HL Deb 27 March 1946 vol 140 cc363-6

2.38 p.m.


My Lords, before we proceed to the ordinary business to-day, I am sure your Lordships would think it right that reference should be made to the death of one of our most distinguished fellow-members, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede. For a time he was Leader of the Party which I have now the honour to lead in this House, although it was a much smaller Party in those days than it is now. I am sure it is true to say that, whilst a great many of your Lordships did not share his views, there was no man amongst us for whom a sincerer respect was universally entertained—indeed, I think it is almost true to say, affection.

As your Lordships are aware, Lord Ponsonby began as a page to Queen Victoria. That was the first of his official duties, which subsequently were many and various. For a short time he was in the Foreign Office, in the Foreign Service, and, brief though it was, I think that experience influenced his whole life afterwards. But what dominated his life in particular was his resolute conviction of the futility of force. In season and out of season, he adhered to his convictions. They led him to separate himself from the Government in the first world war, and subsequently to be associated with the Labour Party. In 1930, he came to this House, and here again it was this same dominating conviction which led him some years later to separate himself from the Labour Party in respect of their decision to support rearmament against Hitler. Although, perhaps, not many members of your Lordships' House shared his views, we all admired most intensely his passionate sincerity, which never wavered, however unpopular he might think his cause was, as indeed it was sometimes. Every one of us admired his culture and his sharp wit, which were manifested many times, because he was a master of cultured phrase.

His contributions to the history of diarists are among the most significant of his contributions to the literature of his time. Perhaps he was not a constructive politician, but I think that Arthur Ponsonby's life in this House and his career demonstrate one splendid feature of our institutions which others do not always understand or appreciate, namely, that however much the majority may differ from a man, they respect his sincerity and he is always listened to with attention and patience. It is that splendid wide toleration and, shall I say, uniform courtesy, which—I think I may say so—marks your Lordships' House out amongst all the deliberative assemblies of the world. It was never more conspicuously displayed than in its friendship to Arthur Ponsonby. Every one of us who knew him, as I did intimately for many years, loved him as a friend and I cherish his shining example. I am sure we shall all wish to express to the devoted lady his wife for so many years our deep sympathy in her loss.

2.42 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that everyone on this side of the House wishes to be associated to the full with the tribute which the noble Viscount the Leader of the House has paid to Lord Ponsonby. Those who did not understand Lord Ponsonby as we did, and perhaps do not understand England as we understand England, might well wonder why it was that a man who disagreed with nearly everybody was liked by absolutely everybody. Lord Ponsonby was nearly always in opposition, perhaps not least when he was in office. Why then did we all like him so well? There was, as the Leader of the House has said, a great charm of manner, a delightful wit, and in fact, there was something of the quietly droll amateur actor of earlier days. His shafts penetrated, but never left a sore wound. But this would be an incomplete appreciation. His keenest opponent would bear tribute to far deeper qualities—qualities of sincerity and courage which inspired his life and his actions. It would, as the noble Viscount has said, indeed be a bad day for this country if a man so sincere and so inspired, in however small a minority he found himself, did not always obtain a hearing. So it is that all of us who knew him and disagreed with him on almost every subject feel a real sense of sadness that we shall not see him or hear him again.

2.45 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lords on these Benches desire to be associated with the tributes which have been paid to Lord Ponsonby. His personality commanded, as has been said, universal esteem and liking. I knew him first when we were both contemporaries at Balliol. There he was known as a stalwart member of the Tory Party, but afterwards he became private secretary to Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman when he was Prime Minister, to whom he was devoted and served for ten years as a Liberal member of the House of Commons. Having joined the Labour Party he held office in two successive Labour Governments, but finally found himself as an uncompromising Pacifist to the Left of the Labour Party and dissociated himself from it, proclaiming his independence. But no one doubted for one moment that his political course throughout was determined solely by what he absolutely believed to be right and to be his public duty. A man of a highly sensitive nature and with strong principles, his politics were dominated by his sympathies and wherever his conscience led he followed. He had great literary ability, was the author of several books on a variety of subjects, the best known, of course, being his life of his father, the distinguished private secretary of Queen Victoria. While the views that he expressed in your Lordships' House were, as he well knew, unpalatable to the great majority of your Lordships, his speeches were marked by an intense sincerity, wide knowledge, courtesy and humour, and were always regarded as valuable contributions to our debates. His death is a grief to us all. We would express our sympathy to his widow and to his son.

2.48 p.m.


My Lords, I hope you will permit me as one of the now diminishing small band which Lord Ponsonby led in this House, to add one more tribute to those already paid to him. I must recall the first time I came into intimate contact with him. It was when he was Foreign Under-Secretary when the Prime Minister of that day, the late Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, was Foreign Secretary. History will record the carrying through of most difficult negotiations with the Russian delegates for the conclusion of a trade treaty—negotiations in which he played the leading role. I was in contact with him then because although I was a member of the Liberal Party, a certain group of us—my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack, then a private member of the Liberal Party although already marked out for high office by his ability and distinction, was another—supported the policy of that trade treaty.

Unfortunately, the Government of the day would not face the music and that great work—that difficult and most intricate task of negotiation with the Russians, as all who have had negotiation with the Russians will understand—was brought to nought. But I think in future that should be remembered as a very significant achievement which if it had succeeded might have altered the whole course of history, including the history of the second world war—which might, indeed, have been avoided. It only remains to say that what my noble friend Viscount Addison said about Lord Ponsonby's qualities as a leader are fully echoed by all those who shared his friendship. We are now a powerful platoon. We have increased in numbers but I think he set a high standard for the Opposition in this House when he represented the Labour Party, which has been fully upheld by his successors.