HL Deb 20 October 1947 vol 151 cc1475-82

2.22 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships have sustained the loss of another distinguished member of this House in the death of Sidney Webb, officially known as Lord Pass-field, who sat here as Secretary of State, first for the Colonies and then for the Dominions, in the Labour Government of 1929. I have spoken of him as Sidney Webb, because he regarded his title as a regrettable but unavoidable concomitant of public office. This is the name he liked his friends to use, and one that will be for ever memorable on account of the lifelong partnership with which it is associated, and because it is linked with the long series of books and pamphlets that made their author the most remarkable and influential political thinker since John Stuart Mill.

His mind was characterized by a practical bias and a sense of the possible that is typically English. The detailed and voluminous studies of social institutions undertaken by the Webbs were always inspired by an initial determination to improve them. Indeed, theory and practice were to them a single and continuous process—the staff work and operations of the same campaign. Sidney Webb's abiding greatness was not as a statesman or administrator, for he did not take office until he was over sixty. It lies in his work as the principal architect of the increasingly enlightened public opinion, and the succession of legislative reforms, that have quickened the pace of social progress in this country since the turn of the century. His main endeavour was to change the political democracy of his early years in the nineteenth century, with its two nations of rich and poor, into an economic and social democracy where wealth and opportunity would be shared, and planned co-operation for the common good would take the place of blind and egotistical competition. To do this he believed that the State should become the father of its people, instead of watching over their behaviour like a stern policeman. He has been charged for this reason with a bureaucratic indifference to individual freedom. But what in fact he wanted was to free the majority of society from living under economic duress in an environment and style of life created by the self-interest of powerful minorities. In such circumstances collective action becomes a sine qua non of personal freedom.

All Parties in the State stand in debt to his labours, for he lent to any man and any agency he thought capable of turning his ideas into facts. The Conservative Education Act of 1902, which opened the door of secondary and technical education to the children of the working classes, owed much to The Education Muddle and the Way Out, an anonymous Fabian tract written with the first-hand experience of the Chairman of the Technical Education Committee of the London County Council. The Minority Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law, with its analysis of the causes of destitution and its insistence that poverty must either be cured or relieved by the State, contained in germ the social legislation of the Liberal Governments between 1906 and 1914. It is also the direct ancestor of the Beveridge Report, and the comprehensive system of national insurance that has since emerged from it.

My own Party, if I may refer to our attitude, looks upon Sidney Webb much as the Children of Israel must have regarded Moses, who made of them a nation with a purpose, and pointed out to them the way through the Wilderness as well as the fair prospect of the Promised Land. He married the trade union movement to a peculiarly British brand of Socialism which eschewed violence and disavowed materialism, setting out to achieve its object by the patient and gradual process, of infiltration into the representative organs of central and local government.

The Webbs planned their private lives as systematically as their work and always with one eye on some fresh foothold for their ideas. The heyday of their political salon was during the years they spent at 41, Grosvenor Road. But when in later life they retired to Passfield Corner, which they secured in reply to an advertisement for a country cottage with no dogs or cocks within hearing, it soon became a place of pilgrimage to which political beginners were invited and where they could mingle with the great. It was there I believe I heard that the Webbs had once been to a concert. It was a performance of Parsifal at the Albert Hall, and they had been given a couple of free tickets. When Sidney Webb was asked afterwards whether he had enjoyed it, he replied, "Yes, we enjoyed it very much. Our seats were immediately behind Herbert Samuel, and we had a most interesting talk during the interval about the incidence of sickness during pregnancy."

This House and the country owe an incalculable debt to the intellectual legacy and personal example of this great Englishman, who embodied so well the spirit of our British political genius, its practical idealism, its hatred of violence, its will to public service, and its passionate resentment of cruelty, injustice or repression. I know that he would like best to be remembered as a faithful servant of the people, to whom his life and his writings were dedicated, and, above all, as the champion of the underprivileged among them, the sick, the hungry, the old, the unemployed whom his pioneering vision has already done so much to bring within the family circle of our national life.

2.27 p.m.


My Lords, it is, I think, fitting that something should be said from these Benches with regard to Lord Passfield, whose death we lament to-day, and I would echo what has already been so well said by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. Lord Passfield was, of course, rather a legendary figure to most of us. He was, indeed, a member of the House of Lords; but he was not in the accepted sense of the term a House of Lords man. He entered it, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, told us, with considerable reluctance, and played little part in its deliberations, except when official duties necessitated. He will go down to history not so much as a Parliamentary figure but as a social and political thinker. In this sphere the influence which he exerted on the history of his time cannot be overestimated. Most of us on this side of the House would disagree with much of his doctrine, but in one essential respect we should all find ourselves at one with him. He was essentially an evolutionary. To him Socialism was not a revolutionary creed, as it has so often been on the Continent. It was a practical method of improving the conditions of the working classes. In that respect he was characteristically English.

Even Parties who disagreed with his political views incorporated many of his practical proposals in their policy, especially in the sphere of education. He had a vision and, with his gifted wife, he devoted his life to it. He was the founder of the Fabian Society, and, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, emphasized, he was the intellectual father of the Labour Party. When history comes to be written, no man, I believe will be found to have played a greater part in the moulding of the thoughts of his generation than Sidney Webb. I should like to join with the noble Earl in his expressions of sympathy with the relatives.

2.30 p.m.


My Lords, all sections of your Lordships' House would desire to join in this tribute to Lord Passfield, although, as has been said, his life's work and achievement were not here. It was only a few years after his advent to this House that he suffered a. stroke of paralysis which incapacitated him wholly from all political and literary activities. Indeed, it is not as a member of either House of Parliament, or as a Minister in the short-lived Labour Governments of Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, that he will be remembered, but as an effective pioneer of political thought and as one of the principal founders of a great Party, which within his own lifetime had secured a great majority in the House of Commons and now constitutes the Government of the day.

On these occasions when we pay tribute to our members who have rendered distinguished and devoted service to the nation in any of its activities, it is a wise tradition that the test should not be our agreement or disagreement with their political views; the test in the case of one in political life is whether he has laboured long and ably according to his convictions to advance the common good moved not by ambition or self-seeking but by an eagerness to promote well., being and to raise the level of the happiness of the people. Judged by this test there is no man more than Sidney Webb who has won all our gratitude and our praise.

I knew Sidney and Beatrice Webb intimately for more than fifty years. As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has said, their partnership was a very remarkable one, probably more close and more effective than any in our history. They shared the same humanitarian enthusiasm; they were marked by the same untiring industry; they were equally willing to sacrifice all ordinary delights, not with fame as the spur, but in an effort to cure the social evils that have so long degraded our industrial civilization, and to raise the whole body of the people to a higher level of character and of culture.

Nor was it any vague idealism that inspired them. They excelled in the art—a very necessary art in our complicated world of politics and administration—of getting things done. They had also the great virtue of initiative, which they showed in the sphere of public education, in that of public assistance, in their labours in political and economic research, and in the foundation of the London School of Economics and Political Science, now one of the largest and most influential educational institutions of the world. They stand out as leaders of thought and action in the history of our time. Although our tribute here is to that member of the partnership who was himself a member of this House, in their death as in their lives Sidney and Beatrice Webb are not to be divided. They have won that highest honour that can be won, to live in men's memories as high examples of the good citizen.

2.33 p.m.


My Lords, if I sat here and said nothing it might conceivably be misunderstood to mean that the Church was not interested in the kind of work which Sidney Webb did for this country. That is wholly and utterly untrue. Just to safeguard myself from that misinterpretation I feel that I should, in the briefest possible way, associate myself with the tributes that have been paid. The Church indeed could not be indifferent to Sidney Webb's work when it dealt with problems which so closely concerned the mission of the Church itself, in relieving miseries and in raising the social conditions and the cultural level of our people. In fact, there was a constant interchange of affection on these matters between the Church and Sidney Webb. There were some great leaders of the Church who were intimate friends of his and the Church itself has benefited from the stimulus of the work which Sidney Webb did. I would, therefore, desire to associate myself with the tributes which have been paid.

2.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am, I think, now the only member in your Lordships' House who sat throughout in Cabinet with Sidney Webb, and perhaps I may be allowed to say a word on this occasion, the more because nearly sixty years ago I heard Sidney Webb's name frequently in my home. In those days a group of able men were planning the London that we know to-day. There were Charles Harrison, J. F. B. Firth and Sir John Lubbock; there were men who entered your Lordships' House later, Lord Dickinson, Lord Monkswell, Lord Farrer and others. They were led by one to whom London can never discharge its debt of gratitude, Lord Rosebery, the first Chairman of the London County Council. Under a non-dogmatic umbrella, which was called the Progressive Party, there were many opinions, and among the members there were famous Londoners, John Burns, Will Crooks and, later, Sidney Webb. I heard his name frequently at home because my father was an ardent supporter of this movement.

Although Sidney Webb's main interest was education (and in particular technical education)—and I suppose his main contribution in those days was to persuade a reluctant Progressive Party to adopt a conservative Education Act—yet his influence was far wider. He was planning a socialized London. He and John Burns were denounced as dreamers of dreams. I have read somewhere that the phrase was John Morley's. But, worse than that, they were denounced as Socialists, and in those days to be called a Socialist was a serious affair. It was not a passport to high and lucrative office as it is to-day, but a term of violent abuse, as if we should say Communists and fellow travellers. The work that Sidney Webb planned was severely checked in 1907, but he had the gratification of seeing it resumed and put on the way to completion by another very great Londoner; I mean the Lord President of the Council, Mr. Herbert Morrison.

As has been rightly said, Cabinet office was irrelevant in Sidney Webb's career. One thing I remember was the help he gave in eradicating possible friction between the Indian settlers and the Colonial Government in East Africa, which we know from experience can be a very bitter and delicate thing. I cannot forget that with the assistance of that rather terrifying soldier-civil servant, Sir Samuel Wilson, and Sidney Webb, we did avoid the possibility of those difficulties. That is just an incident I remember.

But it has been rightly said that Parliamentary life was only what you might call a postscript to the saga of the lives of the Webbs. As Mrs. Webb is reported to have said when Sidney entered Parliament in 1922: "Remember, Sidney, your career is behind you". That was perfectly true, because their real place was among the prophets, the forerunners of the Social Revolution of to-day. You will have to study the pages of history to find names to rank with theirs. In their day controversy was conducted with much heat and passion. Yet it was to be noted that when the heat had abated and the rhetorical incandescence was dimmed, the shape of things had often crystallized according to the Webb design.

I do not know whether it is permitted to make a personal reference in a simple and informal way. I was for some time a next door neighbour to Sidney Webb in Millbank, and it was a great privilege to have that casual and informal acquaintance with him. The Webbs' political parties were terrifyingly brilliant, and that was not by accident but by design. I remember Mrs. Webb saying: "You do not ask husbands and wives together; one of them is so frequently inoperative." The greatest privilege of all was to be invited as sole guest to their home at Passfield Corner. Certainly there was a penalty. There was that remorseless trek over hill and dale, led by host and hostess in person. But in the evening there was the fireside chat, and the opportunity of listening to the brilliant rapier play of the conversation of that affectionate and devoted pair. There was one thing we did notice in that sitting room, which some noble Lords may know. The curtains did not match. We raised that point with Mrs. Webb and we said: "The curtains do not match". She said: "The decorators objected, but Sidney and I wished it to be so". We came to the conclusion that this was an emotional reaction in their place of rest against the perfect balance of their mental processes.

We are not paying just a formal tribute to-clay to a great man who served his country well and deserved honour. Sidney Webb's achievement was recognized by a place in this House, but the significant thing is the glory that his name has added to our records.

House adjourned during pleasure.