Death of Sir Winston Churchill

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th January 1965.

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Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton 12:00 am, 25th January 1965

(at the Bar) acquainted the House that he had a Message from Her Majesty the Queen to this House, signed by Her Majesty's own hand. And he presented the same to the House, and it was read by Mr. SPEAKER (all the Members of the House being uncovered), as follows:

I know that it will be the wish of all my people that the loss which we have sustained by the death of the Right Honourable Sir Winston Churchill, K.G., should be met in the most fitting manner and that they should have an opportunity of expressing their sorrow at the loss and their veneration of the memory of that outstanding man who in war and peace served his country unfailingly for more than fifty years and in the hours of our greatest danger was the inspiring leader who strengthened and supported us all. Confident that I can rely upon the support of my faithful Commons and upon their liberality in making suitable provision for the proper discharge of our debt of gratitude and tribute of national sorrow, I have directed that Sir Winston's body shall lie in state in Westminster Hall and that thereafter the Funeral Service shall be held in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul.


Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

I beg to move, That Her Majesty's Most Gracious Message be taken into immediate consideration.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty humbly to thank Her Majesty for having given directions for the body of the Rt. Hon. Sir Winston Churchill, K.G., to lie in state in Westminster Hall and for the funeral service to be held in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul and assuring Her Majesty of our cordial aid and concurrence in these measures for expressing the affection and admiration in which the memory of this great man is held by this House and all Her Majesty's faithful subjects. In accepting this Motion, this House, and, by virtue of its representation in this House, the nation, collectively and reverently will be paying its tribute to a great statesman, a great Parliamentarian, a great leader of this country.

The world today is ringing with tributes to a man who, in those fateful years, bestrode the life of nations—tributes from the Commonwealth, from our wartime allies, from our present partners in Europe and the wider alliance, from all those who value the freedom for which he fought, who still share the desire for the just peace to which all his endeavours were turned. Winston Churchill, and the legend Winston Churchill had become long before his death and which now lives on, are the possession not of England, or Britain, but of the world, not of our time only but of the ages.

But we, Sir, in this House, have a special reason for the tribute for which Her Majesty has asked in her Gracious Message. For today we honour not a world statesman only, but a great Parliamentarian, one of ourselves.

The colour and design of his greatest achievements became alive, on the Parliamentary canvas, here in this Chamber. Sir Winston, following the steps of the most honoured of his predecessors, derived his greatness from and through this House and from and through his actions here. And by those actions, and those imperishable phrases which will last as long as the English language is read or spoken, he in turn added his unique contribution to the greatness of our centuries-old Parliamentary institution.

He was in a very real sense a child of this House and a product of it, and equally, in every sense, its father. He took from it and he gave to it.

The span of 64 years from his first entry as its youngest Member to the sad occasion of his departure last year covers the lives and memories of all but the oldest of us. In a Parliamentary sense, as in a national sense, his passing from our midst is the end of an era.

He entered this House at 25—already a national and controversial figure. He had fought in war, and he had written of war, he had charged at Omdurman, he had been among one of the first to enter Ladysmith, an eye-witness of the thickest fighting in Cuba, a prisoner of a Boer commando—though not for as long as his captors intended.

And he brought his own tempestuous qualities to the conduct of our Parliamentary life. Where the fighting was hottest he was in it, sparing none—nor asking for quarter. The creature and possession of no one party, he has probably been the target of more concentrated Parliamentary invective from, in turn, each of the three major parties than any other Member of any Parliamentary age, and against each in turn he turned the full force of his own oratory. If we on this side of the House will quote as a classic words he uttered over half a century ago, about the party he later came to lead, hon. Members opposite have an equally rich treasure-house for quotations about us, to say nothing of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway.

When more than 40 years after his first entry as a young M.P. he was called on to move the appointment of a Select Committee about the rebuilding of this Chamber, he proclaimed and gloried in the effect of our Parliamentary architecture on the clarity and decisiveness of party conflict; he recalled, with that impish quality which never deserted him, the memories of battles long past, of his own actions in crossing the Floor of this House, not once in fact but twice.

For those who think that bitter party controversy is a recent invention and one to be deplored, he could have had nothing but pitying contempt. And as he sat there, in the seat which I think by general wish of the House should be left vacant this afternoon, in those last years of the last Parliament, silently surveying battles which may have seemed lively to us, could we not sense the old man's mind going back to the great conflicts of a great career and thinking perhaps how tame and puny our efforts have become?

A great Parliamentarian, but never a tame one—they misjudge him who could even begin to think of him as a party operator, or a manipulator, or a trimmer, or a party hack. He was a warrior, and party debate was war; it mattered, and he brought to that war the conquering weapon of words fashioned for their purpose; to wound, never to kill; to influence, never to destroy.

As Parliament succeeded Parliament he stood at this Box, at one time or another holding almost every one of the great Offices of State. He stood at the Box opposite thundering his denunciation of Government after Government. He sat on the bench opposite below the Gangway, disregarded, seemingly impotent, finished. His first Cabinet post—the Board of Trade—made him one of the architects of the revolution in humane administration of this country. He piloted through the labour exchanges; he led the first faltering steps in social insurance.

The Home Office and then the more congenial tenure of the Admiralty—Ministerial triumph and Ministerial disaster in the first War. Colonies, War, the Treasury: the pinnacle of power, and then years in the wilderness. The urgent years, warning the nation and the world, as the shadow of the jackboot spread across an unheeding Europe. And then came his finest hour. Truly the history of Parliament over a tempestuous half-century could be written around the triumphs and frustrations of Winston Churchill.

But, Sir, it will be for those war years that his name will be remembered for as long as history is written and history is read. A man who could make the past live in "Marlborough", in his dutiful biography of Lord Randolph, who could bring new colour to the oft-told tale of the history of the English-speaking peoples, for five of the most fateful years in world history, was himself called on to make history. And he made history because he could see the events he was shaping through the eye of history. He has told us of his deep emotions when, from the disaster of the Battle of France, he was called on to lead this nation. I felt he said, as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. Ten years in the political wilderness had freed me from ordinary party antagonisms. My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams. His record of leadership in those five years speaks for itself beyond the power of any words of any of us to enhance or even to assess. This was his finest hour, Britain's finest hour. He had the united and unswerving support of the leaders of all parties, of the fighting services, of the men and women in munitions and in the nation's industries, without regard to faction or self-interest. In whatever ôle, men and women felt themselves inspired to assert qualities they themselves did not know they possessed. Everyone became just those inches taller, every back just that much broader, as his own was.

To this task he brought the inspiration of his superlative courage, at the hour of greatest peril; personal courage such as he had always shown, and indeed which needed a direct order from his Sovereign to cause him to desist from landing on the Normandy beaches on D-Day; moral courage, the courage he had shown in warning the nation when he stood alone, now inspired the nation when Britain and the Commonwealth stood alone. There was his eloquence and inspiration, his passionate desire for freedom and his ability to inspire others with that same desire. There was his humanity. There was his humour. But above all, he brought that power which, whenever Britain has faced supreme mortal danger, has been asserted to awaken a nation which others were prepared to write off as decadent and impotent, and to make every man, every woman, a part of that national purpose.

To achieve that purpose, he drew on all that was greatest in our national heritage. He turned to Byron—"blood, tears and sweat." The words which he immortalised from Tennyson's "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington" might well be a nation's epitaph on Sir Winston himself. Not once or twice in our rough island-story,The path of duty was the way to glory;He that walks it, only thirstingFor the right, and learns to deadenLove of Self, before his journey closes,He shall find the stubborn thistle burstingInto glossy purples, which outreddenAll voluptuous garden-roses. The greatest biographer of Abraham Lincoln said in one of his concluding chapters: A tree is best measured when it is down. So it will prove of Winston Churchill, and there can be no doubt of the massive, oaken stature that history will accord to him. But this is not the time.

We meet today in this moment of tribute, of spontaneous sympathy this House feels for Lady Churchill and all the members of his family. We are concious only that the tempestuous years are over; the years of appraisal are yet to come. It is a moment for the heartfelt tribute that this House, of all places, desires to pay in an atmosphere of quiet.

For now the noise of hooves thundering across the veldt; the clamour of the hustings in a score of contests; the shots in Sidney Street, the angry guns of Gallipoli, Flanders, Coronel and the Falkland Islands; the sullen feet of marching men in Tonypandy; the urgent warnings of the Nazi threat; the whine of the sirens and the dawn bombardment of the Normandy beaches—all these now are silent. There is a stillness. And in that stillness, echoes and memories. To each whose life has been touched by Winston Churchill, to each his memory. And as those memories are told and retold, as the world pours in its tributes, as world leaders announce their intention, in this jet age, of coming to join in this vast assembly to pay honour and respect to his memory, we in this House treasure one thought, and it was a thought some of us felt it right to express in the Parliamentary tributes on his retirement. Each one of us recalls some little incident—many of us, as in my own case, a kind action, graced with the courtesy of a past generation and going far beyond the normal calls of Parliamentary comradeship. Each of us has his own memory, for in the tumultuous diapason of a world's tributes, all of us here at least know the epitaph he would have chosen for himself: "He was a good House of Commons man."

Photo of Sir Alec Douglas-Home Sir Alec Douglas-Home , Kinross and West Perthshire

I beg to support the Motion moved by the Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman has spoken in eloquent words in appreciation of the life of Winston Churchill and has told us of his long Parliamentary career. In doing so, the Prime Minister voiced the feelings of the House and of the nation.

Yesterday, when we saw the pageant of that life and career unfolded before us, it did not seem possible that a man could have achieved so much within a mortal span, and anyone who tries to measure the qualities of Winston Churchill knows that there is nothing that can now be said or written which can add to the stature of the man, because each of us knows with certainty that he has lived in the presence of one of the greatest men of all time.

When, on his 90th birthday, Mr. Harold Macmillan quoted from his writings the now famous words: In War, Resolution;In Defeat, Defiance;In Victory, Magnanimity;In Peace, Good will Mr. Macmillan was, I believe, right in saying that those words provided perhaps the most satisfying picture of the complete man. For they convey the rich, full-blooded life which was his: the ups and downs of fortune in politics and war; the tempest and the controversy; the grandeur; the boyish, infectious zest for living of a man for whom life was an endless adventure; the deep humanity and simplicity, of which the Prime Minister has spoken, of a man with a large heart and an open countenance. Winston Churchill knew his mind and required others to do so. He was impatient of hesitation and, except in military affairs—let us admit it—had little time for detail, for he saw things whole and wide and far.

Our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren will praise him for his vision, but for us inevitably today there is, in the forefront of our minds, his leadership of the nation to victory in war. We remember him coming here from the high councils of the allies, from every battlefront which he visited with the forces, eager always to be on the ramparts. We remember him as a master of strategy in his own right, acting as a stimulating influence on the soldiers, sailors and airmen in charge of the operations of war.

Indeed, I have often thought that it was a mark of the force and magnetism of the man that those individuals he chose as the particular instruments of victory seemed somehow to be infected with a touch of his genius and to assume a part of his mantle.

But the picture which will never die in the minds of any is his unquenchable courage during those long months when the nation stood under siege—and then, in truth, he was the incarnation of defiance of evil and of the triumph of right over wrong. And it was because conquered men and women saw in Churchill the enduring, immovable rock that hope was able to live on and to triumph over despair in many other countries other than our own.

Pericles, speaking of the Heroes' defence of Athens and of democracy, said: And having each one given his body to the Commonwealth they received instead thereof a most remarkable sepulcher—not so much that wherein they are buried so much as that other wherein their glory is laid up, on all occasions both of word and deed, for to famous men all the earth is a sepulchre: and their virtues shall be testified not only by inscription on stone at home but in all lands wheresoever in the unwritten record of the mind, which far beyond any monument will remain with all men everlastingly. Be zealous therefore to emulate them and judge that happiness is freedom and freedom is valour and be forward to encounter the dangers of war. So it might be said of Churchill, and all our people whom he inspired in his and their finest hour.

As the Prime Minister has said, his horizons of thought and imagination stretched well beyond those of other men. Years back, he would discuss with his great friend, General Smuts, and much talk of one world, and his speeches on the themes of the rôle of the English-speaking peoples and the unity of Europe and the interdependence of nations revealed a mind restless and fertile with ideas, seeking always to turn men's minds to better ways and to what he described as "the uplands of peace".

On his 90th birthday, we spoke of him in the House as a great Parliamentarian, and rightly so, for politics was his life. Because the Prime Minister has already done it I will not try today to add to the words on his great Parliamentary career, but where there was controversy there Churchill was certain to be found, using in debates in the House the broad sword and the rapiers of wit and repartee and turning and tuning them with his sensitive ear to every mood of the House.

But he was a politician in the most honourable sense of the word, for he came here into Parliament through politics to serve the nation. He was, of course, the Leader of the Conservative Party, both as Prime Minister and from these benches, and today we are heavy at heart but at the same time full of gratitude to one who gave to his colleagues unstintingly of his friendship and his loyalty, which he conceived to be two of the greatest of the virtues.

As we take leave of him, I would like to recall to the House the very last words of the book which he himself called, "My Early Life". In the last few lines, he had been talking of the worries and the struggles of politics and the challenges which he would have to face, and then he wrote this simple line: … until September, 1908, when I married and lived happily ever afterwards. To Lady Churchill, who has stood by him all his life and who was with him at the end, we would like to join with the Prime Minister in sending our admiration and our affection, and we stand in homage with the nation.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

I beg to support the Motion moved by the Prime Minister.

Only a few months ago, we said goodbye to Sir Winston Churchill as a Member of Parliament. On that occasion we claimed him particularly as our own. Now Sir Winston is dead. That long career, which went back to the days before the motor car was known and which saw such astonishing changes throughout the world, is ended. Now we are at one of the still points of the turning world. A link stretching back to Queen Victoria and Gladstone has snapped. All freedom-loving men, wherever they are, now claim Sir Winston as their own and mourn his death—and well they may, because it is in large measure due to him that some of us are free at all.

It is by his leadership in war, as has been said, that he will be first remembered. Freedom and his country were what he loved and he had the chance to serve them both in the war. There is a temptation, knowing that I can add nothing to the praise which will be accorded to him, to leave him to history and to say: Oh heart, be at peace, becauseNor knave nor dolt can breakWhat's not for their applause. But we should not allow even the events of the war to throw into the shadows the rest of his life and his service. We should remember the quality of his character as well as the size of his achievement. We should remember his contributions to peace and the pleasure which he gave to so many people, and his kindness, and his courtesy, and the trouble he took to give of his mind even to insignificant people and to make sure that they enjoyed themselves.

From where we stand today it seems as if Sir Winston had been moulded and preserved by fate to lead Britain in her crisis. That was not always the view of his contemporaries. Several times he seemed to have failed. Many people felt that he lacked just those qualities which are said to be essential to the highest office.

But it was his supposed defects as much as his acknowledged virtues which entitled him to be called "great". For 60 years he strode across British politics and some virtue departed from them when his powers declined. A man of action, he also had the gift of words—written words, conversational words, words for speeches. The high horse of political oratory has been riderless since his departure.

No insipid mantle of adulation can obscure the splendour of a life spent fighting, fighting for what he believed good against all the forces of inertia and defeatism. He was tried not only in the hot furnace of war, but in the bleak wilderness of rejection by his own political party. His motives were misrepresented. It would be foolish to pretend that he was not sad and depressed, but he never became cynical. He was a romantic, an individual man. We praise and envy his exploits all the more because we know that they are unlikely to be repeated. Before the First War he was denounced as a dangerous radical, indeed, Socialist, and between the wars as a maverick who dared to revolt against party discipline. Never was he afraid to put his future in jeopardy when he felt that he was right. Often he may have been wrong, but he was never cowardly, trivial or mean.

In his love of adventure and his imaginative powers he was far removed from the modern technocrat. Yet every-one who was subjected to it paid tribute to the power of his mind. It was a creative instrument informed by insatiable curiosity and constantly ranging over new ideas. Already in 1913 he was dictating a treatise on world supplies of oil. Prison reform, labour exchanges, the Antwerp Expedition, the Dardanelles, the invention of the tank, the floating harbours of D-Day—to all these he contributed.

At the higher level of broad political judgment, he may have been wrong over finance and India, but he appreciated the German danger in the 1930s, the threat of Russian policy in the late 1940s, and the need for a united Europe after the war. He always related current decisions to future trends and wide principles.

His supreme gift as a politician lay in his determination and in his vision of a better, happier, world. Without that vision, all the expert knowledge of the technocrat is useless and all the skill of the politicians runs only to the achievement of office. Perhaps, after all, it is the technocratic age above all others which needs the refusal to take anything for granted and the power of decision which was Sir Winston's. Perhaps, after all, he was born 10 years too early.

He loved life. He could be very funny. He wanted everyone to be happy. He wanted to taste and try everything that life could offer. Power never corrupted him, nor did success make him pompous. In his extraordinary retention of youth's wonder and enjoyment and energy, it could well indeed be said of him, as was said of someone else, that he was half lion and half child.

While we send our deepest sympathy to his family and particularly to his wife—and perhaps it might not be out of place to mention on this day his doctor—let us also he thankful that we have been alive at the same time as Sir Winston Churchill.

Photo of Mr Robin Turton Mr Robin Turton , Thirsk and Malton

As the back-bench Member with the longest continuous service, I rise to support the Prime Minister's Motion.

Throughout his long career, Sir Winston Churchill displayed all the Parliamentary qualities that every backbench Member wishes to possess. Others have spoken about how the span was so long that one could not in one's memory have known those early years, but I remember that when I first came into the House in 1929 Sir Winston was somewhat estranged from the Opposition Front Bench and was conducting individual but highly successful forays against Mr. Ramsay MacDonald's Government.

Then a year or two later he led an independent and well-organised opposition to the India Bill against the massed support of that Bill of all the parties in the House. He was a tiny minority against a huge majority. From that same seat on the front bench below the Gangway in the next few years he warned Parliament of the perils of Nazi rearmament and roused the nation to defend itself against them.

The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have talked about his and the nation's finest hour, but to me the real test of his Parliamentary quality came when, crushed by electoral defeat, he came down into the arena after 1945 and lightheartedly took up the duties of Leader of the Opposition and engaged in Parliamentary battle until that battle was won. All of us who served with him in his Government, in however humble a position, will always be proud of having served in the Government of Sir Winston Churchill. To all of us, to the least of us, he showed amazing loyalty and stimulating humour in our encounters.

How can one sum up such a career? He epitomised Parliamentary courage—generous in victory, indomitable in defeat. No hon. Member has ever attempted more; and although no hon. Member has had more successes, it was his achievement of scaling the mountain of success out of the foothills of defeat that has given him as an example to every hon. Member who enters this House in the future.

Sir Winston Churchill loved this House. Your freshest memory of him, Mr. Speaker, will be of him rising from that seat below the Gangway, reluctantly accepting the support of two hon. Members, tottering to the Bar of the House and there making his bow to you, Mr. Speaker, and to Parliament, which he loved.

As this afternoon we sadly leave this Chamber and pass under the Churchill Arch, we will recollect that that arch was left by him untouched and unrepaired to remind Parliament of the fury the Nazis unleashed against this nation and this Parliament. To many of us in future that battered and chipped relic of the former Chamber will be a permanent memorial to the man who loved democratic freedom, who revered our Parliamentary procedure and who in the judgment of all was the greatest Member that Parliament, in all its 700 years, has ever known.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, nemine contradicente,That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty humbly to thank Her Majesty for having given directions for the body of the Rt. Hon. Sir Winston Churchill, K.G., to lie in State in Westminster Hall and for the funeral service to be held in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul and assuring Her Majesty of our cordial aid and concurrence in these measures for expressing the affection and admiration in which the memory of this great man is held by this House and all Her Majesty's faithful subjects.

To be presented by Privy Councillors or Members of Her Majesty's Household.