HL Deb 17 October 1961 vol 234 cc321-9

2.35 p.m.


My Lords, it is my melancholy duty to recall to your Lordships, now that we are reassembled, that whilst we have been away we have lost one of our most respected and distinguished Members, in that we no longer have among us the noble Lord, Lord Pethick-Lawrence. My Lords, when, as he did, a man dies full of years and honour, in the uninterrupted enjoyment of the clear light of a distinguished intellect, with a host of friends and without an enemy in the world, there can be no hint of tragedy in his passing. Rather, we should pause from our labours and remark with a true sense of thankfulness on a life of service which was also one of high distinction; on a character of integrity and courage combined with gentleness and moderation.

But even if there is no tragedy, we cannot avoid sadness at our loss, for there is nothing, no words of comfort, no thought of the ripe and respected age, which can quite dull the pain of parting. It is the price we pay for love and friendship in this world to mourn the loss of friends, and I think all of us looked at Lord Pethick-Lawrence in that light.

Only a week before the Summer Recess your Lordships were able to note, as I too noted with a sense of deep respect and admiration, that the noble Lord, who had been a contemporary of my father at school, who so long ago as the South African War had been an outspoken critic of Government policy, and long before the First World War had become an established public figure, was still there at the age of 89, diligent and outspoken as ever, challenging from the Opposition Front Bench the Government's proposals for dealing with the economic situation. On that occasion he made his challenge with the mixture of forcefulness and moderation which was one of the many reasons for the respect in which he was universally held. For although he was by no means an uncontroversial figure, as indeed we on the Government Benches all had cause to know, the noble Lord's approach was always manifestly based, whenever he spoke, on certain fundamental moral principles in politics which I think would appeal to all your Lordships' House: the need for all members of a society to be fair to one another (the expression that he used on that occasion—which will be fresh in your Lordships' memory—was "fair do's"); the need for integrity in Government; the need for a people to be worthy if it is also to be great.

My Lords, by many of the older generation Lord Pethick-Lawrence will be remembered most of all for his gallant and unwavering fight for the cause of women's suffrage. Indeed, it is probably with that, of all his activities, that he himself would have most desired his name to be associated by posterity. The noise and conflict of those days have long ago subsided. The passion has departed, and grass grows over the trenches and emplacements of that ancient battlefield. Looking back, we can see that in taking the part he did, in the circumstances of that time, Lord Pethick-Lawrence was expressing that deep sense of fairness which he held so important, and indeed was displaying nobility and chivalry of the truest kind.

He first came to your Lordships House when, already approaching his mid-seventies, he accepted the distinguished office of Secretary of State for India, with all the tremendous responsibilities which—especially at that time—the post involved. The devotion that he brought to the tasks set him, the statesmanship he showed in the difficult negotiations which preceded the emergence of India and Pakistan as two great independent Commonwealth nations, are within most of your Lordships' recollections. Indeed, the practical friendship which he always gave to the peoples of the Indian subcontinent, both in and out of office, was such that it is their loss, as well as a loss to Parliament and public life in Britain, that we mourn in this House to-day.

But, my Lords, here we shall remember him best in what, after all, was to us his most familiar rôle for many years, as previously it had been in another place: that of a vigorous commentator on financial and economic affairs. The noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, are both better qualified and more entitled than I to speak of his service to his own Party. But I know I can speak for all your Lordships when I say that in the debates in which he spoke, as well as in the committees and discussions outside the Chamber in which he took part, he gave invaluable service to your Lordships' House as a whole, and added weight to all our counsels. He was always pithy, always moderate, always clear-headed, always courteous, always scrupulously accurate and responsible, end never afraid to speak his mind. There is no tragedy in his parting from us, but there remains a sadness and sense of loss. The memory of his familiar face and of his life of service will be a source of happy recollection and inspiration so long as those who knew him walk the earth.

2.43 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say at the outset how deeply indebted my colleagues as well as myself feel to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for the terms in which he has referred to our departed colleague. Nothing could have been nearer the whole truth than what he has put to your Lordships to-day. It certainly is not for us to regard it as a tragic occasion, but I agree entirely that there is a sense of loss, a loss than can never adequately be filled, in all the aspects of the life and character of Lord Pethick-Lawrence. We shall do our best, no doubt, in the decades to come to raise up champions for the causes in which he so much believed, but there can be only one Fred Pethick-Lawrence.

He was a very dear friend of mine. I always took a personal interest in him, at all stages of his career, after I got to know him in the 'twenties of this century; but long before that I was interested because he married into a family at Weston-super-Mare, the town where I was born and of which I am a first freeman. Therefore I was always following his life and his career. What a remarkable mixture went into the building of his life: Etonian, Trinity College, Cambridge, Wrangler as far back as 1894, first-class science tripos, an amazing achievement in the field of education and scholarship! Then at the age of 30 he married Emmeline Pethick. I knew her father quite well as a very young man. He was the owner and editor of the Weston-super-Mare Gazette, a weekly Liberal paper, unfortunately long ago absorbed by the local Conservative paper, since his day. There one got a sort of picture of the outside occupations and recreations of Fred Pethick-Lawrence. Tom Pethick was a great sportsman and Fred was just as good: a great tennis player, as I found to my cost on one or two occasions when he took me to play at Queen's Club; and in India, when everything else was done after the quick darkness had fallen, sunset in India, we had a meal after a twelve-hour day and he would delight to march me round the billiard table. He would owe me 50 on 100. He always won, and he would say, "It is all a question of mathematics".

The cherished memory of his political life in Parliament was so great that sometimes we forget his literary ability. He was a master of English and wrote it as well as speaking it well, and his books were very powerful in the spheres in which he published them. He was devoted to the cause of the suffragettes when votes for women were regarded as very unpopular in some Tory and some Liberal spheres, although he had great friends in both Parties for his own purpose. It has always seemed to me to be a sad reflection that somehow or other our laws could be so misguided as to charge such a man in public service with conspiracy against the State, for attempting to obtain political freedom for the whole mass of women in this country. That was at the Old Bailey. Yet he never grumbled, but took the course he felt he had to take; he just witnessed for the cause in which he was wrapped up, and he no doubt had a lot to do with the decision of the women's organisations which, at the opening of the Great War 1914–18, dropped their agitation and went in to support the general safety and security of the nation to which they belonged, an action which won for them without any further agitation the full franchise which they enjoy to-day.

In all his other avocations he leaves a special memory somewhere or other. When I think of the great crisis of 1931 I think of his book on the gold crisis, from his point of view and from our point of view a classic in its day. I think of the wonderful life of 53 years he spent with Emmeline Pethick, whose name he added to his own. It is quite remarkable to go back to his book, Fate Has Been Kind, to a verse of a poem he wrote while he was Financial Secretary to the Treasury in 1930. He wrote it for his wife while she was abroad and he was tied to his post here. I mention only one verse of a poem called A Song of Spring": At Easter I will to the wood repair, And feast mine eyes on bluebells; for I know That all the azure of the sky is there; And they'll on me a benison bestow From my dear love, fulfilling her sweet prayer, That in my labour I may ever go From strength to strength, serene, devoid of care. I shall miss him greatly, for he and I shared a bungalow in Delhi during the India Mission on which we were sent by my noble friend Lord Attlee. I got to know him perhaps even more then than at any other time of our life together. Above all, I praise God for the great purpose of his life. It was always to struggle for freedom—real freedom for the people, and to follow the kind of road which Montesquieu puts to us: that freedom must mean the greatest good for the largest number.

2.52 p.m.


My Lords, I have been asked by my noble friend Lord Rea, to express, on behalf of the Liberal Peers, our great regret to learn of the death of, and to express our appreciation and our affection for, Pethick-Lawrence. Lord Rea is most disappointed that he cannot speak on this occasion because he had a great regard for Pethick-Lawrence. Unfortunately, eight days ago he had himself to undergo an operation, and his doctor has warned him not to speak again in the House until the new Session.

I regard it as a privilege to have had this request. I do not have the long knowledge and friendship of Pethick-Lawrence that the last speaker had, and I cannot attempt, nor is it appropriate for me, to add anything to the statement of his career. But I did come to know him in the last few years of his life and appreciated the astonishing quality of his personality. I agree with the Leader of the House, and with the Leader of the Labour Opposition, that the activity by which he will be known best is certainly the part that he played in the campaign for the suffrage. He and his wife played a great part in that great campaign.

At that time the name Pethick-Lawrence was a household word in my home. It is quite true that he was on the militant side; my parents, my family and my wife were on the constitutional side. But that difference between the two sides really has no significance at all at the present time. Both sides realised that they were aiming at the same goal. That goal was that there should be one citizenship and not two; that women and men should be on an equality. They won their fight, and I think that the historian of the future will certainly say that that great change in the emancipation of women and their equality with men, was one of the greatest social changes, if not the greatest, that has taken place in the last half century. Certainly Pethick-Lawrence had much to do with bringing about that change.

The fight itself gave to him and his wife a wide field in which to display those splendid qualities which they both had, in courage, generosity and the endurance to put up with the kind of physical suffering which they had to endure in prison. But that kind of issue is quite, quite dead, and I think that Pethick-Lawrence must have got much zest, in his period in India, from realising that during the last years, when India acquired her independence, that independence was accompanied by millions of Indian women coming out of purdah, a movement which is steadily sweeping through Asia. I am quite sure that the historians will record among the names of people who really started that great movement the name of Pethick-Lawrence.

But to us in this House Pethick-Lawrence was a friend. We have come to know his clarity of thinking, his clearness of argument, his impatience with, almost contempt for, expediency. He has, in fact, during these years shown us a lasting example of the highest standards of constructive debate, and those who knew him will realise that he applied the same standards to his pursuit of truth, not only in politics but also in philosophy and in religion. Some two years ago I had occasion to speak with him on some of these matters. Rather to my surprise, he described himself as an agnostic. But as we walked out of his flat into Old Square he remarked, half in jest, half seriously, "I am the most religious-minded agnostic I know." It was a characteristic remark, and it exactly expresses the seriousness of the man and his patient and careful searching after the truth.

If Lord Pethick-Lawrence had lived to the end of this year he would have celebrated his ninetieth birthday in December. He had become one of a small group of the senior Members of this House who are listened to with increasing esteem and respect. I think, too, that he may have been feeling himself getting closer to some of the things of the spirit which are real, though they are not seen. Two years ago Pethick-Lawrence sent me a Christmas card, on which he had copied, in his own hand, this stanza about old age: For age is opportunity—no less Than youth itself—though in another dress. And as the evening shadows fade away The sky is filled with stars—invisible by day. It was his self-portrait as he approached the end of his last decade. My Lords, I should like this House to send to his widow our message of sympathy, and our respectful greeting to her in her bereavement.

3.0 p.m.


My Lords, I have little that I can add to the admirable speeches we have already listened to. Lord Pethick-Lawrence was a member of a Government of which I was Prime Minister and I had a very great affection and respect for him. There are a few things that I can add about the man. One was that during the war, when the forms of democracy in the House of Commons had to be maintained, although all Parties supported the Government, after the death of Mr. Lees-Smith Lord Pethick-Lawrence performed those duties on behalf of the whole House, maintaining our forms of Parliamentary democracy. The other I would recall particularly was how fortunate I was, when I had to find someone to be Secretary of State for India, to find Lord Pethick-Lawrence. He was qualified for many offices, but this was a particularly difficult task and he was well known and loved in India. Unhesitatingly he took that burden on him, and although he was at what was considered for most of us an advanced age, he went out to India and toiled there in all the hot weather. He bore tremendous strain; and it must have been an immense satisfaction to him that eventually his efforts were crowned with success.

It is given to very few men to play a leading part in two great movements of emancipation. Pethick-Lawrence did this. In his closing years one listened to his wise words, and I shall miss particularly those talks one had over the luncheon table when he occupied his favourite seat at the head of a long table and one listened to his wise discourse. He was a man of great qualities, tremendous physical strength, great mental strength, great moral strength. He deserved the affection of all of us; and I, like others, shall miss a very dear and old friend.

3.3 p.m.


My Lords, may I pay my tribute to a great man who helped to make it possible for women to participate in public life in this country? I think his unique qualities are exemplified in the meeting which was probably the last in his life. It was on a cold, wet evening in July, just before the House rose, when he joined the annual pilgrimage to Mrs. Pankhurst's memorial. He then went across to Caxton Hall and into a little room with a small group of people, people certainly not well off, people for the most unknown, and people —I am sure they will not mind my saying so—not too well-clothed. Pethick made a brilliant little address on the equality of opportunity, an address which was an inspiration.

In those days when he helped women to struggle for the franchise there were very few men who were prepared to face the ridicule, the ostracism and even the imprisonment which views of that kind often called for. But Pethick was a great man in the real sense, a man of stature. He was oblivious to ridicule. He simply regarded his principles as the light in his life. Few people know that for the last forty years after the struggle he has given of his great intellect, his money, his time and his energy to women's organisations which have been seeking to open other doors where women might express themselves fully. Pethick-Lawrence was a great gentleman of his generation, and the women of this country have lost a wonderful friend.

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