HC Deb 20 December 1976 vol 923 cc32-41

3.31 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will direct that a memorial be erected within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster to the memory of the late right honourable the Earl Attlee, K.G., P.C., O.M., C.H., and assuring Her Majesty that this House will make good the expenses attending the same. It is a rare distinction for the House to honour one of its former Members in this way, and the House wisely insists that such a motion shall not be introduced until 10 years after the death of the statesman concerned. Such a period gives an opportunity for a proper judgment to be formed. I believe that I can say in all truthfulness about Clement Attlee that neither the changing perspectives of passing time nor the critical revisionism of modern historians have diminished his stature and his achievements.

If the motion is agreed, an informal Committee of both Houses will, as for previous memorials to past Prime Ministers, be appointed by the Government to advise on the form, site and commissioning of the memorial. Different views have been expressed about the form of the memorial, and this will be a matter for the informal Committee to advise on.

Clement Attlee served in four Governments. The last 11 years was a continuous spell of wearing years, spanning the war-time coalition and the post-war Labour Government. In Churchill's Cabinet Attlee served him as Vice-Chairman of the Defence Committee in the dark and difficult days, right through to the final days of victory.

But, hard though that period was, the greatest challenge in his life came when he succeeded Winston Churchill as Prime Minister in 1945. The task fell to him to preside, in the transition from war to peace, over a people who were emerging exhausted and virtually bankrupt from the greatest struggle of their history. Reconstruction was the watchword in Government among those who were then planning the post-war days, but this was transcended by urgency about the men and women in the Armed Forces, and their state of mind, at that time. This was an urgency that I believe, as one who was outside during the war, did not penetrate into the inner recesses of the Chamber in the later stages of the war. But there was also an urgency about the civilian people as well, because the bomber had brought death, violence and destruction to their very door, and they were more in tune with the men and women in the Armed Services than seemed possible.

To those of us who first crossed the threshold of this House in 1945—and none of us can ever forget the day when we first did so—there was an urgency, there was an impatience, but there was also optimism— … to be young was very heaven ! But it was Attlee's task to demobilise the Forces, to reconstruct a bankrupt economy, and to complete the Welfare State with better health, education, housing, employment and security prospects for all, as well as to unwind the Empire and to help rebuild Germany and Europe. It was a staggering task. I do not think that all those who came into the House at that time recognised the magnitude of the task that awaited this country in 1945. But the fact that he largely accomplished it makes his period of office a landmark in our history.

If he were here now he would say, as he often said during his lifetime, that there were many others who surrounded him and helped him in his task, and he never objected that some of them were thought to be bigger than he was. He readily acknowledged the stature of his colleagues. He encouraged their enterprise. He handled their various virtuosities with consummate skill. He regarded his rôle as a co-ordinator and managing wilful and often divergent temperaments as qualifications essential to a Prime Minister.

The habit of working together with other parties, formed during the war, left him with a respect for those who sat on the other side of the House. As he said, in language that only he would use, "You should remember that you do not necessarily think the other fellow's a dirty dog. You hold opposite views, that is all." I still try to remember it, Mr. Speaker, although the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) sometimes makes that a little difficult.

Although Earl Attlee respected the Opposition, he could be very biting. His style as Prime Minister, as we all know, was in marked contrast to that of Winston Churchill. Attlee presiding at meetings was crisp, businesslike and to the point. Winston Churchill used to invite his Cabinet to accompany him on soaring flights of imagination and eloquence.

That contrast led to an exchange at the Dispatch Box after the war that I recall. Attlee announced a decision on some matter by the Labour Government. Winston Churchill seemed to think that implicit in the announcement was a reflection on his failure to reach a conclusion on the same matter during the wartime Administration. He therefore rose and protested. Attlee replied in typical vein. He said "I must remind the right hon. Gentleman that a series of monologues is no substitute for a decision." Of course, he knew that Churchill had taken many great and far-reaching decisions, but it was typical of the pointed thrust that Attlee would make, and it went home at the time. Churchill and Attlee had a great respect for each other, perhaps because they were so different in their characteristics.

In his dealings with Ministers and with colleagues Attlee was straightforward and direct. He survived and succeeded in a long political career spanning 33 years in the House of Commons, and was Leader of the Labour Party for 20 years. He survived because of his strength of character and his unswerving commitment to democratic Socialism.

Those of us who knew Attlee remember him as a simple, unaffected and modest man, both in his personal and in his official life. He had been well prepared for his greatest post-war task by the constant theme of his life, which from his early days was dedication to the public service.

At Toynbee Hall in the East End, at Ruskin College, serving on Stepney Council as alderman and mayor for a number of years, and in many other fields of activity, his was a life dedicated to advancing the welfare of the British people and to breaking down the notion of two nations. He made no song and dance about identifying with working people. He had no need to. He had a natural affinity with them. Anyone who saw him in Stepney—as I had the privilege to do on two occasions when I accompanied him—recognised that his work and his life among the poor of the East End were not assumed for the purpose of political advancement; it was his natural means of expressing his own character, and this possibly explains his close attachment to Ernest Bevin, to whom he said he felt closer than to anyone else in political life.

What he did was rooted in his humanity, his practicality and his patriotism—Victorian virtues maybe, but none the worse for that. The means he chose for reforming the institutions and improving the lot of working men and women were the Labour Party and this Parliament. He was not activated by dogma or envy, or by some sense of middle-class guilt or by vindictiveness, and therefore he was able to speak for all sections of British society.

One of his greatest tasks was that he achieved a settlement in India. The future of this great sub-continent had always concerned him, even before he came to grapple with it as Prime Minister. He took, without hesitation, the big and controversial decision of fixing a firm date for independence, and then he personally selected Earl Mountbatten, with the agreement of the late King George VI, as the Viceroy who could best carry the policy through. He was right. The Act of Indian Independence was fiercely controversial. But for Attlee and many others who had a passing glimpse of the Indian continent during the war, there was both a personal commitment and a commitment of principle to satisfy Indian aspirations for independence. So he pressed ahead with it, however daunting the problems and bloody the immediate consequences. I do not believe that he had any doubts about what he had done; he was not that kind of man. But what gave him great satisfaction at the end of the day was the letter which he received from Leo Amery, father of the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery), who wrote offering his sincere congratulations on the passage of the Act. That single decisive act of statesmanship, for both India and Britain, marks Clement Attlee a place in history, even if he had left nothing else behind.

But it is for many qualities that I ask this House today to agree to erect a permanent memorial to him. As Prime Minister he showed statesmanship and achievement. As a politician he was quiet but had considerable subtle skills. As a parliamentarian he brought to this House the same decency, honesty and integrity in public life as he showed in his private behaviour.

In honouring Clement Attlee the House will pay tribute to him, and through him to the best in the parliamentary and political system which we all serve and which will continue to stand this country in good stead in the years ahead.

3.44 p.m.

Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)

May I support the motion so eloquently moved by the Prime Minister. I support it briefly on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and in being brief I feel that that is a quality which would have appealed to the person whom we are honouring.

The Prime Minister obviously knew Earl Attlee a great deal better than some of us. I knew him only from afar. Above all, he was a great British patriot. He had an outstanding war record in the First World War and an outstanding record of a different quality in the Second World War. This quality of patriotism remained with him throughout his political service and to the end of his life.

Earl Attlee was at the centre of the political stage at a time when there were other powerful personalities upon it. Yet he brought to his own task qualities of a rare distinction which we should never underestimate. These qualities were those of an outstandingly clear mind—and in politics that is every bit as important as a highly intellectual mind and sometimes more so; a decisive mind which was necessary to judge between some of the views urged upon him; and a very courageous mind, because some of the decisions which he took towards the end of his Prime Ministership he had to take alone, and he did not flinch from doing so. Those are three qualities which we should all honour and acclaim and three qualities which will grow and not diminish with the passage of time.

To those people who always watched him from afar I should like to say that there was nothing bogus or artificial about Earl Attlee. He was a person of total integrity and for these reasons I should like to add my voice to that of the Prime Minister in saying why we rejoice with him that he has brought this motion before the House today. We think it is right that we should have a memorial to the late Earl Attlee in this place which, after all, was the home of his great achievements.

3.47 p.m.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

It is with some humility but considerable enthusiasm that I associate myself with the motion moved by the Prime Minister and supported by the Leader of the Opposition.

The first occasion on which I attended this House was in the Strangers Gallery when I heard Sir Winston Churchill commend a statue to David Lloyd George and I shall always remember that. I was not privileged to sit in this House with Lord Attlee because, like the right hon. Lady, I came here in 1959 and by then he had been translated to another place. However, I remember him and I was struck by the fact that the shyness and reserve for which he was noted always disappeared whenever he was among young people, showing an interest in them, discussing their careers, and offering sound advice. I remember him particularly as a kind and courteous man, who gave great friendship.

As Prime Minister he received even more than the usual share of vilification which every Prime Minister expects from the Press and the Opposition of the day. However, he had his own reward in that no one would be prepared to deny that he was a man of utter integrity, intense courage and with a profound love for his country.

This is not an occasion on which to evaluate his career. However, I particularly liked his insistence on cutting down on language. I liked the story about the Minister who was sacked and who demanded that Lord Attlee give him an explanation for his dismissal. Lord Attlee agreed to an interview. He sat behind his desk drumming his fingers and said simply: "Not up to the job." That was an admirable test, and a criterion which I would commend to the present Prime Minister.

For a man who in 1927 was a member of the Indian Statutory Commission, he must have been immensely proud to be the architect of Indian independence, when the Empire disappeared and the Commonwealth was created. He was also a man who gave an enormous amount of time and energy to the East End of London, and he must have had immense satisfaction to see the completion of the Welfare State. In this country we contrive to produce men who bring about immense social changes without revolution.

To be deputy to Winston Churchill must have been a very taxing experience, not least of all in time of war. From 1942 to 1945 he was Churchill's deputy, and this must have taxed all his qualities of firmness and tact and entitles him to a share of the considerable credit as one of the architects of victory in the last war.

I understand that there is quite a controversy about the form of the statue and where it will be. I do not intend to enter into that, but I hope that it will be a worthy statue. There are three plinths in the Member's Lobby and it would be particularly appropriate if Clement Attlee could occupy one of them. He would be in appropriate company because one of them is occupied by Asquith, who was the pioneer of the Welfare State, and it was Earl Attlee who completed that edifice. He would be in the company of Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, the latter of whom was the architect of the victory of the Second World War. Clement Attlee, too, was a contributor to that victory.

I hope that we shall have no mealymouthed compromise and that we shall give him a place in the Member's Lobby. He was a great servant to this country and a considerable statesman. A memorial to him will be a pride to us all, and add lustre to those who are already commemorated here.

3.52 p.m.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Although I did not know the late Earl Attlee, or see him at any time, I am fully aware of the great service which he did in war time and peace time. I associate my hon. Friends with the tributes paid to him.

3.53 p.m.

Mr. Robert Mellish (Bermondsey)

I associate myself with the tribute paid by the Prime Minister. I had the privilege of knowing Earl Attlee and I want to tell the House a story which typifies him and backs up what the Leader of the Opposition said.

I had been an hon. Member of the House for only a few weeks when a constituent who had been a prisoner of war of the Japanese asked for my advice. He said that he was a lance-corporal but that after only 17 days in that rank he was made a prisoner of war. He was in a terrified state both mentally and physically. My constituent explained that he had been paid his back pay as a private. On his own initiative he had written to the War Department insisting that he was a lance-corporal and should be paid accordingly. He was told that he could not, because a man had to serve 21 days in a rank before qualifying. The man explained that that was impossible because after 17 days he was made a prisoner of war.

I raised the subject on the Floor of the House but I got no satisfaction from the Secretary of State for War. I then raised the issue on my first Adjournment debate. With fear and terror I raised the question to an empty House in what is now the Lords Chamber. I got the same reply. I did not know what to do. But an obscure Back Bencher, such as myself, approached me and explained that I must see the Prime Minister who was pro-Army and would never stand for that situation. He told me that I must see Mr. Arthur Moyle, the Prime Minister's PPS, who was father of the present hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moyle).

I was called before the Prime Minister and, as usual, he was doodling and did not lift his head from his desk. I told him the story and the Prime Minister asked me "Do I understand that the man was refused payment because he had been lance-corporal for only 17 days?" I told the Prime Minister that that was the point of the story. He shouted "Leave it, leave it".

Apparently the Prime Minister saw the Secretary of State who was coming up for a promotion and he threw all my papers at him and demanded "Answer that." The Prime Minister was in a terrible state and told the Secretary of State "Pay him". He told the Secretary of State to pay not only my constituent but every man who had served in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp anywhere.

I received a letter saying that the matter had been reconsidered and the penultimate paragraph read: A copy of this letter has been sent to the Prime Minister. At that time there was a fine Conservative Member in Parliament, Brigadier Sir John Smyth, V.C., D.S.O., M.C.—an extraordinary man. He had been a prisoner of war of the Japanese. We went together to Mr. Attlee, as he then was, to ask for more money for prisoners of war in Japan. Sir John had photographs of the prisoners, and when shown those photographs Attlee cried. He said he would get more money for those prisoners, and he did. He got another £1 million for the prisoners—prisoners of the Japanese. I do not like the Japanese even today. I must get that on record.

Clement Attlee was a great man and a credit to politics. He gave everyone an example of what honesty in politics is all about. Now that history is coming to be written people will say that this man truly was a great Prime Minister.

3.58 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)

As father of the House I should like to add to what has been said. I knew Earl Attlee well and I am one of those in the House today who knew him when he was Churchill's deputy. Mr. Attlee, as he was then, was a surprisingly good Prime Minister—surprisingly, because he had appeared, until elevated to the high office of Leader of the party, to have serious defects. Many people at the time thought that he was not big enough for the job and that he was too weak to carry out the important task of Leader of the party, to say nothing of Prime Minister. But he proved that we were all wrong and turned out to be a great Leader of the party and a great Prime Minister.

His greatness lay not in his powerful oratory but in his simple and direct speeches, which were the more effective for that. People knew that he felt deeply about everything that he said. There was never any doubt that he meant what he said. If anyone approached him, he would be direct with them, would not give them false hopes and would carry out anything that he promised to do. In his personality, in his position during the war and in his premiership, he proved himself to be a great parliamentarian. A statue in the House is overdue. I hope that it will be effective and will be erected in a good place.

Mr. Speaker

I wish to add a word. I hope that the House will forgive me if I remind hon. Members that I was an hon. Member at the time. Mr. Attlee, as he then was, set for all time, for Prime Ministers and for Leaders of the Opposition, the example of brevity.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, nemine contradicente, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will direct that a memorial be erected within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster to the memory of the late right honourable the Earl Attlee, K.G., P.C., O.M., C.H., and assuring Her Majesty that this House will make good the expenses attending the same.

To be presented by Privy Councillors or Members of Her Majesty's Household.