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Sir Winston Churchill

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28th July 1964.

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Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton 12:00 am, 28th July 1964

The terms in which the right hon. Gentleman has moved this Motion are acceptable to the whole House and will be welcomed by all of us. Although occasion demands that this Motion should be commended to the House by the three party leaders and by two other very senior Members of the House, we are speaking today not as representatives of parties, but as Members of the House united by a common bond of admiration and affection for the most distinguished and best-loved of our fellow Members.

Winston Churchill—and I do not fear to be ruled out of order, Mr. Speaker, because in this last week of this Parliament I am relying on the quality of selective deafness of which you informed us in the first week of this Parliament—is a man who, in his own lifetime, has become a legend. By far our oldest colleague in years and in terms of service to the House, he has deservedly earned the unique tribute which the House unites to pay him today.

When, last March, some of us proposed that the House owed a duty, not to the right hon. Gentleman but to itself, to mark his retirement in a special manner, all of us received countless letters from all over the country, from members of all parties and of none, welcoming the idea and many of them suggesting means which this tribute might take. Some, proposing a national tribute not related specifically to Parliament, might well be considered separately. It is our privilege today, as fellow parliamentarians, to commemorate what he has done in Parliament and for Parliament and here in Parliament for the nation.

In the talks we had with the Government, and after some painstaking research, we suggested the idea of reviving a very old custom of the House based on a Notice of Motion of a vote of thanks. Until the present century—and the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned a previous case—such Motions were fairly frequent, being for the most part addressed to generals and admirals in respect of military successes. But such Motions addressed to Members of the House are much less frequent and the last of which I can find any record was in 1700. I quote from the Journal of 17th March, when the thanks of the House were given to Sir Edward Seymour, Baronet, a Member of this House for the great service he hath done the Publick in detecting the Bribery and Corruption, which hath been practised in the Elections of several Members to serve in this present Parliament. What we are honouring today is a very much greater and more long-standing service to Parliament and the nation. For this reason, this Motion today is unique—as the man whom we are honouring is unique.

We commemorate on the eve of his retirement the right hon. Gentleman's services in peace and in war. We honour him as a great parliamentarian, a great orator and debater who shares only with David Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan, I think, the honour of being one of the three greatest orators of this century. In a life of public service which spans almost two thirds of a century—from his entry as the young Member for Oldham to his retirement now as Father of the House and right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford—he has, as the Prime Minister said, never shirked the controversial or the unpopular. When this House, 20 years ago, debated the reconstruction of this Chamber he drew attention to its oblong, bilateral shape and derisive of mere continental semi-circular constructions, spoke of the awesome journey involved in crosisng the Floor of the House, because he had crossed it twice.

The right hon. Gentleman was a controversial figure and he will want to be remembered as a controversial figure. As a young Liberal he denounced his Conservative opponents in a phrase which to this day remains a classic of anti-Conservative literature. Equally, his financial policies inspired the most savage of Maynard Keynes's satires in "Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill". As a Conservative, he took equal delight in castigating his Liberal and Labour opponents.

As the Prime Minister said, in the late 'thirties he cared not for friends or party loyalties as he spoke frankly of the dangers he saw. Yet in our darkest hour, in 1940, he was the choice of the nation. History may dispute whether it was the courage of those of his own party who registered their own historic vote in that debate of May, 1940, or the refusal of the then Opposition to serve in any Government of national unity headed by another which led to his call to office.

Whatever historians may decide, the choice was the choice of the British people. It was his resolution, his unswerving faith in victory, his historic decision to appeal to our people for the spirit of sacrifice which he knew his leadership could evoke—it was these transcendent qualities which, backed by loyal and dedicated colleagues of all parties, brought up through to victory.

I said that he has become a legend. Many of us were brought up on the legend of his early struggles. My own father was his sub-agent in North-West Manchester in 1908, when, under the barbarous system which required that a newly-appointed Cabinet Minister must resign and seek re-election, the right hon. Gentleman lost his seat. My uncle was his constituency chairman, a strong teetotaller. He recalls how the right hon. Member for Woodford, with tears streaming down his face, sought consolation for his defeat in two large whiskies—which my staunchly teetotal uncle had to pay for.

The war-time years produced a crop of stories about the right hon. Member for Woodford, some of them apocryphal, but all told with endearment. Some are known to be true. There is the one about his famous rebuke of the pedantic civil servant, when he wrote, "This is nonsense up with which I will not put". I remember during our darkest days, as a member of the Cabinet Secretariat, an emergency call in the small hours from President Roosevelt. The President had decided to release the 50 over-age destroyers for our use—given certain conditions. A colleague of mine was duty officer and had to decide whether to awaken the Cabinet Secretary and, after consultation, took the not inconsiderable risk of awakening the Prime Minister.

The President stated his condition—if Britain were defeated in the war the ships were to make for Canada. The Prime Minister, who was barely awake, and not in the best of tempers, produced a ready answer, "Yes, if that happens, the destroyers will sail for Canada, but the contingency of defeat is one more likely to befall our enemies than ourselves." Few at that time would have been so ready, so confident, even in the full light of day.

Inevitably, admiring ingenuity has conferred on the right hon. Gentleman legendary epigrams and aphorisms which, true or not, we would all like to think that he coined. I treasure particularly the story of his remarkable interview with the then General de Gaulle, who had claimed for the Free French Forces the blocked gold held on the French account by the Bank of England, when the General asked the right hon. Gentleman to intervene. The story is that the right hon. Gentleman replied—and I apologise for my French, which is rather like the right hon. Gentleman's, "Mon cher Général, quand je me trouve en face de la vielle dame de Threadneedle Street, je me trouve tout a fait impotent "I know it should have been "impuissant".

As war gave way to peace his single-minded dedication to victory gave place to growing controversy about his views on post-war planning. There is a delightful story about a Cabinet meeting when your predecessor, Mr. Speaker, the then Minister of Town and Country Planning, submitted a learned memorandum on town and country planning, establishing the best of the Scott, Uthwatt and Barlow Reports. It was one o'clock and this was the eleventh item on the agenda. The Prime Minister is reported to have said, "Ah, yes, I know, town planning, densities, broad vistas, open spaces. Give to me the romance of the eighteenth century alley, with its dark corners, where footpads lurk." "Shakes" Morrison, instead of taking this as an endorsement of his paper, which he was entitled to do, wearily took it back for further consideration, and town planning was held up for seven months.

This Motion today honours a fellow hon. Member of wide achievements, the Cavalry officer who escaped from a Boer prison, the author of "Lord Randolph Churchill", of "Marlborough", of the "History of the English-Speaking Peoples"—favourite reading for many of us—a Nobel prize winner for literature, an Academician. It honours a youthful reformer who piloted the Employment Exchanges Act and Unemployment Insurance Act through this House. It honours the warrior of the Dardenelles and of Sidney Street, it honours a controversial ex-Chancellor, a man who could write history and who could make history, a leader who, in his unconquerable faith in our people and in the ultimate victory of our cause, could yet enrich our language with the magic of speeches which will be remembered and treasured for all the years our literary heritage may endure.

For all these things we honour him today, but as parliamentarians we are conscious of something beyond, and I for my part speak as one of many present on both sides of the House who are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the kind, almost old-world courtesies going far beyond the normal calls of parliamentary comradeship. If Winston Churchill could write his own epitaph it would be simply this, "He was a good House of Commons man."