HL Deb 23 October 1967 vol 285 cc1335-43

2.36 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to pay tribute to the memory of Lord Attlee. With the death of Lord Attlee the nation loses a great Englishman; one of the few politicians of our time who have fundamentally affected the whole life of our country and can fairly be said to have influenced the course of world history. There passes a man of sublime modesty with a special flavour of his own, widely appreciated; a man whose concern for the under-privileged knew no boundaries of class, continent or colour.

We in this House, which he joined twelve years ago, lose one of our two ex-Prime Ministers—and I am glad that the noble Earl, Lord Avon, is to speak later today. Lord Attlee served here actively and vigilantly until the end, frequently ignoring his state of health to record his vote in the Division Lobby, and contributing tersely and effectively to many of our debates. Approachable to all, utterly devoid of any trace of side, kind and gentle, as his devoted friend Lord Moyle has testified, he was a friend and colleague who increased our pride in our own House by the very fact that he belonged to it.

My Lords, Lord Attlee, as we all know, was Deputy Prime Minister in Sir Winston Churchill's illustrious War Cabinet of 1940 to 1945, and was himself Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951, carrying the burden of being one of the two chief Ministers for eleven consecutive years of exceptional strain. I think that only Mr. Asquith can compare with him there. He was Leader of the Labour Party for twenty years from 1935 to 1955. Here, his record stands alone in our century. Clearly, this was a pre-eminent man, recognised as such by his countrymen.

One question that may be long discussed is whether his elevation to these great positions owed more than is usual to fortune. Certainly it can be argued that way. Certainly he was never one who would have pushed his way to the first place, claiming it as a right by virtue of his unique gifts. Yet one can just as easily—perhaps more easily. I would think—put the other view. Was it mere chance that he survived almost alone the holocaust of 1931, when nearly all the other Labour leaders were submerged? Was it mere chance that brought to the leadership of the Party, and later brought to the leadership of Britain, a man so superbly qualified, not only morally but also by his own record of service and preparation, for service? Sir Winston Churchill paid generous and repeated tribute to Lord Attlee's indispensable share in the war-winning combination. Sir Winston said of himself when called to the helm in 1940 that all his life seemed to have been a preparation for that hour. The same could be said of Clement Attlee.

Clem Attlee came of a professional family of high repute. His father was President of the Law Society. He was educated at Haileybury and University College, Oxford, of both of which he was a most faithful son. He was called to the Bar. But if any one event in his life was decisive, it was his migration to Toynbee Hall, of which he became Secretary in 1910, in which his interest never flagged and of which he was a zealous President when he died. It was in the East End of London that he discovered the social creed which for the rest of his life governed all his politics. He became convinced in every fibre of his being that all the horrifying distress, injustice and human waste would never be tackled seriously except by a complete social transformation. In those years was born the future Labour Prime Minister who was to carry forward the Welfare State so far and so fast.

Then came a lectureship at the London School of Economics in the Social Sciences, and then four years of war in which he was severely wounded. Sir Winston Churchill testified more than once to his fine war record and to his prolonged and varied experience of the heaviest fighting. He became Stepney's first Labour Mayor, and he entered Parliament as Member for Limehouse in 1922, holding the seat until it vanished in 1950, and sitting thereafter for West Walthamstow until he left the House of Commons in 1955. By the time he became Leader of the Labour Party in 1935, he was deeply versed in social work and practical local government. He had also acquired, through his membership of the Simon Commission, a specialised interest in India, which led on naturally in later years to what history may regard as the greatest of all his achievements. The liberation of India will always and unforgettably be associated with his name, and hardly less so the whole transformation of Empire into Commonwealth.

This is not the occasion to attempt a balance sheet of the 1945–51 Attlee Government. Those who served in that Government are far too proud of the honour to be regarded as impartial witnesses, and many millions who supported it in the Labour Party or outside it will share their views. No one, however critical of the outcome, will question Lord Attlee's total patriotism, sincerity and dedication in every controversy and at every stage.

Lord Attlee exhibited many qualities with which his predecessors have been richly endowed: a judicial temper like that of Asquith, an Englishness which made him get on particularly well with Baldwin, a courage similar to that of Churchill. One questions, however, whether anyone ever attained so high a place who was so humble in the Christian sense.

Attlee spoke of himself, and honestly thought of himself, as an "ordinary bloke", to be treated in his personal capacity exactly like anyone else. But anyone who presumed on this modesty of his and who thought that he could boss him about did not try that game twice. One recalls his rejoinder to a leading colleague who bombarded him with rather patronising advice soon after he became Prime Minister. "A period of silence," he wrote, "on your part will be welcome." To a subordinate Minister—and here I speak of what I know—who wearied him with doubts as to whether he ought to remain in the Government he replied: "I will look into the point you mention. Yours ever, Clem." Well, there was nothing to be done after that. He loved to exalt the humble and the meek, in the spirit of the Magnificat; but it caused him no great distress to put down the mighty from their seats. He himself was an "ordinary bloke" and no-one else had much right to behave as anything else.

In the end, we think of him as a highly successful politician, as a statesman who proved himself thoroughly at home in the big league of world figures and world issues, and as a man who presided over a peaceful social revolution. But going beyond politics or statesmanship, we think of him as a family man who loved the family in which he was brought up and the family which he and his beloved wife brought up in their turn. We think of his undying love of youth, never seen more clearly than in the last years at Toynbee Hall. We think of his matchless integrity, of his incomparable sense of duty sustaining him in his unambitious, self-sacrificing labours as a youth, in the years of his greatest glory and, not least, in his old age when we all revered him here. It was there, in his deepest nature, that there lay the source of his extraordinary moral authority. It was there that there lay that which made him one of the great ones of the earth.

My Lords, let us thank God that Clem Attlee was raised up to lead and inspire us. I know that the whole House will wish to send a message of profound sympathy and admiration to the family which was so wonderfully dear to him.

2.46 p.m.


My Lords, all of us who sit on these Benches would like to associate ourselves with the tribute that the noble Earl the Leader of the House has paid to Lord Attlee. I am proud, if I may say so—because I know the noble Earl is—to be associated as a Trustee with Lord Attlee's Memorial Appeal. A great deal has been said and written about Lord Attlee's distinguished career, more particularly in the momentous years when he was Deputy Prime Minister to Sir Winston Churchill and subsequently Prime Minister in the vital post-war period. But Lord Attlee was for quite a number of years a Member of your Lordships' House and it is during those years that those of us of a younger generation came to know him and to admire the qualities which enabled him to serve his country in so outstanding a fashion.

As the noble Earl said, Lord Attlee was in many ways a rather deceptive character. He obviously hated fuss and he was a most matter-of-fact man; he scorned the external trappings and concentrated on the core of the matter. He did what he did because he felt it was right. But anybody who misjudged the man because of his lack of fuss and his modesty was likely to be in for a very considerable surprise. Nobody who heard the speeches that he made in this House, even when he was an old man, will forget them. They were short, incisive and to the point. They were, if I may say so, far more effective in demolishing his opponent's case than were some of the rather lengthy and more oratorical efforts of his colleagues beside him. I know this to my cost, for he once did that to me. When he spoke one felt that he did so because he was convinced that he had something useful to say, that he was right and that it was his duty to say it. Outside the House, your Lordships will remember as well as I his invariable kindness and courtesy.

Many tributes have been paid to him for the long period that he served this country in many capacities. I could not possibly equal or add to them; but to me—and I think to all his political opponents—he will always be remembered as a good man, a just man, an honourable man, who did his duty to his fellow-countrymen and to his country. He was a great Englishman—and, my Lords, I do not think Lord Attlee would have minded that simple tribute; I think perhaps he might even have been pleased. We join in sending our sympathy to all the members of his family.

2.49 p.m.


My Lords, we on these Benches would certainly wish to be associated most closely with the tributes that have already been offered by the noble Earl the Leader of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and to be associated particularly with the sympathy that we wish to see expressed to Lord Attlee's family. I can only say that I, in common with many of my generation, came, over the years, to have not only a high respect for Lord Attlee's qualities but a genuine affection for him as a person.

I first came into contact with him in the great Parliament of 1945; and no one could fail to realise then, at the beginning of that Parliament, the contribution which he must have made to the success of the Coalition during the war. No one could fail to realise the determination and quiet strength which he brought to a task of re-shaping Britain after the war. But, above all, I remember his continuous preoccupation with the food and welfare of starving millions of people in Europe and Asia at that time. I think the world owes a great deal to his understanding and compassion in that period. We shall always remember him for his firmness, his courage and his common sense, and those who were with him in the political field, on different sides, will be very grateful to have had that experience.

2.51 p.m.


My Lords, I have only a few words to add. Clement Attlee enriched the life of our country by an example of a man of Christian convictions who lived what he believed. It is right to recall here that he cared very much about the Church of England, and while he was in office he took great trouble with his responsibilities to it and helped the Church in every way he could. He carried into his public life the concern for the individual man or woman, especially for the young, which had inspired his early years in Stepney, and his understanding of the ordinary person was perhaps the secret of his understanding of great affairs of State.

I recall a saying of his which, unconsciously, described his own statesmanship. "I think," he said, "the British have the distinction above other nations of being able to put new wine into old bottles without bursting them." His homely wit was an essential part of his character, as when he said of the work of a Prime Minister, "Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking." He was all of a piece, and we all loved him for himself. While each of us has his own picture of Clement Attlee, many of us, I am sure, will specially remember the picture of Attlee waiting on the steps of St. Paul's for the coffin of Sir Winston to be carried out to take his place as a pall bearer near to some of the most famous statesmen who had come from many countries, the most modest of them all, and now standing the test of history beside them.

2.54 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add a few sentences to the very eloquent tributes paid to Lord Attlee by the noble Earl the Leader of the House and by others. It is inevitable, of course, that my mind should go back this afternoon to the long years of the War Cabinet, of which we were both members, and perhaps as much, or more, to those meetings of the Defence Committee, often held late at night, of which Lord Attlee and I were members from the moment that Sir Winston became Prime Minister until his resignation. Of the members of the War Cabinet at that time, I think that only my noble friend Lord Chandos and I are left, and I am quite sure that in what I am going to say now I carry not only my noble friend's judgment but that of all my colleagues here. We would meet often in those days when there was very grim news; and it was when the news was grim that Clem Attlee was at his best. In a rather remarkable way he complemented Churchill. Sir Winston was essentially a "bulldog", in appearance and in speech, but Clem Attlee was every bit as tenacious, and the worse the news was, the more tersely tenacious did Attlee become. It was in those days that I got to understand, as his colleagues did, what his true quality was. Things could never be too bad to Clem, and when one felt perhaps a little depressed and "dunched" oneself, it was good to turn to him and hear the kind of sharp summing up which only he could give, while showing that he never lost confidence in the final outcome.

My Lords, I should like to add only this. It would be wrong, very wrong, to belittle at all the contribution which he made to the War Cabinet. It was always of the same tempo. It was balanced, it was brief and it was firm; and the value of that to his colleagues was something beyond price in dark days of difficulty. For my part I also had reason to be grateful to him for work we did together at the San Francisco Conference. Perhaps the outcome was not all that either of us hoped, but if things have not worked out as they should, certainly Clem Attlee bears none of the blame. In conclusion, my Lords, I should like to say only this. Clem Attlee is quite assured of his place in history; nothing that we can say will add to that or diminish from it. The service he rendered was to his country and the world, and the monument a partnership in war and an illustrious leadership in peace.

2.57 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to add a few words from the Cross-Benches to what has been said in tribute to Lord Attlee. Perhaps I may speak particularly for those of us—and there are many on these Benches—who have in the past been public servants of one sort or another and who have tended to judge Cabinet Ministers not so much by their politics as by the manner in which they dispatch public business. From this point of view Lord Attlee was outstanding—always calm and unemotional in council, always rapid and definite in decision, always clear and precise in instruction. However unassuming and undemonstrative he might be there was no mistaking the quickness of his mind, the clarity of his thought and the firmness of his decision.

I have recollections of him in many different situations. Working directly to him was a pleasure. The papers always came straight back within an hour or two, either with a clear instruction or with drafts and action approved. I recall escorting him across the Atlantic in a flying-boat on the way to an International Labour Office conference held in New York in 1941. Though he was Deputy Prime Minister, he passed almost unnoticed by passengers and crew. We arrived in New York to a huge Press conference at a critical moment in American politics, when one wrong phrase might have been very serious. It was a very good conference, frank, open and good-humoured The correspondents went off rejoicing, only to find they had nothing to catch hold of or to exploit; it was a masterly piece of Press handling. A similar scene was later enacted in Washington. This visit of Lord Attlee to the United States was wholly successful, as indeed were subsequent visits to Washington, when Lord Attlee was Prime Minister, for talks with President Truman. Lord Attlee established a close understanding with Mr. Truman, and this was most beneficial to Anglo-American relations, especially in the difficulties which beset them in the immediate postwar period.

At Government House in Ottawa, during one of these visits to North America, I remember the Prime Minister coming quietly into the typing pool, sitting down among the shorthand typists at an unoccupied typewriter and tapping out with one finger the notes for a speech to the Canada Club which was most effectively delivered later in the evening. Finally, my Lords, it was fascinating to watch him in committee, sitting hunched in the Chair, drawing exquisite patterns in coloured chalks on a piece of paper while the arguments swayed to and fro, and then bringing the discussion to a rapid close with a short and sharp decision.

Others can speak, and have spoken today, with much more authority than I about Lord Attlee's Parliamentary life and his political outlook and achievement. But those who worked with him will always remember him with affection and respect, and I myself am quite sure that his reputation as a statesman and as an administrator will rise steadily as the history of our times comes to be written.

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