Lord Morrison of Lambeth

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th March 1965.

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Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton 12:00 am, 9th March 1965

Today, the House will wish to pay its united tribute to the life and memory of Herbert Morrison, and to express our sympathy to Lady Morrison of Lambeth and to his daughter and her family. One of the greatest difficulties which all of us feel in doing this is to be able to confine into a narrow compass the wide range of his achievements and of his contributions to our national life.

It is more than 40 years since Herbert Morrison first entered this House as a London Member, and more than 35 years since he achieved pre-eminent national status as Minister of Transport and as the creator of the London transport system. From that moment for a quarter of a century he was at the centre of affairs not only in his party but in all aspects of our national life. Because he had made local government work so peculiarly his own, because he had created so much of what we now know as the government of London, and, in so doing, had humanised the very processes of local government, he was, in every job he did, a Minister who, while authoritative in the forms and machinery of government, always cared first about people.

It was part of the genius of Winston Churchill that, having first appointed Herbert Morrison to be Minister of Supply—a job for which he was well fitted after years of constructive criticism of pre-war supply preparations—he recognised the new challenge presented by Hitler's bombers to the civilian life of London and other great cities by appointing Herbert Morrison as Home Secretary and Minister of Home Security.

It was in that rôle that he brought to bear his immense administrative ability, his genius for improvisation, his unrivalled knowledge of local government, and, above all, his concern for people and his understanding of them. "London can take it", the phrase which he created, represented his cheery but tough answer to Hitler, yet every blow struck against the London he loved and had done so much to rebuild hurt him more than he ever showed.

In the post-war Labour Government, Herbert Morrison held a pivotal rôle as Leader of the House, a great moderniser of Parliamentary procedure, Deputy Prime Minister, architect of the modern approach to self-governing yet responsible public authorities, particularly in the economic sphere, a man of infinite resource in Cabinet and Government committee, himself directing, as chairman of committees, so much of the legislative and administrative work of government.

Herbert Morrison's brief period at the Foreign Office was less happy, though some who criticised him then or since have failed to recognise the unique and unprecedentally difficult problem which dominated his tenure of office and which he did not stay long enough to solve or to see solved. After 1951, his years in opposition—a leader in debates, one who used his unparalleled knowledge of Parliamentary procedure and, still more, his sense of Parliamentary convention and form to dominate debate after debate from the Dispatch Box opposite—it was in these years, taking time off from the House, that he made his great contributions to the literature on the machinery of government. His work, "Government and Politics" is still a classic in this field, and compulsory reading for anyone who wants to know how our modern system works.

In 1955 came his biggest disappointment, when, by a vote of his fellows, he was passed over for the leadership of the party in favour of a younger man and a newer generation. Then, life on the back benches for the first time in over 30 years, the transition in due course to another place—all these never extinguished the lively ability to make his own personal contribution both to the life of Parliament and to the life of the nation.

It will be as a great Parliamentarian that we shall all remember him, and, with every respect to those who, in another place, will be paying their fitting tributes to him this afternoon, we shall remember him as pre-eminently a Member of this House. He was a great leader of this House, firm, humorous, tolerant, ever sensitive to the changing moods of the House which he had a unique ability to assess, jealous of the rights of the House and its privileges and customs, and jealous of the rights of back benchers on both sides of the House.

But if this were to be the total of our assessment, how little of the real Herbert Morrison would it cover. No one in the House will object, I hope, to my making a reference to his party service. Many have mourned him this week for his devoted service in creating and building up the London Labour Party in its earliest days. No one who has ever seen Herbert Morrison in action will forget seeing him in the party committees which are the lifeblood of our system of Parliamentary democracy, or dominating a vital and throbbing party conference by his eloquence, his humour and the sheer force of his personality.

But when that has been said, there will still be those who feel that if we seek his memorial it would be in none of these places, but in the London which he loved and which he did so much to save. If the London County Council is to go down to history—as I believe it will—as the greatest unit of local government which the world has ever seen, more credit is die to Herbert Morrison than to any other individual. His last Parliamentary fight in another place was over the future of London government. He approached the problems of London with a grasp, an imagination and a sense of scale unparalleled in our civic life. Town planning, the transport services, housing, and above all, the unique contribution of the L.C.C. in its concern for deprived children, on the one hand, and old people, on the other—in all these, Herbert Morrison tempered administration with a fine humanity which sprang from his love of London people.

Waterloo Bridge, Festival Hall, indeed, the whole South Bank, will be his physical memorials, but, more lasting, will be a conception of human government, local and national, based on the recognition that all that we do here and all that is done in the council chambers and committee rooms throughout the country and more widely has no meaning except in so far as it serves, individual by individual, family by family, our fellow citizens.