Death of Sir Kingsley Wood

– in the House of Commons on 22nd September 1943.

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Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

I revert to the painful event which was made known yesterday, namely, the sudden death of our Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Kingsley Wood. He was a very old Member of the House. He had been here for a quarter of a century. For the last ten years he has been continuously in office amid all the vicissitudes, changes and shocks of that period. Everyone knows how good his work was at the Post Office and the Ministry of Health. He left a mark on the Post Office and made a very great contribution to building up the prestige of the Ministry of Health to the high point it has attained among the great offices of State. Then, before the war, he was taken to a field in which he had not had previous experience. It was thought necessary that his business and administrative efficiency should be applied to our air production and to our Royal Air Force, and he became Air Minister in those critical years. As between the different Services, while avoiding invidious comparisons, I should certainly say that the outlook of the Royal Air Force upon this war was more closely attuned to the circumstances and conditions as they emerged by painful experience than those of either of the other two Services. The great contribution for which Sir Kingsley Wood's administration of the Air Ministry will always be remembered was the founding and development of the Empire Air Training Scheme in Canada, to which pilots from New Zealand and Australia came in great numbers, to which would-be pilots from the United Kingdom have also been sent in large numbers, and which has produced us a ceaseless flow, numbered by tens of thousands, of those extraordinarily competent and daring men to whom we owe so much of the satisfactory position we have now attained. This Empire Air Training Scheme was a work of great imagination, and all who were concerned in it deserve the greatest possible credit. It was not only a war winner but an Empire cementer. I imagine that the friendships and comradeships formed by these young men in the vast training camps of Canada will carry on their beneficent influence long after the older Members of this House have passed away. That was a very great and outstanding act of his administration.

Then, when I was called upon to form this present Government in the height of the great battle that was raging and which turned out so disastrously, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. This must be regarded as an historic Chancellorship. It represents by far the greatest financial effort in our history. Nothing like it has been seen before, or anything approaching it, but, of course, all our figures are larger now than at any other time. Sir Kingsley Wood made the fullest contribution which finance can make, with other agencies, to stemming the tide of inflation, which is always driving in upon our breastworks and dykes and, if it ever burst them would he the beginning of untold evils and demoralisation. He produced three Budgets to the House. The first Budget of a Chancellor is often well received, but the third Budget is the most critical of all, because it is the heir of previous decisions, and it is by that time you can see whether the Chancellor is really master of this great and dominant Department of State.

The last Budget was the most acceptable of all. It was really a triumph, a great personal triumph, not a triumph particularly for the oratorical fireworks, but for the sound lines on which he had been working, which now at this time arrived at fruition and enabled him to make a statement to the House which was regarded here and in the United States as masterly. It was a balanced Budget with these colossal figures, and out of £5,700,000,000, half was raised by taxation, the most severe taxation ever imposed by a Government or loyally accepted by the taxpayers. When I think of the very keen manner in which the late Mr. Bonar Law used to take pride in the proportion of the money he had raised by taxation as opposed to borrowing in the last war, I find the means of measuring the achievement of the late Chancellor, who very nearly succeeded in doubling the proportion raised out of direct taxation. All the greatest economists, John Stuart Mill at their head, have always spoken of the evils of borrowing for the purposes of war and have pointed out that as far as possible posterity should be relieved and that the cost of what is consumed in the war should be met at the time. That is a counsel of perfection, but nobody has ever come nearer to it than the late Chancellor of the Exchequer. The cost of living has been kept within a 30 per cent, increase over pre-war by a most elaborate system which be introduced. The United States have not adopted it but it is looked upon in many quarters there with very considerable admiration. At any rate, this keeping down of the cost of living is one of the pillars on which the whole defence against inflation rests.

Our rate of borrowing is incredibly low, far lower than it was in the last war. I remember well at the close of the last war that we were urged to subscribe to Government funds under a slogan, "Security and 6 per cent." We have succeeded in borrowing these vast sums in the fifth year of the war at a rate, when the tax is deducted, which does not amount to more than 1½ per cent. I am not comparing quite fairly, because the 6 per cent. was gross and the 1½ per cent. is net. Nevertheless, we have much heavier taxes at the present time, and the fact remains that these vast loans which have been floated do not impose upon posterity the burden of more than 1½ per cent. if you take in the taxation and 3 per cent. if you do not. In all these respects—these large, salient features—no comparison can be made between the finance conducted by the late Chancellor of the Exchequer and any finance of which we have record in periods of great expenditure and confusion.

At the beginning of the blitz I pressed upon him the vital need of doing something for the poor people whose houses were smashed up and whose businesses were destroyed, and he devised the elaborate insurance scheme, which has come into the fullest possible fruition. At one time, it looked as if the State were taking on a very heavy burden, but trees never grow up to the sky, and, as a matter of fact, not only have individuals been provided for and the loss inflicted by the enemy shared and spread over the shoulders of the whole community, but the scheme has ultimately turned out to be highly profitable to the Exchequer.

The extension of the Income Tax to the wage-earners was a very remarkable step. That it should have gained the assent of this House, elected on universal suffrage, is also a remarkable fact, showing how extremely closely the wage-earning masses of the country and those who represent them feel associated with the vital issues now being fought out in the field. Undoubtedly, payment in arrear, when the Treasury accounts are made up, being demanded from the wage-earners, produced many cases of very great hardship and tended to cause dissatisfaction with a great principle of taxation which was being so very willingly accepted. The Chancellor had given the closing weeks of his life to a most careful study of the "pay-as-you-go" principle, and he was looking forward, on the very day that he died, to making a statement to the House on the subject. That statement has now been made by the Financial Secretary, and the relevant White Paper will soon be in possession of the House, and it is the last contribution which the late Chancellor has made to our affairs. In addition to this, the recasting of the general form and presentation of the Budget and the nation's accounts which has received the approval of the House and commands the approval of those best qualified to judge, in all quarters of the House, will take a permanent part in our affairs. All these are milestones in our long financial history, and they will be associated with the financial administration of Sir Kingsley Wood.

One of the most important functions in these last years of the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been the relations which he established and maintained with the United States. Our finance is most closely interwoven, and all kinds of questions of the utmost difficulty and delicacy have been arising constantly. We have had the ablest Treasury officials over there, and the Chancellor has always had a series of questions of the utmost complexity to raise and to adjust with his opposite number and colleague, Mr. Morgenthau, the Secretary to the Treasury of the United States. I have received a message which I will read to the House from Mr. Morgenthau this morning: Permit me to express through you to His Majesty's Government and people my deep sense of personal loss in the death of Sir Kingsley Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose sincere friendliness and co-operative spirit have done so much to advance the common cause of our two countries. We in the United States, who knew of his great abilities as well as fine integrity and personal charm, join with you in mourning his departure. Of course, it is a difficult and thankless task to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, especially in time of war. Everyone would like to see a generous attitude adopted in respect of questions affecting the Armed Forces. Everyone feels the extremely severe, almost confiscatory, character of the taxation imposed. At every point, it strikes upon the intimate life of the people. The few comforts or luxuries that are left to them are charged with the most immense burdens of taxation. At every point he has a disagreeable job to do. One cannot at all wonder that the Chancellor of the Exchequer goes through periods of disparagement and criticism, but all that was overcome by the massive success of his financial schemes, and all that was also overcome by his own personal qualities.

We in this House and still more in the Cabinet were very fond of Kingsley Wood as a man, amiable, experienced, competent, efficient, accessible. He was all that a Minister who is a good House of Commons man should be. He was also a good party man. There is no reason to be ashamed of that, for in many periods of history, democracy expresses itself best through the ebb and flow of parties. He was a good party man in this sense, because these are the qualifications of a good party man—you must know how to put your party before yourself, and you must know the occasions when to put nation before party. In this he fully qualified. We shall not easily fill the gap, and the balance of our affairs is, at the moment, sadly deranged. A new problem and burden is thrown upon me, and I feel that very much. I feel far more the loss of a genial, sincere and faithful friend, with whom I and my colleagues have stood shoulder to shoulder during a period altogether without precedent in our long history. I feel that, in expressing these sentiments, I carry with me the genuine and unaffected acquiescence and even active agreement of Members of all parties, seated in all parts of the House.

Photo of Mr Arthur Greenwood Mr Arthur Greenwood , Wakefield

I speak as one who crossed swords with Sir Kingsley Wood more than any other Member of this House. I do not think that the House really appreciates how much the late Chancellor of the Exchequer contributed to the development of that great Department the Ministry of Health. I remember him first as a mere Parliamentary Private Secretary to the first Minister of Health, the present Lord Addison, and how he was in during the early creative days of that Department. He left his mark there and left it there permanently. When he was in office I was generally put up to speak against him; when I was in office, he was too often put up to speak against me. Although we did differ in opinions and although I have, on occasion, said hard things about Sir Kingsley Wood, as he has about me, I have never known an occasion where political differences resulted in any personal bitterness between us. When I was last in office I had to see a great deal of the late Chancellor. We represented opposing political views, but I think I can claim that we did share a genuine common interest in the war situation and all that pertains to it. He was a good party man, and for that, like the Prime Minister, I respected him, but we have, thank God, in this House of Commons never allowed political differences to disturb personal relations, and long may that tradition continue. I feel that I have lost a friend. I feel that the nation has lost a man who has made his mark on the modern history of our people. The country is the poorer. He was a good House of Commons man, a good Parliament man, and this House of Commons is the poorer because his genial smile will never again light this Chamber.

Photo of Sir Edward Campbell Sir Edward Campbell , Bromley

To be Sir Kingsley Wood's Parliamentary Private Secretary was no sinecure. Every day I had to tell him what people were saying. We would not have remained the close friends we were had I not told him the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I attribute his success to the great care he took over everything he did, and his ability to get the best out of his team. He would have made a successful Test Match captain—always alert, always cheerful, always efficient, always with a keen eye on his opponents and ever willing to listen to the advice of anyone in the team, and, in consequence, always having very loyal support and affection. Though scrupulously fair to his opponents, he always played for his side. Sir, I have lost the greatest friend I have ever had.

Photo of Sir Percy Harris Sir Percy Harris , Bethnal Green South West

No one more appropriately could have spoken on the work and service of the late Chancellor than the hon. Baronet the Member for Bromley (Sir E. Campbell). Their relations were remarkable. No Minister ever had a more loyal servant. They really were the relations of David and Jonathan, and it is to the great credit of the Chancellor to have inspired such remarkably devoted service. At the same time we feel sympathy for my hon. Friend in having lost the man he served in many posts so loyally and well. I am in the position of having known Sir Kingsley Wood perhaps almost longer than any Member of this House. I knew him in his early political days on the London County Council, where he won his spurs. He soon got the respect of his colleagues and showed his abilities. A remarkable thing about him is that he rose to his great position without any social influence, purely by hard work, application and industry. I have never forgotten the occasion when he won his first laurels in the great battles over the Health Insurance Act, in which he displayed immense industry, great knowledge and great skill in debate, and soon established his position in this House of Commons as a skilful Parliamentarian. We cannot forget the many years during which he understudied the late Mr. Neville Chamberlain. He had a loyal friend in the hon. Member for Bromley, and Mr. Chamberlain had a splendid colleague for many years, in his conduct of the Ministry of Health, in Sir Kingsley Wood.

Quite frankly, I feel that when he took on the most difficult and important post of Chancellor of the Exchequer some rather doubted whether, from his training and experience, he would "fill the bill." This year I was able to pay a tribute, a tribute which the whole House was prepared to pay, to his great success in an almost super-human job. He had not great arts of oratory, but he had extraordinary thoroughness in exposition, he always listened to criticism, he had good temper, was never ruffled, was always prepared to learn and, what was very wise, always ready to take sound advice and select wise counsellors in his difficult job. As my right hon. Friend who spoke for the Labour Party said, we all loved Kingsley Wood. He was a universal favourite. The news of his death came to us as a great shock. We liked his genial smile and his lack of pomposity. He never learned the Treasury manner. He was always prepared to regard us all as his friends and colleagues, and I cannot help expressing the sympathy of the whole House with his widow in what must, to her, be a great tragedy.

Photo of Sir Alexander Erskine-Hill Sir Alexander Erskine-Hill , Edinburgh North

I want to pay a tribute to the late Chancellor of the Exchequer from the back benches. The Chancellor of the Exchequer probably knew this House as well as any person did, and I think that was so because he was on such friendly terms with so many individual Members of this House. By his passing, we have all lost something: we have lost a friend. Sir Kingsley Wood never tried to lecture the House. He was always anxious to explain his mind so that all could understand, and if any of us wanted further explanations, he was always willing to welcome us to his room. It did not matter how new to the House or how insignificant a Member might be, Sir Kingsley Wood was always willing to receive him into his room and to do what he could to satisfy his difficulties. His character and individuality will make him extremely hard to replace. None of us in this House will easily forget Sir Kingsley Wood.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Shakespeare Mr Geoffrey Shakespeare , Norwich

On behalf of my Liberal National colleagues, I should like to join in paying my humble tribute to the memory of Sir Kingsley Wood. I have another reason for doing so, because I was greatly privileged eight years ago in serving under him at the Ministry of Health, where he established a great record for his brilliant administrative gifts. He was one of the shrewdest men in council I ever met. He had a great agility of mind, a perfect genius for disentangling the essential points in any problem, and an infinite capacity for hard work. If ever a man died in harness and on active service, it was Kingsley Wood. But there was another quality, which impressed me as one not belonging to the same party, and that was his quality of tolerance. The Prime Minister and other speakers have said that he was a great party man. He loved political fighting, he loved the surge of conflict, he loved the cut-and-thrust of debate, in which he often killed but never wounded. Although he was a strong party man, with strong beliefs, he was always tolerant of those who held the opposite views. He never disliked criticism or opposition, because it enabled him to retort. He was a son of the manse. Speaking as a son of the manse, I know what a great loss his death will be to the Free Churches, with which he maintained a constant association. The Conservative Party has lost a great party leader, the nation has lost a great administrator, and many of us have lost a personal friend.