HL Deb 22 November 1960 vol 226 cc728-33

2.34 p.m.


My Lords, I do not think the House would wish to proceed with its Business to-day without paying a short but heartfelt tribute to the memory of the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, whose sudden death the other day must have been the occasion of sadness to us all. In Lord Stansgate the House has lost one of its most remarkable and colourful figures, as well, I must say, as one of its most conscientious attenders; one who, despite reaching some of the highest positions to be held under the Crown, never became pompous or dull; and one who, despite what even to-day, I suppose, is considered quite an advanced age, never became old.

My Lords, I doubt whether Lord Stansgate ever paused to consider how much affection he aroused even among those—and they were probably the majority—who did not agree either with his views or with some of the ways he had of expressing them. But the fact is that he had pre-eminently a virtue which is both rare and greatly to be prized—I refer to his chivalrousness. He was brave—brave, yes, physically and morally. It was no accident that in the First World War, when courage meant as much as it has ever meant in the history of human conflict, he won both the Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Flying Cross. But more, and above, and better than courage, he had chivalry. The noble Viscount was, I think, above all else a chivalrous man. He could be called mischievous, but he was never mean; he could be aggressive, but never spiteful or malicious; and he was always honest. There may have been something quixotic about his character, but, by that very token, he was always a pattern of knightly virtue, a shining example of integrity.

The causes which he espoused often aroused little sympathy in other breasts. But I think I know, and if I know I honour, the motive which led him to adopt them. It was not merely sincerity, although of course he had that: it was generosity. He felt the weight of public opinion against them, and he lent the sharp sword of his considerable debating powers to the aid of those who in this country, if not always elsewhere, seemed to him in the great debates of our time, to be most in need of help, or who seemed to be hard pressed by sheer weight of numbers and authority rather than by reason. In this sense he was politically, if I may say so, a natural non-conformist—I use the word in its literal and grammatical sense. Such men are rare. Perhaps for the sake of administration and orderliness it is as well that we are not all in the same mould. But, my Lords, in the true order of values it is well to remember that they are, they always have been and, God willing, they always will be, among the great glories of England.

We all remember that he spoke briefly on the Adjournment last Tuesday of his known friendship for India. None of us could know then that it was the last time we should hear him. For, if we had known, there would have been very much that we should have wished to say. But his end was unexpected, even sudden. He was down to speak on the following day in the debate on the Monckton Report and he attended the House at its sitting. I learned with concern during the course of the debate that he had been taken ill, but I little thought that his time had come. We shall all miss him, and it is therefore with very real and deep sympathy that we offer our condolences to his widow and family. His sword and his shield, the sword which he used so well, and the shield behind which he never retired, which perhaps he was not fond of except as protection for others, are idle now and hang up in the temple of recollection. He has left behind him a memory and an example: a memory which we shall all treasure and an example of qualities of which, did we possess them ourselves, we might all honourably be proud.

2.38 p.m.


My Lords, my colleagues and myself are grateful to the noble and learned Viscount the Leader of the House for the manner in which, and the adequacy with which, he has referred to our lamented colleague, the late Lord Stansgate. But no words of mine can possibly express the depth of the feelings that we personally have about his life and his service, and how much we shall miss him. I was hoping in my heart last week that he would not find it necessary to insist on speaking last Wednesday; but who could deny such a champion of freedom such an occasion for him to perform his witness? The only thing I wonder is whether he might not perhaps have lasted a little longer had he not worried so much about what was going to happen that day.

"Wedgie", as we all dearly loved to call him, was, I think, the last surviving member, except myself, of the Cabinet as it was formed in the year 1929. I have therefore lived with him in public life for 31 years from the time we took office together. When I first came into the Lobby before entering Parliament in 1920, I used to find time to go into the Gallery quite a lot, and I shall never forget the brilliance of his Parliamentary tactics when the handful of Liberals and Socialists had to fight against a great, strong Coalition. It was always an inspiration. We were thankful when in 1927 he found that he was voting so continuously with the Labour Party that it was far better to be one of its members; and we welcomed him, of course, with open arms. He gave us, from that moment until he passed last week, continuous loyal service.

The noble and learned Viscount was quite right when he said that perhaps Lord Stansgate approached certain questions yin a different attitude of mind, and with perhaps a different temperament, from that of some other people: but he was always on the side of righteousness. I am glad that the noble Viscount regarded him as a nonconformist, for those who are Nonconformist from a religious point of view are thankful that he was trained in that school. He remained always a Nonconformist. In fact, he often used to say to me on the Bench something like this:" That's right, A.V. I am a 'Brownist', you know". And he never forgot it.

What an amazing fellow he was! Who of us on our side of the House, from those of the most senior ranks to the others, could have matched him in his daily study of current affairs? The Times, if it ever wanted a tribute to the power and breadth of its columns, would never have been able to obtain a better one than the daily practice of Viscount Stansgate. On any day in the week he had mastered The Times before I had even opened it, and was already taking up some action or the other upon some urgent trouble of the day which had had some ventilation in what is regarded as the national newspaper. I should hesitate to conjecture what kind of file of The Times he kept within his own archives. He was an amazing student.

As to his gallantry, we, of course, echo what the noble Viscount has already said; but it was a gallantry which went into every sphere of his life. Is it not somewhere in Charles Reade's novel about two travellers on the road that one of them, a monk, says to the other, "Cheer up, my friend; the devil is dead." "Wedgie" feared God, but he feared no man and he feared no devil. That was his attitude to life. He has trained in his tradition a deeply loved son who has already made his mark in the Parliamentary life of our country. Under the law as it is at present recognised, in spite of the efforts of the noble Viscount on his own behalf some years ago, he is to be a Member of your Lordships' House. I gather that he will not be very happy upon the change of status that will face him. All I can say is that I hope that in his consideration of the matter he wild remember that the public service of his deeply loved father had not ended when be entered your Lordships' House.

My Lords, the last thing I want to say is this. I am grateful for the message of sympathy which the noble Viscount clearly saw that we must send to his widow and his family. May I be just a little more personal? I was quite concerned to see that, so far as I could gather, "Wedgie" passed away on the fortieth anniversary of his wedding—I think I am right about that—and my heart went out to the lady who was his partner for all those momentous years. Only a few days before that she had been broadcasting in the early morning religious addresses on the B.B.C., and he spoke to me most feelingly about it. A life of devotion to such a public and irrepressible spirit as Lord Stansgate would not be easy, but it was all the time cemented with a warmth of love and affection that perhaps is too rarely met with in married life to-day. We are grateful to Lady Stansgate for all she meant to her husband and, through that devotion, for what he has meant to Parliament, to the State, and every good cause that we have been concerned to support. I hope that in her deep sorrow she may have great comfort in her memories.

2.44 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Rea is unfortunately not able to be in his place this afternoon, due to sickness, and he has asked me whether I would say a few words on behalf of noble Lords on these Benches about the late Lord Stansgate. I am sorry that Lord Rea cannot be here. because he had the great pleasure and privilege of knowing Lord Stansgate well for 50 years or more, whereas my acquaintance with him, although comparatively long, was much shorter than that. Therefore I should have liked someone who had known him longer to speak on this occasion.

But I do agree with what the noble Viscount has said. We have lost one of our most remarkable Members, because "Wedgie" Benn was one of the real Radicals left in the country at the present time. With his complete courage, complete sincerity and that wonderful wish to help whatever people or countries he knew about and felt were being oppressed, either by some particular form of injustice or by some bureaucratic obstruction in their way, or no matter what was the feeling, he rushed to their assistance immediately. All that was done with, what we shall never forget, an enormous amount of friendliness and charm, and with a great wit, gaiety and amusement in the way he spoke to us.

It was my melancholy privilege (if I may call it such) to be the last person who really saw him in this House when he was taken sick last Wednesday. I, with his son, helped him into the ambulance which took him to hospital. Just as he went away he thanked me with his normal friendliness and warmth, for what I had done, and I greatly hoped that it might be possible for us to see him back again in his place and once more speaking to us. I am sure that we shall miss him a great deal, for his witty and charming personality was one which I do not think can be replaced in this House. On behalf of noble Lords who sit on these Benches, I should like to join with what the noble Viscount the Leader of the House and the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, have said about our good wishes to his family.


My Lords, I should like to add just a word in tribute to a very old friend. It seems only the other day that I used to sit next to him on this Bench and we exchanged old memories. I remember coming to the House in 1922, and already he had had sixteen years' Parliamentary experience. For many years he worked in an area near to my house in St. George's in the East, and he fully enjoyed our East End humour. What always struck me about "Wedgie" was that, although he was now well on in years, he still had the heart of a boy. He had an extraordinary zest for life and he was always a knight errant ready at all times to take up a cause for anything or any person in the world whom he thought to be suffering injustice. He was a great character. We shall miss him very sadly. I know that our sympathy goes out to his family. I think that he himself would have liked to die in harness—the happy warrior.

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