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Field Marshal Smuts (Tributes)

Volume 478: debated on Wednesday 13 September 1950

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The House will, I am sure, feel it right that it should pay its tribute to the memory of General Smuts; that, I think, is the title by which he himself preferred to be known. Everyone realised when they heard of his death that there had passed from this world a very great man, and those who had the privilege of knowing him felt they had lost a friend and a very lovable personality.

For more than 50 years he played a great part on the world stage—indeed, many parts. I recall as a schoolboy, at the end of the last century, hearing of him for the first time as a brilliant young lawyer in the Government of President Kruger and, a year or so later, as one of the most resourceful military leaders on the other side in the South African War. But those were but two of the rôles he was to play. He was to win distinction as a scholar, soldier, statesman, philosopher and writer. In any one of those fields he did enough to satisfy an ordinary man.

He was to play a leading part in his own land of South Africa and on the wider stages of Commonwealth and international affairs. In South Africa he emerged as one of the outstanding figures in the fight of the Boer Republics against Britain, and with General Botha he shared in the great work after the war of reconciling the British and Dutch elements and forming the Union as one of the member States in what he liked to call the British family of nations. So effective was the work of these two men that South Africa took its share in defeating Germany in the First World War. General Smuts himself commanded the troops in East Africa and later, as a member of the United Kingdom War Cabinet, helped to guide the nation to victory and took part in the Peace Conference.

He was one of the most energetic architects of the League of Nations and, throughout its existence, a strong supporter of its principles. In the years between the wars he was one of the outstanding South African statesman, whether as Prime Minister, or Minister in other Governments, or as Leader of the Opposition, and during all those years he always worked for co-operation between the various elements in the population of South Africa.

He made a great contribution to the building up and development of the British Commonwealth of Nations. I have often heard him say that British Imperialism died with the South African War and no one did more than he to give form to the concept of the evolution of an Empire into a Commonwealth.

In the Second World War he became Prime Minister again and led his country into the fight for democracy and freedom. We welcomed him over here on many occasions and we profited by his wise counsel. I recall many talks with him; during those days and I was always impressed by his balanced judgment and by the wide sweep of his vision.

I recall his work at the San Francisco Conference when the Constitution of the United Nations organisation was being worked out. The Preamble to the Charter was his work and expresses much of his thought.

It was my privilege to see much of him during these last five years when he came over to this country, as he loved to do, either as Prime Minister taking part in Commonwealth Conferences, or as Chancellor of his own University of Cambridge. The more I got to know him, the greater was my admiration and affection for him.

General Smuts was a great South African. However much he was immersed in world affairs he remained deeply attached to his own country, but with no narrow or exclusive love. He saw South Africa in the wider setting of the world. He had an intense belief in the British Commonwealth and in all that we call the British way of life, in the principles of democracy, of freedom and tolerance. He believed that the spirit which animates the Commonwealth was the key to the relationship which should exist between nations. He hoped that it would pervade the United Nations organisations.

Honours in abundance came to him. He filled many high positions. His knowledge was encyclopaedic. Yet he remained essentially the same man who delighted in the quiet of his South African home. He gave the impression of innate simplicity, but a simplicity combined with great knowledge and wisdom.

He carried his years easily. When over 80 he had the spare athletic figure of a young man. His mental powers showed no decline. Death came to him when his spirit was still bright and eager. There passed away when he died a happy warrior.

To his devoted wife and family and to all the people of South Africa we send our deepest sympathy in their great loss.

I earnestly join with the Prime Minister in the tribute he has paid to the life and work of Jan Smuts; and also in the sympathy he has expressed with that gracious and remarkable woman who has sustained his long march through life, and with his son who carries on an honoured name.

Personally I mourn the loss of a cherished friend with whom I had worked intimately in many kinds of anxious and stirring events. It is just over 50 years since I first met him in somewhat un-propitious circumstances. I was a cold and tired out prisoner of war and he was questioning me as to my status as a war correspondent and the part I had been said to have played in the fighting. I always followed with great interest after that the accounts of his long and dauntless fight as a guerrilla leader for the independence of the Transvaal Republic, of which he had already been State Attorney.

My memories of him are, however, most enriched by the two main periods of our work together. The first was the framing and bringing into force of the Transvaal Constitution. It is only a few months since I referred to this on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The Transvaal Constitution was an act of generous statecraft which will always be associated in Great Britain with the name of Campbell Bannerman, and in South Africa with the names of Botha and Smuts. It led directly to the Union of South Africa, and to the comradeship and brotherhood in arms between South Africa and the old country and between Boer and Briton which stood the hardest strains which lay before us and which was crowned in the end with so much honour.

No act of reconciliation after a bitter struggle has ever produced so rich a harvest in good will or effects that lasted so long upon affairs. Magnanimity in victory is rare, and this is an instance and almost unique example of its reward, because rare though it be it is by no means always rewarded. This was because we in Britain found great South Africans to deal with. In Louis Botha and Jan Smuts we found those qualities of unswerving fidelity to honourable engagements, the power to see each other's point of view and, above all—and this was the point I made on his 80th birthday—that resolve not to be outdone in generosity which ranks among the noblest and most helpful impulses in the human breast.

But it was, of course, during the last five years of the recent war that we came most closely together. Here I speak not only for myself but for my colleagues in the then War Cabinet, whom I think I shall carry with me when I say that in all our largest decisions and our best thoughts we found ourselves fortified by the spontaneous accord of the South African Prime Minister. In his farm near Pretoria or at Groote Schuur, no doubt receiving all the telegrams but without any of the whole process of consultation which we went through among ourselves and with the Chiefs of Staff, thousands of miles away, dealing with these matters practically alone, again and again he sent us conclusions and advice at which we had arrived here simultaneously by a much more elaborate and entirely separate process of thought. It was a comfort to all of us, and above all to me, to feel by this quite independent crosscheck that we might have confidence in what we were going to do and that we were on the right course. I must say that I can hardly recall any occasion where we did not reach the same conclusions by these entirely different roads of mental travail.

General Smuts—Jan Smuts—was a shining example of the Latin saying: Mens sana in corpore sano. His mental and physical efficiency seemed to undergo no change with the passage of years. Up to his 80th birthday he could not only concentrate his mind for many hours a day, but could march with a brisk and alert step to the top of Table Mountain, and if he chose back again down the descent. Perhaps he did it once too often. This prolonged harmony of mind and body was the foundation of a luminous, normal, healthy, practical common sense, which guided him in daily action but in no way limited the depth of his vision or his far-ranging outlook over the world scene.

I agree with the Prime Minister in enumerating all the various fields in which he shone. Warrior, statesman, philosopher, philanthropist, Jan Smuts commands in his majestic career the admiration of us all. There is no personal tragedy in the close of so long, full and complete a life. But those of his friends who are left behind to face the unending problems and perils of human existence feel an overpowering sense of impoverishment and of irreparable loss. This is in itself also the measure of the gratitude with which we and lovers of freedom and civilisation in every land salute his memory.

It is an honour and a high privilege to express in this House, on behalf of the Liberals of this country, the tribute which we all desire to pay to the memory of General Smuts.

His position was unique in the Union of South Africa, which was in a very large measure his conception; in the British Commonwealth of Nations, which he named and to which he rendered such signal, devoted, gallant and courageous service; in the world, the unity of which was the final goal of all his endeavours so that the nations might live in peace and concord, and wars for ever cease. He was, in truth, a man of peace, desiring above all things toleration, understanding, goodwill and happy relationships among the peoples.

He strove with all his energy and ability to create the League of Nations and to make it a success. Nor did he lose faith when that failed. With an indomitable will he laboured to build afresh the organisation of the United Nations. Yet it was his fate to be compelled to take a leading part in three mighty and momentous wars, compelled by the need to defend the liberty that he loved, for he believed in the sacredness of the individuality of man, in his personal freedom of choice, and in the dignity of the human personality.

He was the visionary who is, in truth, the sound realist. Though tolerant, he was firm of purpose. As he said of himself, it was not usual for him to be neutral. Philosopher, as has been said by the Prime Minister, statesman, soldier, he loved nature and the simple life; a brilliant scholar and jurist on whom his beloved Cambridge willingly and proudly bestowed her dazzling prizes; a friend whose loyalty never failed; a world figure, yet happiest with his family and in his home on the veldt.

The world will long remember him. The good which he did will live on and be a permanent memorial that time will enhance and enrich. To his family we here humbly extend our sincere and deep sympathy.

Following the practice and custom of one who occupies my position, I should like to add a word to what has been already so eloquently said by the three right hon. Gentlemen. It is perhaps appropriate that I should do so in a personal capacity, because for 25 years I enjoyed the friendship of General Smuts, and I must say that for no man had I a more intense and affectionate admiration. Like my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, I speak today with some emotion on this matter.

I think that if I had to devise an epitaph for General Smuts, it would be something on these lines: Never has a man made more moving and eloquent speeches to great audiences in a language which was not his own than did General Smuts in Britain. Seldom has supreme genius of mind and immense achievement in many fields been allied to a finer conception of what humanity could and should achieve in this storm-tossed age. Here was a guide and philosopher for the whole world.

As a South African, perhaps the only South African citizen in this House, may I have the honour to add a tribute from those of South African blood or sentiment who live in the United Kingdom to a great man and a great fellow countryman?