HL Deb 06 April 1955 vol 192 cc322-32

2.43 p.m.


My Lords, since we met yesterday, an event has occurred to which I am sure your Lordships would agree that it is fitting, before we turn to the ordinary Business of the Day, that we who lead the various Parties in this House should make some reference. Yesterday, as your Lordships know, the Prime Minister, who so long has guided the fortunes of this country, decided to retire from the leadership of the Government, and placed his resignation in the hands of Her Majesty The Queen.

The resignation of a Prime Minister is always a notable event in the political history of our country. Not that all those who have occupied that post have been of equal merit, or at least of equal importance. Prime Ministers, like other men, vary in their impact on their generation and on history. There have been some who, even in their lifetime, have hardly raised a ripple on the surface of politics and whose names now are forgotten by all but students of their period. There were others who will never pass from the minds of men, but will live in their hearts, so long as Britain endures. Into that illustrious company I am sure we shall agree that Sir Winston Churchill has already passed. It is not only those transcendent gifts—those gifts that have enabled him to excel in so many fields—that have won him his place; for, after all, others have had great gifts, and yet not one his fame.

But he has, I believe, three great qualities, as rare as they are precious. The first is that indomitable courage which has enabled him to lift his country to his own level during the darkest days of the war; that lamp which shone then and still shines all the brighter, the deeper the gloom around. The second, I think, is an all-pervading humanity which informs and colours his judgment on all the issues that come before him. Third, and last, he has a passionate love of freedom and all that pertains to freedom, which makes him, I think, if I may say so, though the Leader of the Conservative Party, one of the greatest of Liberals, in the Fullest sense of the term. It is these three qualities, I am sure, that have given him the pre-eminent position which he occupies to-day throughout the civilised world.

We thank him to-day for all that, in fair weather and in foul, he has done for us and for our country. I am sure we shall all wish him many years, not of rest (for I am quite certain he never will rest) but of opportunities to explore yet new fields of human endeavour. May I hope, too—and I am sure that in saying this I speak for all your Lordships—that in his desire to explore these new fields, he will not entirely desert that which he has so long dominated; and that here in Parliament, in that other place where he has spent so many years of his great and active life, his wisdom and his courage will be still at the disposal of those who, so imperfectly, try to follow in his footsteps.

Finally, before I sit down, I should like, if I may, to couple this, I am afraid, sadly inadequate tribute to the retiring Prime Minister with a word of warm welcome to the new Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, who succeeds him. If Sir Winston has left us, still at the peak of his career, Sir Anthony, I think, equally comes to us at the peak of his. Never, I believe, has my right honourable friend stood so high in the estimation of his fellow-countrymen. As your Lordships know, in his position as Foreign Secretary he has twice during the last year, by his own efforts, retrieved an apparently hopeless situation and plucked success from failure, first at Geneva, and secondly over the Paris Agreements. If we had to choose anyone to pilot us through the tides and the races, the rocks and the quicksands that lie ahead, I believe that everyone in every party would be happy to have him; and I am sure that everyone in this House, irrespective of his Party, will wish Sir Anthony all good fortune in guiding us through those looming perils into the calmer and more peaceful waters which I hope and believe lie beyond.

2.49 p.m.


My Lords, this occasion, I believe, is quite without precedent. The noble Marquess the Leader of the House has just paid a moving tribute to the outgoing Prime Minister, and I, as Leader of the Opposition in this House, desire to support him. I can recall many cases in which a Prime Minister has left office otherwise than as the result of an Election, and yet I doubt whether a tribute such as this has ever been moved from the Government side and supported from the Opposition side, even though the persons concerned were as eminent as, for example, Mr. Gladstone, Lord Salisbury or Mr. Asquith. Yet, if the Motion (if indeed there be a Motion) is without precedent, the man whom we honour is also without precedent. Indeed, the Motion fits the man and, in the case of Winston Churchill, nothing seems more natural than that we should for a moment forget our Party differences and bear witness to that underlying unity which, to the confusion of our critics and the consternation of our enemies, is demonstrated on an occasion such as this.

My Lords, never was a man better matched with his hour than was Winston Churchill. I recall the fact with pride that, notwithstanding the sharp clash of Party differences, my Party were ready to serve under him and under no one else; and never was the nation's trust more amply justified. Historians in the future will analyse his strategy and point, I do not doubt, to his mistakes. But we who lived through those days and served under him have this advantage over the historians of the future: that we can testify to the inspiration we received from his splendid courage and his matchless eloquence. In the long line of statesmen who have graced our annals none has rendered such incomparable service, not only to his country but to the free world. None has striven so mightily in defence of truth and justice, and none has done more to uphold the standards of our national honour. I must confess that as a junior Minister I found him a most formidable figure. I loved to hear the lion roar, but I always thanked my stars that he never roared at me. He was a hard taskmaster, but he was tolerant and magnanimous—the sort of man who drew the best out of all his subordinates, each of whom was proud to serve him to the utmost of his capacity.

Nor, I think, should we forget his gracious lady who, by her unremitting solicitude for him, gave him the happy background without which he could never have played the part for which destiny had surely reserved him. Long may he be with us to give us the benefit of his experience and ripe judgment! We salute him.

An epoch has ended, and we turn to the future. We can all join in extending our good wishes to his successor. All who know Sir Anthony Eden and have served with him have for him a high regard. May he long be endowed with good health and happiness! I think I can also add, without compromising myself unduly, the hope that his political reign over us may be glorious, though perhaps I had better not speculate on its length.

2.53 p.m.


My Lords, I desire to associate noble Lords on these Benches with the tributes which have been paid to the outgoing Prime Minister. I have one personal qualification, different from that of either of the previous speakers, that entitles me to do so, in that I am, after all, Sir Winston Churchill's earliest colleague. It will be fifty years in December that, after the announcement of the new Campbell-Bannerman Cabinet, there appeared in the Press the list of the Under-Secretaries. There, for the first time in a ministerial list, stood the name of Winston Churchill as Under-Secretary for the Colonies, and beside it my own as Under-Secretary for the Home Office. We served together in the Asquith Cabinet for five or six years, in the fateful times leading up to and passing through the critical year of 1914, which stands out in history as a turning point in the annals of the modern world. After two years as an Under-Secretary, Churchill, if I may so call him, entered the Cabinet, and since then at one time or another he has held the office of President of the Board of Trade, First Lord of the Admiralty, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Minister of Munitions, Secretary of State for Home Affairs, for the Colonies, for the War Department, and for Air, Minister of Defence, and Chancellor of the Exchequer; and he has twice been Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury—all those twelve offices in the short space of fifty years!

I would join with what has just been said by the noble and learned Earl, that at this moment we must not forget the great service that has been rendered by Lady Churchill. For forty-seven out of those fifty years Sir Winston has been sustained and aided by a happy marriage, and we, who are grateful to him for his services, must be grateful to her also who has helped so much to make them possible.

It is unfortunate at this juncture that the London daily Press is silenced. It is only a muted farewell that the nation can give to the outgoing Prime Minister, only a muted greeting to his incoming successor. This is only one of the inconveniences that the nation is suffering. We do not know what indirect results may come from the stoppage of all the customary notices that appear in the Press—financial, legal and personal. It calls to my mind the answer which was given by a schoolboy to a question in a history paper: "What was the effect of the papal interdict imposed upon England in the reign of King John?" The boy answered: "The effect of the interdict was that births, deaths and marriages were not allowed to take place." Our present trade union interdict does not go quite so far as that, but evidently it is leading in that direction.

In Sir Anthony Eden we find one who has already served as Deputy Prime Minister since 1951. I do not know that he has had very much to do in that capacity: one might as well be a deputy volcano. But he has been designated for some time past as the successor, and he has now, by the desire of Her Gracious Majesty this morning, succeeded, without in any quarter doubt or controversy. He has been most closely associated with foreign questions for nearly the whole of his life. It is not generally remembered that at Oxford he specialised in Oriental languages, getting a First Class in the Honours school. That knowledge has always stood him in good stead in his dealings with Oriental affairs. Since 1926—nearly thirty years—with only short periods in Opposition, he has been directly connected with foreign affairs, and, as the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, has said, with ever-increasing success, so that he is indeed now at the height of his reputation.

It is a good tradition in this country that the Foreign Secretary should not be expected to take a constant and active part in Party controversies, for by virtue of his office he speaks for the whole nation to the world, and he speaks, as a general rule, we are glad to think, with the universal support of all Parties in almost all matters. At any moment now he may be plunged into the turmoil of political conflict as a Party leader in a General Election, and find himself in the disturbed and normal atmosphere which belongs to a live democracy. Probably at the present time General Eisenhower is feeling much the same; immersed in the bitter disputes of Washington politics, he must look back with regret to the relatively quiet life of a Commander-in-Chief in the field in time of war. In Sir Anthony Eden the people have one in whose character and experience they have full confidence, and your Lordships' House, whatever political divergencies may arise in the future, will, I am sure, follow his career in his new position of supreme responsibility in a spirit of personal friendship and of sincere good will.

3.2 p.m.


My Lords, I very much regret the absence of the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury who, had he not been in the wilds of Africa at this moment, would have been extremely happy to join in these tributes. In deputising for him I feel that I can add little that is at all worthy of the very noble and eloquent tributes which have already been paid. There are, however, one or two points that can be said from the side of the national Church and of the religious community in general. Ever since their beginnings, the Church and State in this country have been closely interwoven, and in the course of our history it has fallen to the lot of the Prime Minister to recommend to the Crown those who are to preside over the various dioceses of the country. It would ill become one who has himself enjoyed the kindness of Sir Winston Churchill in this particular regard to call attention to the great care and skill with which he made those recommendations. We are all, however, fully conscious of the fact that he did not regard this as any mere formal part of his duties, but gave the greatest possible personal attention to these matters; that is a fact which will long linger in the memory of the Church in this country.

If I may speak from the background of the religious community in general, as perhaps I am entitled to do, as Chairman of the British Council of Churches, I should wish to say how very much we have all appreciated the speeches of Sir Winston Churchill, to which reference has already been made this afternoon. It is sometimes said that the mark of the true orator is that he should be able to read the minds and hearts of his audience and then put their thoughts and feelings in better language than they could use themselves—in other words, to interpret his hearers to themselves. If that is true, then we have had in Sir Winston Churchill a supreme example of a true orator; and we must all appreciate highly the inspiration that he has given us. He has interpreted us to ourselves.

In the days of the war he stood out as the typical Englishman, the kind of Englishman we should each have wished to be. Although I was not present in this country during the most difficult times of the last war, I can assure your Lordships that his inspiration was felt far beyond the bounds of this country. On the other side of the world we realised something of the greatness of our country and were thankful that there was someone who could interpret that greatness as did Sir Winston Churchill. I do not know how far he would be willing to be described as a religious man, but he never for a moment concealed from us, in his speeches, the fact that he believes in a Providential ordering of human affairs. He believes that there is a Divine government of the universe, and he called upon us to contribute our efforts to that overruling purpose. By doing so with such success, he made us more than we already were: we had the picture of the hero before us, but were unaware that we could rise to the heights to which he summoned us. By urging us to contribute to the overruling purpose of Providence, he made us more than ordinary men and women: he made our country stand out in the true heroic colours which have characterised its best hours throughout the course of its history.

This moment will undoubtedly mark an epoch. From time to time when, in the course of our history, we have been faced with dire threats of disaster, Providence has called a leader to inspire us and to enable us to overcome the difficulties and dangers that lay ahead. The figures of King Arthur and King Alfred are half obscured by the mists of antiquity, but it is a wonderful thing that we, in our own generation, have seen such a figure alive in the flesh and have been able to associate ourselves with him. It is with full hearts that we must all offer our deepest thanks to Sir Winston Churchill for all that he has done and for all that he has been to us. As we look back at him, we can thank God for what he has been in the past; and as we look forward to the work of his successor we can believe that, so long as his inspiration endures, our gratitude will still be earned and our country will still be guided along those paths of glory that we so happily tread.

3.8 p.m.


My Lords, I feel that as a representative of the National Liberal Party I am doing only what every one of us would wish in aligning ourselves with every word that has been said by those who have so ably spoken this afternoon. On many a day since 1939 we, in our lives, have thanked God for Winston Churchill and for his courage and fearlessness in the terriffic anxieties and responsibilities which rested on his shoulders. For in great events there is always one man who has to make the final decision. Sir Winston Churchill always gave me the impression that although he was worried he was never fearful as to the result of the war. This great characteristic enabled him to keep up the morale of the nation. In our darkest hours, how often we all waited for his words of encouragement, confidence and hope! He never failed us.

But I hope that his great world position is not over. One of the greatest hopes of peace is bound up in his influence, whether it be with his pen or his spoken words. We cannot afford to lose his qualities of leadership. If your Lordships will bear with me, I should like to read a few lines from Milton's Samson Agonistes that I came across this morning—I think they are particularly suitable at this moment: O how comely it is and how reviving To the spirits of just men long oppress'd! When God into the hands of their deliverer Puts invincible might. We wish Sir Winston Churchill, our great and everlasting friend, rest and happiness in the coming years, when we hope his pen and his paint brush will not be idle. I would also lake this opportunity of wishing his successor every success, and of expressing to him every good wish.

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, the touching and noble tributes to which your Lordships have listened leave little for any words of mine to close this portion of our debate. But I feel, as does everyone who has approached this subject, that to try to compress into a few brief words the friendship of a generation and the close companionship of a decade, as one of Sir Winston's lieutenants, is almost a work of impossibility. But there are one or two matters with which I should like to trouble your Lordships.

Among all the great figures of our historic past it is difficult to remember another who, though so peculiarly our own, we share so completely with the rest of the world. I need not speak to-day of all that Sir Winston has done for the cause of friendship between this country and the United States, but I do want to say one word, because it was my privilege to be with him, of his work in the years after the war for the cause of a united Europe. I saw him in Holland, in Belgium and in France, when I was by his side, being greeted with acclamation, respect and affection by great crowds. I watched their faces and saw the effect on every one in those crowds, from the oldest veteran to the youngest child, of merely seeing Sir Winston Churchill. And to me (and I am sure I shall be forgiven for saying it) there was an intense satisfaction in the sure foundation on which he built that work. It was the foundation of what is the truest test of a politician—adversity.

I shall never forget how he was not merely completely unbowed but, indeed, inspired by the great political defeat which he and his Party sustained in 1945. Every great political figure makes some contribution to the living political philosophy of our country which enables us to carry on. Sir Winston, I think, has given an emphasis to some of the most important of our characteristics. He never feared to put the gravest issues in the frankest terms before the people of this country. He was always generous in victory; he was always tolerant to a different point of view; and he always believed in the great democratic instrument of discussion as a solvent of the most cruel dilemma in political life. And, to our great enrichment, he added to those other qualities which he possessed an unquenchable humour. Looking back on the ten years during which I have had the privilege of going to meetings with him, at least once a week—and often many times more then that—I can say with complete sincerity that I have looked forward to every meeting, knowing that, however difficult the agenda, I should there experience not only that lightening touch of humour, but also ripe wisdom and that intangible x of qualities which, when analysis has done all it can, when counter-suggestions have been weighed, focuses the light of intuition, of flair—nay, more, of genius—in order to illumine the difficult problems of the day.

When I look round this Assembly, in which there are so many old friends with whom I have walked the political road, whether on the same side or on another, I ask myself again the question which comes up in all our minds: Why is it that at some early stage we embark a frail and ill-equipped personal craft on the yeasty seas of political life? Of course there is some feeling of confidence in ourselves, of service that we believe we can give. But I think there is something more that constitutes the political virus—or whatever people may term it. It is a desire, even from the humblest position on the stage of history, to see and to hear the authentic rustle of the wings of greatness as it passes over the stage. Whatever may happen to us, whatever the future may bring, no one can take away the fact that we have heard the rustle of the wings of greatness in the years when Sir Winston Churchill has played so great a part in our lives.

I wish to say only one word with the noble and learned Earl who leads the Opposition, when we turn from the past to the future. I am sure that every one of your Lordships shares with me the feeling that the greatest duty and responsibility which lies on ourselves and on our country is to see whether we can change what has hitherto been one of the maddest centuries in the troubled history of mankind into a second half-century of sanity and peace. I say only this about an old friend, colleague and leader: that Sir Anthony Eden will bring to that pregnant problem of humanity experience, patience, understanding and, I think your Lordships will all agree, a power of personal contact unrivalled in the world today. It is for that contribution, and for what he has done, that I am sure all noble Lords will join, not only in the tribute to Sir Winston Churchill, but also in the warm welcome and good wishes that we all bring for Sir Anthony Eden today.