HL Deb 22 January 1963 vol 246 cc1-8

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this House do now adjourn.

My Lords, the Leader of the House would have wished to be in his place to-day to pay tribute on behalf of Her Majesty's Government to the life of Mr. Gaitskell, to convey the sorrow of the House and its sympathy to Mrs. Gaitskell, who had been his partner in everything he did, and to his family; and to condole with the noble Viscount and the Opposition on the loss of a leader who had achieved a commanding position in Parliament and was a man of great stature in the country.

Hugh Gaitskell had in a high degree the qualities which Parliamentarians admire. He had the intellectual capacity to master his subject; he had the vision to see beyond the present to the wider horizons and opportunities; and when he was satisfied that in all the complex situations of modern politics he had found the truth, then he had the ability to state it with compelling clarity and to stick to it with unflinching courage. He had, too, the quality which reaches out immediately to the heart of politicians, the quality to be dignified, and even gay, in defeat and modest in personal success.

It is not for me to measure his achievement as Leader of the Labour Party and as Leader of the Opposition, but as all our political affairs in these days are carried out in the pitiless glare of publicity Mr. Gaitskell was, of course, always in the public eye, and, like any leader in these days of modern politics, he came through many difficulties and testing times. Without ever compromising on the truth as he saw it he came through those times, and the people recognised that here was a man of real worth. I think it was the way in which he came through those very testing occasions which stamped his personality on the nation: not so much perhaps his intellect, or indeed, his oratory, which compelled friend and foe and the public to acknowledge that here was a leader of opinion in his own right; it was, I think, more his personality and the character of the man.

My Lords, first as Commonwealth Secretary and then as Foreign Secretary, it naturally fell to my lot to have many talks with Mr. Gaitskell on the momentous events which crowded in on our country day by day. He was always ready to exchange views, always ready to give his advice, modestly and objectively, always careful to weigh the interests of Britain, for which he was as jealous as he was for justice, humanity and neighbourliness in the world at large. He had very wide contacts overseas, particularly, of course, in the movement for international Socialism; and he will be mourned by many outside his own country. For surely, above all, Hugh Gaitskell was a friendly man, who was liked by people and liked people, whoever they were.

It may seem odd to some, and indeed to some it may seem incomprehensible, that we in this House on the Government side should rise to pay a tribute to a political enemy and a Leader of the Opposition. But, of course, we are unanimous in feeling it is fitting that we should do so on the occasion of Mr. Gaitskell's death, because Parliament has lost a man of rare stature, who faced life and who faced death with fortitude. And when a free man in a free country comes into the political arena, and when all his dealings with his colleagues and his opponents are straight and fair and tolerant and brave, then his political opponents are privileged to do him honour.

Moved, That, as a mark of respect to the memory of the late Mr. Hugh Gaitskell, this House do now adjourn.—(The Earl of Home.)

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to support the Motion for the Adjournment of the House, and to say how deeply grateful my Party and I myself are to the Government for having made the arrangements in the particular manner that they have to-day for this tribute to our late friend Mr. Gaitskell. It is, I think, without precedent that in respect of the Leader of the Opposition in another place such a course of action as has been taken to-day, with the full support and cordial willingness of the Government, has occurred. We are most grateful.

In the last few days, after the first numbing shock of the passing of this great man, Hugh Gaitskell, a tremendous number of tributes have been paid to his memory and to his qualities, but I do not think I have heard from anyone a more just or more moving testimony than that given by the noble Earl who has just spoken. We are most grateful for it. If it were possible so to use such an occasion, one could get speakers to rise one after another in this House for a long time to come this afternoon, to pay their tributes. We could not surpass the compass of the language which has been used by the one who, for to-day, is the acting Leader of the House.

I look back upon Hugh Gaitskell in a personal sense in relation to his political career. I had the very great privilege of being sent down to Leeds in 1937 as the representative speaker from the Party at his public adoption meeting. I recall the welcome which was then given to him by the generous-minded people of Leeds. I followed his career afterwards because of his work in the Department of Economic Warfare. I used to hear about certain parts of the secret work—not all, by any means—whilst I was at the Admiralty during the war. He showed a great mastery of all the economic detail required to make such tremendous operations successful. He expanded his governmental knowledge of how to handle economic, trade and commercial questions in that same Government later on. His other Government service was spent with his own Party from 1945 onwards.

I have another personal recollection. It is of Ernest Bevin and myself speaking at an enormous meeting in Leeds Town Hall, just a day or two before the General Election of 1945, with thousands of people inside, and thousands more outside, at the end of the campaign which led to Hugh Gaitskell's entry into Parliament. I have watched his career ever since then.

I think the Prime Minister was right when he said that there were few experiences which have been so spectacular. I speak on behalf of my personal friends the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, and others with long Parliamentary experience, when I say that there probably was nothing like it in the same period in the way of advancement—ministerial status, and the leadership of the Labour Party and the Labour Movement in the country.

What always touches us in this section of the Party in which I myself and men like Herbert Morrison, if I may call him such, coming from the working class, find ourselves, is the fact that such men as Hugh Gaitskell took the decision they did in their political life. We in the Labour movement are of mixed views, but I thank God that in its history so many of its prominent members and leaders have come from the Christian Churches. I think of such names as Edward Maurice, the reverend Ludlow, Charles Kingsley, and many others of Christian faith, who were always welcomed into the working-class movement for their genuine interest in the cause of advancement we had as our goal. We used to sing in the meetings of those days—sometimes even in the meetings of other Parties than our own—Ebenezer Elliott's verse: When wilt thou save the people, O God of mercy, when? The people, Lord, the people, Not thrones and crowns, but men. It is clear, as one looks back at the life of Hugh Gaitskell, that he had read and accepted the words of James Russell Lowell: Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide"; and he decided, quite early in life. Before he had really dropped all the trammels of a university education, and during the General Strike, he made up his mind to which cause he would give his moral and spiritual backing. We have valued him inside the movement ever since. We watched with intense interest, with overwhelming interest, the manner in which he handled the various problems. When, finally, at the end of only just over five years—yes, barely five years—in Parliament, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the second youngest ever Chancellor of the Exchequer in modern history, he was not fortunate in that he took over that enormous problem in the midst of the pressures from a newly constructed NATO for greatly increased forces to be built up in the future, as well as having to face at once the extraordinary increase of expenditure for the Korean war. He tackled his problem very bravely, and accepted burdens that few Chancellors of the Exchequer might have been willing to accept at that time.

Later, of course, we had our own difficulties, as most Parties have within themselves, and there was a very great interest in the question: how would Hugh Gaitskell deal with it? For the last fifteen months at least there has been nothing but a tremendous growth of confidence in him, in his ability, in his dedication and in his desire for unity within what we at least believe to be the forces of progress. I am reminded, as I speak of that side of it, and of the difficulties that arise when controversy occurs, of the verse in Chapter XXII of the Book of Proverbs: Seest thou a man diligent in his business? he shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men. Once he had made up his mind what was right to do, he did it in that spirit.

I am very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Home, for the reference he made to Hugh Gaitskell's devoted wife. In this last trial of hers she maintained, as she always had done on Hugh's behalf, her own personal vigil, and she was with him at the last moment. Our heart goes out to her. We hope that when the first shocks of this happening—it is so difficult to understand the way in which the work of Providence is accomplished—have passed, she may bear in mind what occurred to me, as I felt the first blow of what seemed a disaster. I thought of the words of William Cowper: Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take, The clouds ye so much dread Are big with mercy, and shall break In blessings on your head. We thank God for the fellowship we had with Hugh Gaitskell, for his leadership of our movement and for his devotion to his country, and we pray that his influence may long be felt.

3.49 p.m.


My Lords, I rise from these Benches to support the Motion proposed by the noble Earl. There is little left to be said. From every quarter, not only of this House but of the globe, have come expressions of regret and sorrow at the early death of a gifted and admired figure in British politics. His career and his abilities have been described at length and with merited praise. I do not propose, my Lords, to add to these eulogies, but there are just one or two perhaps slighter aspects on which I should like to touch.

First of all, as both noble Lords have said, we join in deep and sincere sympathy with his wife and daughters, who have lost a husband and a father—young, at the very height of his powers and of his hopes and expectations. And I think we should remember the rather unreal position of a political Party Leader—always in the spotlight, being projected to the public very often as something which he is not quite, a little distorted, cartooned, lampooned, praised, but more often criticised. It is difficult to get at the real character through the general impression in the country.

Of the man Hugh Gaitskell himself, those who knew him, and all of us who cherish the very high traditions of our Parliamentary life in this country, are, of course, quite irrespective of the Party we support, conscious of the tremendous loss, not only to Parliament but to the country, of an outstanding figure. In this sad finality it is difficult to choose an apt or appropriate adjective to apply to Hugh Gaitskell. Gracious, intelligent, courteous, kindly, loyal, humorous, open-minded, idealistic—he was all these things. It is a formidable array of qualities to be regarded by anybody who proposes to step into his shoes. He was all these things. I will end, if I may, with this simple final analysis. I would just say this of Hugh Gaitskell: he was a true man.

3.52 p.m.


My Lards, the death of Hugh Gaitskell is one of those tragedies which cause men to think much in after-years about the might-have-beens of history. It is inevitable that we shall find ourselves asking, as we look back to the 1960s, what Hugh Gaitskell might have done for his country, and perhaps for the world—and how the story of these crucial years in national politics might have been different. To ask such questions—and I cannot doubt that posterity will ask them—is in itself to pay tribute to the greatness of a man.

But such thoughts will always yield, for us who knew him, to the recollection of the man as he was, and to the mark of greatness which was there. In character was he not a little like Asquith in his intellectual, even academic, habit of mind; his unfamiliarity with the arts of success and popularity; his distaste for any courses but the plain courses of reason and conscience? And to those qualities of mind which won respect he added a warmth of heart and a sympathy which won affection. I remember being with him for a short while at Scarborough on one of the days of the Conference when he took. his political life into his hands, convinced that because he believed a certain course to be true he could, and would, make it prevail—and it was a privilege to see him at that moment, strained and yet serene because reason and conscience were his weapons.

Such was the man, and such was the secret of his power, to win the loyalty of those who followed him and the respect of those who did not. Multis ille bonis flebilis occidit. We mourn and we salute an Englishman whose influence will last for longer than the generation of his contemporaries and longer than the affairs of his time.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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