atomic and nuclear weapons, almost entirely on his own responsibility, and overseas the development of the Empire into the Commonwealth, the creation of N.A.T.O., the organisation for European economic development, the Berlin airlift, Korea, and rearmament, were tremendous burdens for any Prime Minister to bear, and he carried them superbly.

But above all, perhaps, we in this House saw that he was Prime Minister in a Cabinet which contained the massive personality of Ernest Bevin, the brilliant intellect of Stafford Cripps, the skilled political ability of Herbert Morrison, and the passionate enthusiasm of Aneurin Bevan, and he held that Cabinet together so that they could bring forth their achievements during the Parliament of 1945 to 1950.

In words, Lord Attlee was the master of the understatement. In action, he was the epitome of economy. On many occasions we on this side of the House enjoyed his brief, pointed speeches, and his mordant wit. We noticed how he achieved his ends with the utmost economy of effort. He was a true servant of the State, first as a regimental officer, and then in both local and national government. But, above all, what is important for us here is that he had a simple and deep love of Parliament, its proceedings, and its people.

At the end of what he called his autobiographical notes, which were so typical of the man, he wrote these words, which have often been quoted: I have been a very happy and fortunate man in having lived so long in the greatest country in the world, in having a happy family life, and in having been given the opportunity of serving in a state of life to which I never expected to be called. Mr. Speaker, that is the modest man of singular achievements to whom we pay tribute today.

4.58 p.m.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

May I associate myself and my colleagues with the tributes which have been paid to Lord Attlee. I vividly remember the first occasion when I was privileged to meet him, about 20 years ago, as one of a dozen undergraduates who surrounded him at the conclusion of a great meeting at Oxford. Each of us immediately realised that he was a very kind man who was intensely interested in young people and felt entirely at ease in their company.

As Prime Minister he came in for much criticism, very often extremely bitter, from many who, I think, now would be the first to recognise his qualities. Perhaps a reason for this was that it was some time before the British people pierced his outward modesty and reserve to discover that he was a man of real courage and utter integrity, and deep compassion.

I think that it is no exaggeration to say that his decision to create the Far Eastern Commonwealth, and the dramatic extension of the Welfare State, made a permanent impact on the lives of millions of people all over the world.

It is a remarkable coincidence that America and Britain, who produced such dominant and dominating war leaders as Roosevelt and Churchill, should have seen them succeeded by Truman and Attlee, each of whom sustained the burdens of the free world and each of whom recorded distinguished peacetime achievements to their credit. Attlee was a very great public servant, and I believe that in time he will come to be regarded as one of our most respected Prime Ministers. He is certainly assured of an honoured place in the history of this House.

4.0 p.m.

Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

When I left my university I went as a resident to Tonybee Hall, where Mr. Attlee had been secretary, and I worked in the club in Limehouse when he was the local Member of Parliament. Therefore, before I came here I realised the respect and affection that he was held in in Whitechapel and throughout dockland.

When I came here in 1929 he was away in India, on the Simon Commission and, therefore, did not take office early in that Government. Later he became Postmaster-General, but he did not make quite that impression that modern Postmasters-General make, because he did not make frequent issues of gaudy new stamps.

In those days Postmasters-General were not noticed very much. Indeed, in my first Session here Mr. Attlee made only one speech, and that was one in which he advocated a Ministry of Defence. Then came the surprise of 1931—the sudden transformation of an unknown Postmaster-General to be, first, deputy-leader and then leader of his party.

Mr. Attlee led that small team with great efficiency, and it was then that the whole nation began to realise the qualities that were latent in him. To my mind, he always retained the qualities of a major in the South Lancashire Regiment —a stern sense of duty and, I thought, a very able and efficient disciplining of his party. He was abrupt in speech, incisive, and a very great debunker of oratorical extravagance. He had the great ability to pounce on the heart of a problem at once.

I should like to refer to what I think is one of the best illustrations of that ability. In the Committee of Privileges, in 1953, the assistant editor of the Sunday Express was being examined about an interview with a certain Member of Parliament. Mr. Attlee asked the assistant editor: Have you a part-time member of the staff to advise you on matters of taste? The reply was: Not on taste, on legal matters which include questions of privilege and contempt. Mr. Attlee: But not good taste? The assistant editor: No Mr. Attlee: I thought not. To a back bench Member, Mr. Attlee set an example to all Ministers and future Prime Ministers by his constant attendance in the Chamber. There he was, curled up on the Front Bench with his feet on the Table, indulging in his normal pastime of doodling. But he was listening to every word of the debate, and he was ready to intervene. However much one disagreed with the policies or speeches of Mr. Attlee, no one could ever doubt his strong sense of loyalty to the Throne and the Commonwealth, and his love for the British people. It was this loyalty to the new Commonwealth—of which he was, as the Prime Minister said, one of the principal architects—that made him oppose those who, in his judgment, would have imperilled its future by our entry into the Common Market.

In his speeches Mr. Attlee used an economy of words and eschewed all drama. I always felt that the speeches he made as Prime Minister displayed his humility and his doggedness and I want to remind the House of the words he used at the end of the first speech he made—on 16th August, 1945—when he came back victorious after the General Election of that year, because those words are relevant today and they sum up the guiding principles of his character. He said: To win through this critical period in our history will require, I think, the continuance of something of the spirit which won the war, a spirit which did not allow private or sectional interests to obscure the common interest of us all and the love which we all have for our native land and for our people."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th August, 1945; Vol. 413, c. 113.] Mr. Attlee was a great patriot and a strong leader. Like my right hon. Friend, I always felt that he was somewhat surprised to find himself in that position. But he always determined that nothing and no one should deter him from carrying ant that responsibility with courage and to his own satisfaction.

4.7 p.m.

Mr. E. Shinwell (Easington)

I cannot hope to emulate the eloquent and moving speeches of the right hon. Gentlemen who have preceded me. All I can do is to offer a modest tribute, in simple language, on my behalf and that of many back benchers who knew our late colleague.

I was associated with Clem Attlee for more than 50 years. We were both members of the old Independent Labour Party before the First World War. He joined in 1907; I joined in 1903. We both came to the House in 1922. We were both in the first Labour Government. Before his death we were the only survivors of that Government. It is a melancholy reflection that all the old familiar faces have gone and that I remain the sole survivor of Ramsay Macdonald's Government in 1924.

Since Clem Attlee's death, the question has been asked: was he a great Prime Minister? Perhaps he was not cast in the mould of Winston Churchill or Lloyd George. He had no oratorical pretensions. He had no magnetic personality. But there resided in him practical qualities which I venture to say—with the highest respect to other Prime Ministers—were unmatched by many of his predecessors.

Clem Attlee's political intelligence was nurtured among the poverty, misery and squalor of the East End of London. His Socialism was not inspired by economic theory, by doctrinaire considerations and, least of all, by Marxist philosophy. His intrusion before the First World War into the arena of social well-being was based exclusively on his desire to succour the poor, and to mitigate the harsh severity of their existence.

Now Clem Attlee has gone. Reference has been made to his brevity. I suffered occasionally from that brevity when, as a member of his Cabinet, I fell by the wayside and was occasionally rebuked. I could always sense when the rebuke was coming, when he characteristically began to scratch his head. I also recall his keen sense of humour, his cricketing stories when he laughed uproariously in the telling and those who listened had not the faintest idea what it was all about.

Clem Attlee, an unobstrusive social worker in East London before the First World War, was a valiant advocate in Labour's cause, above all a staunch patriot. In the early years he had no expectation of high office, but there was conferred upon him in later years an Earldom; the Order of Merit; he became a Companion of Honour and Knight of the Garter—truly an eventful personal chapter in the history of British politics.

4.12 p.m.

Mr. Sandys (Streatham)

I should like to associate myself with the tributes which have been paid to Lord Attlee. I first met him when I entered the House at the very end of the 1931 Parliament. He was then Deputy Leader of the Opposition. He was very nice to young men and new Members. One day he spoke to me in the Smoking Room, and advised me to make a speech about unemployment. "That", he said, "is the big issue of the day ". I told him that I did not know a great deal about unemployment, to which he said, "Well, by the time you have prepared a speech for the House of Commons, you will know quite a lot".

Later, I served with him in the wartime Coalition Government and, of course, got to know him a great deal better. I also had the rare privilege, for a Conservative, of serving as acting Minister of Works for nearly a week in Lord Attlee's Labour Government in 1945. There was some delay in sorting out the new Ministerial appointments, and, pending the announcement of my successor, I was asked to carry on.

Lord Attlee's fairness, his sense of duty, his love of his country and of his fellow men and his ability to combine strength with modesty earned him the affection and respect of all who knew him. The nation has lost a faithful friend and servant.

4.14 p.m.

Mr. James Griffiths (Llanelly)

I would join my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and other colleagues who have spoken in tribute to Clem Attlee. When I first came to the House in March, 1936, Clem Attlee was at the beginning of his long tenure of office as Leader of our party, as Prime Minister and as Leader of the Opposition. After the by-election, when I had gone through the traditional procedure and taken my seat on the third bench opposite in the old Parliament, one of the old guard of Labour M.P.s, one of the "cloth cap" M.P.s, turned to me and said, "My young man, welcome to you. Always remember one thing: you can always depend on Clem."

This is my tribute to him today, as one who was privileged to serve under him for nearly 20 years in government and opposition—that, through all the changes of fortune during his long period of service to our party and our country, one could always depend on Clem. In the long run, it is integrity and dependability which count most in life.

My second memory is of an invitation from him to join him in his constituency in the East End when my country was suffering grievously from economic depression, as the East End was, too. I joined him at a gathering in the East End, at which one of the dockers—it was a strange contrast to meet Clem Attlee among the dockers—said to me, "How is our little man doing?"

Behind that phrase, "our little man", was real deep affection. The little man with hidden greatness, the quiet man who created the Welfare State and began the transformation from Empire to Commonwealth; we in this House and in the country have cause to remember and bless the memory of the quiet man.