HL Deb 04 March 1943 vol 126 cc423-9

My Lords, we meet to-day in the shadow of a melancholy event, an event almost unprecedented in Parliamentary history. Yesterday, as your Lordships know, Mr. Speaker died at his house in the Palace of Westminster. To all of us this news must have come with a sense of severe shock. But only those who like myself have had the privilege, during almost the whole of my Parliamentary life, of sitting under his wise guidance can realize how severe is the loss which the House of Commons has suffered. Your Lordships' House is in one respect very different from the other place. We, in this House, are, in a very full sense of the word, a democracy. It is the sense of the House as a whole that governs our affairs. The House of Commons, on the other hand, so far as the control of its day-to-day business is concerned, is an autocracy. Mr. Speaker, once elected, has powers of the widest kind, and from his decision there is no appeal.

Such a system as that, which has grown tip through the long centuries of our history, with the consent of all Parties, depends on one essential consideration, that there should always be available from among the members of the House of Commons some personality whose wisdom, tolerance and ability to free himself completely from Party bias entitles him to the respect and confidence of his fellow members. Such a man was the late Speaker, Captain FitzRoy, whose loss we mourn to-day. His aspect might to the new member have at first seemed austere and even somewhat terrifying. His comments, like those of all great Speakers, were sometimes caustic. But there can have been none of his often somewhat unruly charges who did not soon come to recognize his essential wisdom and his broad humanity and kindliness. That was the basis of his authority. For almost fifteen years, at one of the most difficult periods of our history, he carried the heavy burden of his responsibilities, unruffled and unchallenged, and he won, to an ever increasing degree, the respect and the affection of all those with whom he came in contact. It is typical of his whole life that he died, as he lived, in the service of his country. He is one of those whom in these difficult and troublous times we can least afford to lose, and I would express to the House of Commons the condolences of your Lordships' House on this grievous calamity that has befallen it.

Your Lordships will also, I am sure, wish me to write a letter to Mrs. FitzRoy to convey to her and to his family our most sincere sympathy in the irreparable loss which they have sustained.

I beg to move that a Message be sent to the Commons to express to that House the profound sympathy of the House of Lords on the loss which the House of Commons has sustained by the death of a Speaker who will long be remembered with affection and regard for the distinction with which he discharged the duties of his office.

Moved, That a Message be sent to the Commons to express to that House the profound sympathy of the House of Lords on the loss which the House of Commons has sustained by the death of a Speaker who will long be remembered with affection and regard for the distinction with which he discharged the duties of his office.—(Viscount Cranborne.)


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friends, I should like to associate myself completely with what the Leader of the House has said and with the proposal he has placed before us, both with regard to the Message to the Commons and to the letter which he will write on behalf of your Lordships to the widow and family of the late Speaker. Like the Leader of the House, I for many years shared in the work of the House of Commons, and therefore necessarily came to have frequent, sometimes almost intimate, contact with the late Speaker. I would like to say that at all times he was considerate, at all times helpful, and, above all, determined with complete fairness to maintain the high traditions of the House of Commons and to make sure that every view had a chance of expression, however unpopular, perhaps, it might be at the moment. He was a reliable and splendid custodian of the best traditions of Parliament, and I am sure we shall all agree, too, that he maintained with singular and kindly firmness the high traditions and privileges which rightly attach to the office of the First Commoner of the Realm. We all know, those of us who have studied it many times, that gallery of portraits in the Library of the House of Commons. Now he joins the long series of Speakers who, through hundreds of years, have gradually built up and helped to maintain Parliamentary institutions in this country—with very strange anomalies sometimes—traditions which he understood and interpreted with skill and kindliness at all times. Above all, he has contributed to continue and maintain that which endures longer than any of us, the spirit of a free Parliament.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friends who sit on these Benches, I desire to join in the most sincere and heartfelt way in the expressions of sympathy to the members of the other House which have been expressed by the two noble Lords. The Speakership of the House of Commons, as Lord Addison reminded us, has more than five hundred years' history behind it, and holds an altogether unique place in the Constitution and life of this country. It has been the model for the Presidency of many other assemblies in all parts of the world, but nowhere has the same measure of dignity and of authority been attained in any other country. Consequently, not only the members of the House of Commons but every Englishman is proud of the existence of the office, and surely nobody more so than the members of your Lordships' House. In the first place, the official relations between the official members of both Houses have always been cordial and intimate, but also we remember that during a long period this House has continued to gain accessions of the utmost strength and value in the persons of successive Speakers who have been elevated to the Peerage, and even further than that, there are probably very few of your Lordships who if you look back to your ancestry, cannot claim some connexion, not in a direct line perhaps, from one of the families of famous Speakers of the past. Therefore, in offering our condolences, we can do so, not as it were entirely from the outside, but on terms of intimate friendship.

As regards Captain FitzRoy himself, as we all know he sustained the dignity of his office in the highest possible way, exercising an authority which could not be disputed but was never in the slightest degree arbitrary. In his private capacity he was known, I am sure, too many of your Lordships as a genial friend or acquaintance, particularly from one point of view, his intimate knowledge of rural life and interest in many aspects of the countryside. I am sure, too, that we join most heartily in the desire to express our full sympathy with Mrs. FitzRoy and the members of Captain FitzRoy's family.


My Lords, I should like to associate those who usually sit on these Benches with the expression of sympathy with the House of Commons and Mrs. FitzRoy on the death of the Speaker. The Speaker of the House of Commons holds one of the most famous and historical posts in the world. He both has to express and guide the opinions and conduct of the greatest democratic assembly the world has ever known. It is an office which demands the qualities of wisdom, of impartiality, of patience and, above all, authority. The Speaker whose passing we are now mourning by general consent possessed all these qualities in the highest possible degree. Those who, like myself, only knew him from seeing him from the galleries of his House could not fail to be struck by the splendid dignity with which he occupied the Chair. On behalf, therefore, of the Peers spiritual, I join in expressing our profound sympathy with the House of Commons in the great and grievous loss which has just befallen them.


My Lords, your Lordships will allow me, perhaps expect me, to say a few words in support of this Motion. During some twelve years, up to within only a few weeks ago, I worked in very close association with Captain FitzRoy, and indeed I think perhaps have had more opportunity than anyone else, with the possible exception of my noble friend Lord Rankeillour, of seeing the work which he did of the type commonly known in the House of Commons as the work behind the Chair. The Speaker's qualities in ruling and conducting the debates in the House of Commons are a matter of general publicity, but the other work, called, as I say, the work behind the Chair, or more literally the work done by him in the library at the Speaker's House, is not so well known except to those who are actually concerned in it.

Now, my Lords, if it be conceded, as I think it will be, that the House of Commons is a unique Parliamentary assembly and that there is nothing quite like it in the world, then I think it must also be agreed that there is no office quite the same as that of Speaker of the House of Commons. It is an office which requires peculiar qualifications. It does not need the great genius or some of the great qualities which are required to make a great Prime Minister or a great statesman, but what it does require, in order that the man may perform the duties of his office at all, is the possession of a wonderful number of human virtues. But if a Speaker is to be a great Speaker there is one other thing necessary, which Captain FitzRoy certainly did possess in a remarkable degree, and that is an intimate knowledge and appreciation of the history and traditions of the House of Commons and an understanding of the basic principles at the root of those old traditions. He was a great reader of history, and, with the possible exception of some of the learned clerks who have advised him from time to time, I do not suppose anyone about the House of Commons knew better the whole history of the House in that way, and it is for that reason that I think it is safe to say that no Speaker in modern times has exceeded Captain FitzRoy in his ability.

Many of your Lordships will remember the speeches that he made from time to time in connexion with his office. He held office at a remarkable time, over a notable period of years, which brought within his duties those speeches that he made in Westminster Hall at the Coronation, at the Silver Jubilee and on the occasion of the reception of the President of the French Republic. If you study these, and two other speeches which I will mention in a moment, I think what I have said about his knowledge of the traditions of the House will be fairly clear. The other two speeches which I should like to mention were very remarkable, and indeed I have a hope that per- haps these speeches may be collected and reprinted if only for private circulation. One of those other two speeches was on an unfortunate occasion. It fell to his lot, as his duty, to do what I believe is unique in the last hundred years—formally to reprimand a Member of the House of Commons. That happened because the Member's offence took place just at the very end of a Session and if the Committee of Privileges had been able to do what they would have wished, they would probably have recommended a term in the Clock Tower or some punishment of that kind. But the Session was ending the very next day I think and therefore the only thing that could be done was to recommend that the Member in question should be reprimanded by the Speaker. That speech of course was recorded in the Official Report and I well remember a Member saying to me afterwards: "I would sooner have been flogged than have been the subject of that reprimand."

The other speech I think was heard by only two other Members of Parliament besides myself. It was on a private occasion when he unveiled the tablet of the rebuilt chapel at a private house which had previously been restored by his predecessor, Speaker Lenthall. On that occasion he quoted in the earlier sentences of his speech Lenthall's famous words in reply to the King, "I have neither ears to hear nor tongue to speak but as this House shall direct me." He went on to speak of the suitability of that tablet being unveiled by him as a direct descendant in office of Speaker Lenthall, and gave one of the most remarkable disquisitions which I have ever heard of the duties of the Speaker of the House of Commons and of the way in which principles growing and developing from year to year and from century to century had become something of which this country had a right to be proud and to a great extent the foundation of the success of our Parliamentary system. I heartily endorse all the things which have been said by those noble Lords who have already spoken on this subject. All of us who were most closely associated with him feel very sincerely the personal loss which we have sustained.


My Lords, before I put the Motion I trust that it will not be thought out of place if the holder of my office in your Lordships' House adds a very few words to what has been so well said about the late Speaker. For some thirty years I was a fellow member of the House of Commons with him, and in respect of the second half of that time the manner of his conduct of his difficult duties—far more onerous and exacting, of course, than those of presiding in this House—is very fresh in my mind. It might perhaps seem to some people surprising that an ex-cavalry officer who as a private member did not, I think, take a very prominent part in debate should so quickly have established his authority in the House of Commons and gained the complete confidence of all its members. But the qualities which constituted the late Speaker's success in the Chair were something very much more than qualities of mere cleverness. They were the qualities of a high and steadfast character, of a strong sense of justice and of duty, and of a kindly human understanding of the frailties and temptations which from time to time may assail any of us in the course of Parliamentary discussion. Add a very noble dignity, and a complete devotion to the traditions of the House over which he presided, and there you have, it seems to me, a collection of the very qualities which make a great Speaker.

Perhaps it is not for us in this House to appraise elaborately the achievements of the chief officer in the other. But those of us who have been closely associated with the work of another place in other days can hardly refrain from wishing to include in the tribute which is now being paid and in the expression of our sympathy to his family and to the other House the reflection that Speaker FitzRoy was indeed a worthy successor to a long line of distinguished Speakers and that we join the other House in mourning his loss, because o he too, by his conduct in the Chair, has helped to preserve and to promote that heritage which has never been more precious than to-day—the heritage of Parliamentary freedom.

On Question, Motion agreed to, nemine dissentiente, and ordered accordingly.

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