HL Deb 04 July 1957 vol 204 cc649-59

3.4 p.m.


My Lords, the House will have been ill-prepared for the grievous shock of Lord Cherwell's death when there are so fresh in our minds the vigorous and characteristic interventions in our debates which he has lately made. The records tell us that Lord Cherwell was seventy-one, but in his company age counted for nothing and until the other day he was as I knew him and as other noble Lords knew him thirty-five years ago, when we were undergraduates in Oxford; there was the same calm and penetrating mind moving among the mysteries of physical creation, clear and logical in its thinking, as behoved a high mathematician, a relentless hunter hurrying along the trail of discovery. There was the same immediate response to kindred intellects and the same contempt for a fool, the same restless impatience with mediocrity and with the generality of mankind who were slow to perceive and accept what, to him, were the plain highways of progress; the same burning patriotism for England and for Oxford and the same uncompromising hostility to anyone and anything that threatened the welfare of either.

His impact upon the young, as I remember it, was various. He was stimulating and challenging to the first-class mind, but to the average undergraduate he was perhaps an intimidating figure, with his caustic and mordant wit. Too often, as average undergraduates, we were apt to evade this rather intimidating and aloof don, even then always dressed in his bowler hat. But gradually his achievements captured our imagination and compelled our respect. Your Lordships, and many more outside, are familiar with his exploits when he was an experimental pilot with the Physical Laboratory of the Royal Air Force. In particular, your Lordships are familiar with those days when he made a paper calculation of why the early aeroplane got into a fatal spin, and taught himself to fly in order to prove his mathematical conclusion that spin could be controlled. This act of cold, calculated, selfless courage ranks as one of the epics of human daring and of man's conquest of the unknown. And so distant and rather qualified admiration turned for us into respect.

He was decorated for valour in the First World War, and he had already become a legend in the 1920's, and certainly by 1939, when the Second World War came. Here was Lord Cherwell's opportunity and he took it with both hands, for, like his Prime Minister and close personal friend, Winston Churchill, he was supremely equipped to meet the challenge of those times. In the Government, he moved with complete familiarity among the problems presented by a war of science and machines, happy and expansive at this time, giving his whole self and talents to the service of his beloved chief and to his country. In those days he proved himself a character massive in adversity and undisturbed by calamity, and thus identified himself with the soul of England. "The Prof", as so many came to know him, was then not only a figure of distant admiration and respect, but also an object of affection, genuine and sincere.

True to his profession and to his beliefs, he worked unceasingly in his later years to equip his country with young scientists and technologists, because he knew that the future security of our country in a competitive world depended on their training. He looked forward with the anticipation of a young man to the application of thermo-nuclear physics and to using this inexhaustible source of energy, not to destroy one another, but to ease the lot of human toil. And so, while he was still young in mind, we take leave of Lord Cherwell. Early in life he reached the summit of his profession and he pursued it with integrity through a long and distinguished life. As a Peer of this House he was a perfect justification for its existence. A genius, like every genius, he was unlike other men, and in his generation a great figure among great contemporaries.

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friends, I should like to associate myself with the eloquent tribute which has been paid to the late Lord Cherwell by the noble Earl the Leader of the House. Remembering his recent speeches, we find it very difficult to realise that Lord Cherwell is no longer amongst us. Those of us who took part in recent debates in which he spoke will remember the contributions which he made, which were so characteristic of him and so much alive, whether one agreed or did not agree with what he said.

Lord Cherwell was not only a scientist; he had wide interests outside. In the last debate in which he took part, he spoke characteristically on university education, and it is a remarkable thing that on that occasion he agreed almost completely with my noble, friend Lord Pakenham, who I hope will say a few words later on. The speech that stands out most in my own memory is the speech of Lord Cherwell on the testing of nuclear weapons. As always, Lord Cherwell was very sure of himself and of the views that he took—naturally so, because in his facts he had a far greater knowledge than most of us who took part in any of the discussions on this or any other subject on which he spoke. He was a specialist in experimental philosophy—that was his subject. But there was nothing experimental about his speeches in this House and the way in which he expressed himself. He arrived at firm conclusions. He was a great House of Lords man, and we shall miss him very much in our deliberations.

Most of us had not the advantage of knowing him at the university, or even in administration; our knowledge of the late Lord Cherwell was merely as a House of Lords figure. But we do know the great work that he did in conjunction with Sir Winston Churchill during the war, and the great part that he played in achieving victory. The combination of Sir Winston Churchill and Lord Cherwell was the most formidable possible combination one could have. We shall always remember the part Lord Cherwell played in the war, with the greatest possible gratitude. But I myself shall always think of him as a great House of Lords man; as a man who took part in debates on a wide variety of subjects. He made immense contributions to technological education, and made many fine speeches on that subject and various other subjects. We shall remember him with respect and affection. The House of Lords is very much poorer for his loss, and we deeply deplore the fact that he has left us so suddenly.

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, it is a melancholy duty which falls to the spokesmen of the various political Parties in your Lordships' House to try to summarise in terms which are not too personal yet not too general the sense of loss which we feel when one of our number, known to us all and a friend of us all, is removed by death. Lord Cherwell's illustrious life, and his many contributions through his intellectual excellence to our emergence from the darkest days of the war, is, as the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has just said, well-known to all of us. For my part, it is, in a sense, a particular privilege to pay tribute to Lord Cherwell, because I do so in all sincerity to a man who was certainly an ornament and an asset to your Lordships' House; a man who represented what is so admirable in this Second Chamber of ours, in that he never shrank from expressing his views which, whether they were popular or controversial, were nevertheless well-grounded views, obviously highly intelligent views and genuine views. The fact that I more often than not found myself in disagreement with his political views gives me, if I may say so, a special satisfaction to-day in being allowed to pay homage to his forthright character and his individual integrity. From these Benches, we join in paying sincere tribute to the passing of a notable character and a valued colleague.

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, it has been suggested that I should add a few words—and they will be few—in tribute to Lord Cherwell. Some of your Lordships may remember his remark in a recent debate in this House to which yesterday's news has given a tragic significance. Speaking of the proposed road through Christ Church Meadow, he said that he could claim that he was not personally affected, because his medical adviser would agree that it was unlikely that he would survive to be disturbed by it.

Lord Cherwell and myself knew each other for some twenty years or more as fellow professors at Oxford, as rivals for the University seat, and afterwards in successive Administrations, both in war and peace. We sometimes differed, sometimes agreed and sometimes were in active and cordial co-operation. I recall one important and controversial question in which, after long debate, the Prime Minister at that time intervened with the remark: "Well, when I find 'The Prof' and Salter agreeing, I think there must be something in what they say"; and we were successful in our common effort on that occasion.

As we all know, Lord Cherwell was to an exceptional degree ascetic and austere in his personal life; unsparing of himself in an unremitting industry; and perhaps rather detached and aloof in his personal relations, except with the comparatively few who penetrated his reserve. The courage combined with his genius which, as the noble Earl the Leader of the House has reminded us, enabled him to make such an outstanding contribution to the infant art of flying, was continued, though it found different expression, in the later stages in his life. In forming and advocating his opinions he had a kind of sharp-edged realism and a rather pugnacious persuasiveness which perhaps made him more effective in private and intimate than in public discussion.

There is one further thing that I think I should add. The method through which he exercised his influence was not mainly by virtue of a high executive office in which he held direct personal responsibility, but through his influence with the great Prime Minister whom he served for so long and with whom he was on terms of such intimate friendship. Both his personal qualities, and perhaps the method by which he exercised his influence may have sometimes increased the sharpness of the reactions to his advice both from his fellow scientists and from others. But this method had one consequence which I should now like to emphasise. It is that there is and can be no documentary evidence in existence which will adequately reflect for the future historian the great importance and value of his work. I therefore venture to express the hope that those who have direct and intimate knowledge of Lord Cherwell's achievements in the many spheres in which his impact was felt will leave a record of what they know, not in mere obituary tributes, but in memoirs of an enduring character, which will be a contribution to the future history of our time.

3.18 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps your Lordships will allow me to add a few words as a friend. If the time should ever come when England, like Carthage, is little more than a name, it will perhaps be remembered for two things; for its lyrical poetry and for its school of physics, the twin peaks in the worlds of science and art. This school of physics began at Cambridge, with Isaac Newton, and did not end with Lord Rutherford. It was Lord Cherwell's great achievement that, finding a derelict department at Oxford, he so built it up, especially with young scientists, that at the end, when he left it, the department was able to make a contribution comparable to that of the Cavendish School of Physics at Cambridge, which has led the world.

I am not competent to measure Lord Cherwell's worth and merits as a physicist. I think it was right that the noble Earl the Leader of the House should concentrate on that remarkable incident in the First World War, because it is difficult to know whether to admire more the clarity of Lord Cherwell's mind in coming, on pure mathematical grounds, to such a conclusion, or the singular courage which enabled him to put it to the lest, though at that time in the Royal Air Force it was thought to be certain death. There is a famous passage in The World Crisis in which Sir Winston Churchill meditates on the disparity between the task set to our Generals in the First World War and the gifts which they brought to solve it. He explained that there were no doubt more imaginative men; there were no doubt more sensitive men; there were certainly men more intellectually alert and acute; but these men, in modern war, are apt to crumble. Now the astonishing thing about this incident to which the noble Earl the Leader of the House has referred is that, with a mind which we associate generally with Fellows of the Royal Society, Lord Cherwell combined a courage which I think we expect to find in the long chronicles of the Victoria Cross.

In the Second World War his contribution was of a very different kind, and I think that, on the whole, perhaps it was more valuable. He set out to interpret to the Prime Minister what one might call fundamental research; he would reduce some really complicated scientific problem to a very simple graph, so that Sir Winston could see the whole thing before him. Not only was this graph more intelligible but, I was informed last night by a leading physicist, it was much more accurate. He passed on nothing to Sir Winston without checking its accuracy, and he did something else which I think was quite remarkable. Modern war is probably won by ideas, and if that is really true the real legendary enemy of new ideas is always the expert. Sir Winston would not allow the expert to kill new ideas or technical innovations, and the physicist whom I am quoting said that Lord Cherwell produced a complete change in the psychological atmosphere with which those at the top came to regard scientific developments.

He had what I think may be called "a beautiful mind". The phrase is not my own. I borrowed it from one of his greatest friends who saw more of its working in the war than anybody else. It was a logical mind. Everything was driven to its last and final conclusion. When one saw him tackling a scientific problem and tidying it up, it was rather as if he were spring-cleaning his rooms at the House. But he was inclined, perhaps, at times to push logic too far, and to forget that in our English political life political sense is perhaps a surer guide than Gaelic logic.

In 1954, when we were going across to America, somebody said, "Do you know what kind of life 'the Prof' leads?" At that moment he came up, and the man turned to him and said, "Do you give lectures at Oxford? If so, how many, and what is the size of your audience, and what are the lectures about? What is metaphysics?" Then the man asked whether he encouraged undergraduates to ask questions. "The Prof" said, with a toss of his head, that he did not; he left it to the tutors. "Did he," he was asked again, "like lecturing"; and a much more emphatic "No" appeared. He was bored, he said. "Was he interested in undergraduates?" He said that he was not. He did not even know their names. Then he got up and walked very gingerly to his cabin, for he had already been warned that his heart was not so good as it was, and that he must go slowly. I think that, perhaps because of this liking for dogma, there were some people who thought he he was enigmatic. The level tones of his voice, from which all emotion had been stripped, the quiet, almost self-effacing manner, and the placid exterior, hid and disguised the most—I nearly said the most violent views, and I think perhaps that would be quite the right word.

Finally, his personality was unusual in this sense. He built a wall around himself, and very few people were allowed inside. If they did succeed in getting inside they found a kindly man, utterly disinterested, utterly selfless and completely without political ambition. There has gone out from your Lordships' House a very unusual figure and a most lovable human being, of whom a man of many years may say that we shall not see his like again.

3.27 p.m.


My Lords, there is nothing much that I can add to what has been said about the public services of Lord Cherwell, but if your Lordships will allow me I should like to say one word about the affection in which he has been held for more than thirty-five years by a great many undergraduates in the University of Oxford. When I went up to Oxford in 1922, Professor Lindemann had already reached the highest rank in the world of science, although he was well under forty. His whole personal kindness and his love of hospitality were not confined either to members of his own college or to students of science. They were extended, as they always have been, to include all kinds of undergraduates. He was a friend at that time of many people who were prominent in public life, including, for instance, Sir Winston Churchill and the late Lord Birkenhead, who often stayed with him in his rooms in Meadow Buildings, and he loved to give us all the opportunity of meeting and talking to these distinguished public men on terms of complete informality and freedom.

Personal kindness such as he had is particularly appreciated by people who are young, and I think that all his undergraduate friendships over so long a period have lasted until the end of his life. He was a bachelor who sometimes liked to make cynical jokes about marriage, but I do not think I have ever known a man who had a greater love for children or a more genuine concern for the happiness of all his friends.

We admired him also for his intellectual brilliance, which sometimes expressed itself, or seemed to express itself, in the form of intellectual arrogance. He often used to make the most pointed and highly entertaining remarks about people who did not agree with him—remarks which were, of course, repeated, so that he was not always universally popular among all his colleagues. But I think that the strongest reason for the affection in which he was held was his record of personal courage in the First World War. The noble Earl the Leader of the House has referred to the aeronautical problem of the spinning nose-dive which had always resulted in the loss of the aircrafs and the death of the pilot because nobody knew how to correct it. Professor Lindemann had not been an aviator but he was confident that his mathematical calculations would rectify the trouble. His confidence was not shared by those in authority. He therefore decided that no one but himself could satisfactorily test his own theory, and so he learned to fly. As soon as he had become a qualified pilot he went up, alone, to test his theory. The story believed at Oxford was that he went up wearing his bowler hat; but, however that may be, he went up. He put his aircraft into a spinning nosedive, which until that time had always been fatal, for there were no parachutes in those days. He then did what he had calculated on paper ought to be done, with complete success. When he made a safe landing the officials who had witnessed the experiment came up to congratulate him on his courage, but all he said was, "I knew that my brain would not fail me."

Now he has made another safe landing. I think we can look back and say that all through his life his brain never failed him. He was one of those scientists who never tried to deceive himself or to deceive other people with any kind of half-baked, half-tested theory. He always worked and spoke with an utterly objective regard for scientific truth. He has now been taken from us, to the loss of his country and to the grief of his friends.

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps it would be fitting that one who served with Lord Cherwell in the Cabinet should add just a word to the tributes which have been so well paid and so richly deserved. I think I can liken him in one respect to another Cabinet colleague with whom I served when I was very much younger and who had perhaps the acutest brain in any Cabinet I knew—that was the late Lord Balfour. If I had a problem about which I was doubtful and uncertain as to whether I had seen it in proper proportion, in the old days I used to take it to Lord Balfour, who would say, "Well, I do not know anything about this", and then apply a penetrating mind to it.

Lord Cherwell had the same quality, and colleagues will recall how the slide rule used to come out of the pocket—and that was not only on mathematical calculations. The same penetrating accuracy came into all his criticisms. But he was not only a most penetrating critic who was never satisfied with anything less than, as the noble Lord, Lord Moran, said, complete accuracy; he had an imagination which was equal to his sense of accuracy and his sense of proportion. No project was—I was almost going to say too far-fetched, but too novel to be rejected by Lord Cherwell. I can remember how much I myself owed to his imagination in the difficult days when I was Air Minister. He had, too, a third quality without which he could not have been, I think, the great success and the wonderful colleague he was—and that was his great understanding of humanity.

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps a few words may be added to what has already been said so movingly. I submit them to the House us one who was a colleague of Lord Cherwell at Christ Church for a number of years, though I do not speak with the authority, of course, of the right reverend Bishop, whose work as Dean Lord Cherwell regarded so highly. If the world is divided into givers and getters, no one would hesitate to place Lord Cherwell among the givers. There was that extreme shrinking from publicity, a quality shared, I am bound to say, by few of us who practise the public arts, but completely genuine in his case. There was his extreme personal generosity, not known to many but appreciated to the full by those who had recourse to it. The undergraduate son of a very famous man, now himself famous—not a Member of your Lordships' House—visited "The Prof" when in straitened circumstances and began an eloquent argument about the economic difficulties of the time. "The Prof" pulled out his cheque book without more ado and began to write, putting the one question, "How much?". He handed over the cheque as soon as the figure was named.

"The Prof" was a man of dedicated loyalties, dedicated to a number of causes and institutions and people; dedicated to science, to Oxford and, above all, to Christ Church; to this House, to his friends, above all to the House of Birkenhead; to his heroes and, above all, to Sir Winston Churchill, his hero of heroes; and to Britain, of which he was so passionately a patriotic son. I would not venture to call him a very happy man. His own personal standards were so high that I should think he seldom satisfied himself. He was acutely sensitive, so that genuine opposition often seemed to him like antagonism, and he sometimes created antagonism where none need have existed. He was so modest that I do not suppose he ever realised how much enjoyment he disseminated or how much affection he aroused. But his limitations were on the surface—a great heart beat below them. I would venture to say that all who knew him well—and there were many in this House who knew him and some must have known him a great deal longer than I knew him—will always think of him as a personality not only of very high intellectual distinction but also of exceptional feeling and warmth. His departure for many of us has rent the garment of life. But if he was not always happy in life, he is surely happy now, as he learns beyond all question that this House, which he loved so dearly, recognises to the full his unsurpassed services to the country which he loved still more.

Back to