HC Deb 27 April 1908 vol 187 cc1033-40

Mr. Speaker, many of us, Sir, have come here fresh from the service in Westminster Abbey, where, amidst the monuments and memories of great men, the nation took its last farewell of all that was mortal in our late Prime Minister. Sir, there is not a man whom I am addressing now who does not feel that our tribute to the dead would be incomplete if this House, of which, by seniority, he was the father, and which for more that two years he has led, were not to offer to his memory to-day its own special mark of reverence and affection. I shall therefore, Sir, propose before I sit down that we should lay aside for to-day the urgent business which has brought us together, and that the House do at once adjourn until to-morrow. It is within a few months of forty years since Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman took his seat in this Chamber. Mr. Gladstone had just entered upon his first Premiership in the plenitude of his powers and of his authority. A new House, elected upon an extended suffrage, had brought to Westminster new men, new ideas—as some thought—a new era. Among the new-comers there were probably few, judged by the superficial tests which are commonly applied, who seemed less obviously destined than Mr. Campbell, as he then was, for ultimate leadership. There have been men who, in the cruel phrase of the ancient historian, were universally judged to be fit for the highest place only until they attained and held it. Our late Prime Minister belonged to that rarer class whose fitness for such a place, until they attain and held it, is never adequately understood. It is true that he reached office much earlier in his Parliamentary career than is the case with most politicians. In successive Governments, at the War Office, at the Admiralty, at the Irish Office, and at the War Office again, he rendered devoted and admirable, if little advertised, service to the State. It is no secret, and it is sufficient proof that he himself had no ambition for leadership, that when he was for the second time a Cabinet Minister, he aspired, Sir, to be seated in your chair. But though he had too modest an estimate of himself to desire, and still less to seek, the first place in the State, it fell to him, after years of much storm and stress by a title which no one disputed; and he filled it with an ever-growing recognition in all quarters of his unique qualifications. What was the secret of the hold which in these later days he unquestionably had on the admiration and affection of men of all parties and all creeds? If, as I think was the case, he was one of those men who require to be fully known to be justly measured, may I not say that the more we knew him, both followers and opponents, the more we became aware that on the moral as on the intellectual side he had endowments, rare in themselves, still rarer in their combination? For example, he was singularly sensitive to human suffering and wrong doing, delicate and even tender in his sympathies, always disposed to despise victories won in any sphere by mere brute force, an almost passionate lover of peace. And yet we have not seen in our time a man of greater courage—courage not of the defiant or aggressive type, but calm, patient, persistent, indomitable. Let me, Sir, recall another apparent contrast in his nature. In politics I think he may be fairly described as an idealist in aim, and an optimist by temperament. Great causes appealed to him. He was not ashamed, even on the verge of old age, to see visions and to dream dreams. He had no misgivings as to the future of democracy. He had a single-minded and unquenchable faith in the unceasing progress and the growing unity of mankind. None the less, in the selection of means, in the daily work of tilling the political field, in the choice of this man or that for some particular task, he showed not only that practical shrewdness which came to him from his Scottish ancestors, but the outlook, the detachment, the insight of a cultured citizen of the world. In truth, Mr. Speaker, that which gave him the authority and affection, which, taken together, no one among his contemporaries enjoyed in an equal measure, was not one quality more than another or any union of qualities; it was the man himself. He never put himself forward, yet no one had greater tenacity of purpose. He was the least cynical of mankind, but no one had a keener eye for the humours and ironies of the political situation. He was a strenuous and uncompromising fighter, a strong Party man, but he harboured no resentments, and was generous to a fault in appreciation of the work of others, whether friends or foes. He met both good and evil fortune with the same unclouded brow, the same unruffled temper, the same unshakable confidence in the justice and righteousness of his cause. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman had hardly attained the highest place, and made himself fully known, when a domestic trial, the saddest that can come to any of us, darkened his days, and dealt what proved to be a fatal blow to his heart. But he never for a moment shirked his duty to the State. He laboured on—we here have seen it at close quarters—he laboured on under the strain of anxiety, and later, under the maiming sense of a loss that was ever fresh, always ready to respond to every public demand. And, Sir, as we knew him here, so after he was stricken down in the midst of his work, a martyr, if ever there was one, to conscience and duty, so he continued to the end. I can never forget the last time that I was privileged to see him, almost on the eve of his resignation. His mind was clear, his interest in the affairs of the country and of this House was undimmed; his talk was still lighted up by flashes of that homely and mellow wisdom which was peculiarly his own. Still more memorable, and not less characteristic, were the serene patience, the untroubled equanimity, the quiet trust, with which during those long and weary days, he awaited the call he knew was soon to come. He has gone to his rest, and to-day in this House, of which he was the senior and the most honoured Member, we may call a truce in the strife of parties, while we remember together our common loss, and pay our united homage to a gracious and cherished memory— How happy is ho born and taught That serveth not another's will; Whose armour is his honest thought, And simple truth his utmost skill; This man is freed from servile bands Of hope to rise or fear to fall; Lord of himself, though not of lands, And, having nothing, yet bath all.

MR. AKERS-DOUGLAS (Kent, St. Augustine's)

I deeply regret the absence of the Leader of the Opposition, and I have reason to know that it is a matter of most sincere regret to my right hon. friend that he is unable to be in his place to-day, but, as the House is aware, he is at this moment disabled by illness. Had my right hon. friend been present, he would have rejoiced to bear testimony to the high regard he entertained for the character and career of the statesman whose loss we mourn to-day. I know that as an opponent my right hon. friend regarded him as scrupulously fair and chivalrous, and during his Leadership he always observed the high traditions of this House. In the unavoidable and regretted absence of my right hon. friend, it falls to me in far feebler phrases to second the Motion moved in such eloquent terms by the Prime Minister. I feel myself most fortunate in knowing that it needs no persuasion on my part to induce this House to accept the Resolution unanimously. While in this country the system of government by Party has long obtained and is firmly fixed, yet I maintain that there is no country, and no Assembly in any country, where the relations of political opponents are more free from personal bitterness than they are in this country and in this House of Commons; or where, on occasions such as these, there is greater readiness to drop all party prejudice and to recognise to the full the services rendered to the State by political opponents. It is not for me to attempt to follow the Prime Minister in his survey of the public life of his predecessor, but I would wish to be allowed to associate myself with all the tributes the right hon. Gentleman has paid to the memory of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. It would ill become me to criticise the late Prime Minister's policy or his political action; to do so might lay me open to a charge of insincerity, and, indeed, to make any controversial allusion to them would at once put me out of touch with the House on the present occasion. If there were anything in the present Motion that seemed to pledge the country or the House to approval of any particular hopes of the deceased statesman I can understand that questions might be raised or difficulties found in some quarters. But that is not the case. All that we do in supporting this Motion is to honour the memory of one who for forty years, by his high personal character, good temper, and urbanity, endeared himself to all with whom he was brought into personal contact and enjoyed the universal esteem of this House; and to put on record our appreciation of a public servant whose service to the State has been both honourable and distinguished. While we on this side of the House regarded his attitude and policy on some problems of great importance with some alarm, we have never viewed him with any anger or dislike, and even when his opinions may have been distasteful to some of us, we have ever had a kindly regard for him as a man. Therefore we can more fully understand and realise the warm affection—an affection which was earned by devoted and distinguished Party services, by energies spent, perhaps, too freely in the service of the State and in the service of his Party—we can, I say, understand the feelings with which he was regarded by his supporters in this House, and we on this side of the House cannot but admire the determination and courage with which he stuck to his political convictions, never flinched from opinions because they might be unpopular, and never failed at the lowest ebb of the political tide, or during the gloomiest period of his Party's fortunes, in his position, first as Leader of the Opposition, then as Leader of this House. No one could have been more popular nor did any one exist who had the power of inspiring a greater or a more general personal affection. In this capacity we have on this side of the House often had occasion to admire his conduct, tact, and resource, while we have appreciated to the full, although we have sometimes been disconcerted by, his wit and shrewdness. In common with his own followers we watched in sympathy and with solicitude the illness through which he passed. We had hoped that when the cares and weight of office had been removed from his shoulders he might have been restored to health and comparative vigour, and looked forward to a good old age with peace and contentment. But that was not to be. By his removal a long and honourable career has been brought to an end; the public life of this country thereby is far poorer, while this House has suffered a loss from which it will not readily or quickly recover, a loss which I would like to emphasise has been felt by his political opponents as much as by his political friends.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Asquith.)

MR. T. P. O'CONNOR (Liverpool, Scotland)

In the absence of my hon. friend the Member for Waterford I rise to say that we, the representatives of a cause which he so long advocated in this House, feel that we cannot allow an occasion like this to pass without, on behalf of Ireland, saying a word as to the loss which we have suffered in the death of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman boasted rightly that he was not only a Scot, but a Scot of Scots. We Irishmen feel that he had a love for our country and our cause as though he were one of us. We had an affection for him as if he were one of our own people. I have been told by those who knew him intimately that among the many causes that appealed to his generous nature there was none which made a readier appeal to it than the cause of Ireland. I know that it was only the imperative orders of his doctors that prevented him coming down, even after the beginning of his fatal illness, to say a word upon the Irish Resolution. We honoured him and loved him, and regret his death as one of the greatest and heaviest losses that our people and our country ever sustained.

SIR ALFRED THOMAS (Glamorganshire, E.)

I beg on behalf of the Welsh Members to express the profound regret with which we heard of the passing away of the late Prime Minister. As one who keenly sympathised with small nationalities we are under a lasting debt of gratitude to his memory. His life was a noble example of a high-minded Christian gentleman, and we can all say, as John Bright said of Cobden, "I little knew how much I loved him until I found I had lost him."

MR. ARTHUR HENDERSON (Durham, Barnard Castle)

In associating my friends and myself with the magnificent tribute that has been paid to the late Prime Minister, I am sure that, though my words are few, the expressions I make use of will nevertheless be accepted as perfectly sincere. We are the youngest Party in this House, and yet we have been here during the whole of the time that the late Prime Minister presided in his high position over our Parliamentary destinies. Though our experience of him has been short, it was sufficiently long to endear him, I will venture to say, more than any other politician in this country to every member of the Labour Party. The more we got to know in our official position of the late Prime Minister the more we were led to realise that he possessed a very great heart for the poor of this country. He recognised the social wrongs under which the poor are compelled to live, and he was anxious, either by the methods which he and his party desired to put forward for redressing those wrongs or by understanding the proposals which we put forward in the name of the poor—proposals oft-times of a different character from those which he himself put forward—he was anxious, I say, to understand our proposals, in order that something might be done to alleviate the vast amount of suffering which the poorer of the working classes so constantly experience; and in this way his readiness sympathetically to consider the views of my colleagues and myself endeared him in an unmistakable way to every member of the Labour Party. There always stands out in association with his life one event which especially appeals, not only to those of us who have the honour to represent in a very direct sense organised labour in this House, but also to organised labour throughout the whole country. That particular chapter in his life was in those dark days when there was a minority in this country who felt that the experience we were going through in South Africa was not, as the majority, in their opinion probably rightly, thought, fully justified. Organised labour held the opinion that the experience was not justified, and he whose loss we mourn to-day was at the head of a small minority in the country who shared with organised labour that opinion, and, though that opinion was repudiated, scorned, and scoffed at, and though nicknames were applied to us and opprobrium thrown at us, we always rejoice to think that he maintained his position in this House and the country with a fidelity to his convictions that gave him a position in the hearts of organised workers in this country second to that of no other statesman. The loss we mourn to-day is nowhere more keenly felt than in the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and again I say I hope my words will be accepted as perfectly sincere.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Asquith.)

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes after Three o'clock.