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Lords Chamber

Volume 116: debated on Monday 13 May 1940

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House Of Lords

Monday, 13th May, 1940.

Summoned by the Lord Chancellor in pursuance of the Resolution of December 5 last, the House met at three of the clock. The Right Honourable Sir John Allsebrook Simon, having been appointed LORD CHANCELLOR and being present—Sat Speaker.

The New Government

3.7 p.m.

rose to move to resolve, That this House welcomes the formation of a Government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, it falls to me to move the Resolution on the Paper that appears in my name, and perhaps your Lordships will allow me, in doing so, to make a few observations upon the principal events that are no doubt in your Lordships' minds. His Majesty's Government and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister thought—and I have no doubt your Lordships will agree with them—that no time should be lost in making a report to Parliament on these events and, in the new circumstances in which we find ourselves, asking Parliament to extend to His Majesty's Government their support and to give their assent to these events. That is the reason for the summons, at short notice, to Parliament and of the Motion that appears in my name.

The principal political happenings of the last few days will be fresh in your Lordships' memory, and it is scarcely necessary for me to recapitulate them in any detail. After the debates of last week in another place my right honourable friend the late Prime Minister felt that some action was immediately essential to secure the greatest possible measure of national unity and to translate that into political form. Even before the military events of the last few days it was evident that we were approaching one of the great phases of the war, and for that reason my right honourable friend felt that no time was to be lost in taking whatever steps were necessary to bring into effect that outward political unity which, in his judgment, and I have no doubt in the judgment of the majority of your Lordships, was so necessary to support and to express what has always been, and is to-day, the single resolve of all our people. My right honourable friend felt, as your Lordships are aware, that owing to the particular circumstances of the moment his contribution to the common object was to place his resignation in His Majesty's hands, at the same time intimating his complete willingness to serve under Mr. Churchill should it please His Majesty to entrust him with the task of forming an Administration on the wider basis that was sought.

I think your Lordships will wish to pay your tribute to the example of disinterested public spirit shown by my right honourable friend, not only—though perhaps most markedly—on this occasion, but shown also throughout the many years of arduous service he has given to the State in the most responsible and difficult office in a most difficult time. I am perhaps in as good a position as any of your Lordships to estimate how great is the debt under which this country lies to him. That has not in all quarters or at all times been recognised, partly because it fell to him to play the leading part in matters necessarily controversial; and partly because those outside could not by the nature of things know either all the facts or the whole mind of my right honourable friend; but I and those who were privileged to work with him have no fear at all of the judgment which history will pass either upon his efforts to preserve peace, or when peace was broken, to prosecute war. It is a great encouragement to know that the great qualities which those who were most close to him have such good reason to remember, his sanity of outlook, his resource, and tenacity of purpose, are yet to be held at the disposal of the nation.

His successor has assumed a burden of which your Lordships will not be slow to recognise the weight. He brings to his task particular gifts which have already earned for him the respect and confidence of his fellow countrymen, and certainly never could the imagination, daring and determination which my right honourable friend commands be of greater value than they are to-day. He has, moreover, a rare capacity to inspire the resolution in Parliament and people which will surely be required before we bring this struggle to a successful issue. I have no doubt at all that your Lordships will warmly welcome the success that has attended his efforts to enlist in the common service of our cause the assistance of other Parties.

Changes of Government such as these, which involve the introduction of new elements, require sacrifices which cause inevitable regrets. Of one only should I perhaps be permitted to say one word today, and none will be more keenly felt by your Lordships than that of the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, who has led this House so successfully for the past two years. During his leadership he has, I think, won the regard of all your Lordships irrespective of Party, and I am sure that I shall be giving expression to universal thought and feeling if I venture to express the gratitude that we all feel to him for the manner in which he has discharged his duties. Whatever views may be held upon the vexed question of Second Chambers and their duties and their hypothetical reform, your Lordships are essentially a practical body, who meet for the dispatch of business with a single regard for the public interest. The vast majority of your Lordships are busy people with wide interests in different parts of the country, and for that reason we are the more grateful to my noble friend who has devoted so much of his own time and energy to the responsibilities of the leadership. Speaking for myself I shall greatly miss his presence as a colleague on this Bench, but I hope that whatever work he may undertake he will still find time to take a prominent part in our discussions.

During the last few days we have watched the sudden development of events in the world which are now in all our thoughts. Once again the attempt is made by Germany to strike down two of her small neighbour nations with complete and cynical disregard of treaties, of assurances and even of the most elementary principles of international order. This crime, following close as it does on the heels of a similar crime only two or three weeks ago against Norway and Denmark, makes plain once more to the whole world what are the forces against which the battle is now joined and what price the world would have to pay for German victory. That such an attack should have been launched on the Dutch and Belgian peoples without warning, without pretext of grievance and in defiance of a scrupulously observed neutrality, gives the measure of lawless savagery which it must now be the task of civilised nations to stamp out. The admiration of the British people goes out to Belgium and Holland in the gallant struggle that they have undertaken in defence of the traditional liberty of their peoples, and we ourselves shall draw new strength from their example. The moment the news reached us of the German assault, bringing to us an appeal from the Dutch and Belgian Governments, His Majesty's Government immediately promised their full support, and the action of the Allied Forces was simultaneous.

Your Lordships will no doubt have seen the messages sent by His Majesty the King to the King of the Belgians and the Queen of the Netherlands, and the very moving replies which His Majesty has now received from those two sovereigns, whose courage and resolution have won the admiration of the world. Her Majesty the Queen of the Netherlands expresses her happiness that the peoples, Fleets and Armies of the two countries should be fighting side by side against ruthless aggression, and the King of the Belgians speaks of the valuable proof which he has received of the fidelity of the British people to their pledged word. Both sovereigns express their confidence in the ultimate triumph of the cause of free peoples. Your Lordships will be happy to know that her Royal Highness Princess Juliana of the Netherlands has arrived safely in this country with her two young children, being accompanied by Prince Bernhardt, whose intention it is, I understand, to return to the Netherlands as soon as possible to resume his duties as aide-de-camp to Her Majesty Queen Wilhelmina.

On the Western Front a critical battle is at this moment being fought out. In the Netherlands the Germans are making a most determined attempt to gain control of Fortress Holland by a prodigal use of their air forces and their parachute troops. Every treacherous device contrary to the laws and usages of war has been exploited by them. Their parachutists have landed disguised, not only in uniforms of the Allied Forces, but also as priests and women. They have been supported, as in Norway, by the enemy within the gates and fierce fighting is proceeding, particularly in the Rotterdam area. The Belgians are resisting manfully behind their forward defences and heavy fighting is going on northwest of Liége against German forces which had succeeded in penetrating across the Meuse in this area. Every effort is being made to support the Dutch and the Belgians in their struggle by sea, land and air. British and French Forces are already engaged with the enemy and the Allied Air Forces are operating in support of the land battle against the German columns. Many enemy aircraft, as your Lordships will have observed, have been shot down.

In Norway, operations against the enemy in the Narvik area are proceeding and our forces further to the south are in contact with the enemy advancing from Namsos. I have been very glad of the opportunity, which I have lately enjoyed, of having conversations with the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Professor Koht, and the Minister of Defence, Colonel Ljungberg, who have now returned to Norway. I assured them that the fact that this country had to meet a new threat as a result of the German aggression against the Netherlands and Belgium would not, in any way, affect our determination, in co-operation with our Allies, to give all possible assistance to the Norwegian Government and people in Northern Norway. I think it was the day after we adjourned last week that British troops landed in Iceland, where they were well received by the inhabitants, who knew that they were only there to ensure that the people of Iceland should be spared the fate that had overtaken the inhabitants of Denmark and Southern Norway.

My Lords, more than once in these past years we have been reminded that the only alternative to the organisation of an international order, based on respect for treaties and law, was a return to the methods of the jungle. With that we now find ourselves face to face. Some people have been led to doubt whither our civilisation was tending. Certain I think it is that in Nazi Germany the whole emphasis of the developments of the last few years has been to exalt the value of physical and material strength to the exclusion of all other. Science and learning have been harnessed to the pro- duction of everything that could serve this doctrine of physical force. Christian virtues and ideals have been derided, suppressed and threatened with extinction, and I think it is this gospel of materialism and the civilisation which must spring from it against which we have to fight. We and our Allies shall doubtless suffer heavy material damage in the struggle, but I think we may feel confident that in doing so we shall save our souls without which a man is not advantaged, even if he gains the whole world. The formation of the new Government, embracing all political Parties in the State, is the immediate answer to these new proofs of the nature of the German menace. I beg to move the Motion which stands in my name.

Moved to resolve, That this House welcomes the formation of a Government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion.—( Viscount Halifax.)

3.28 p.m.

My Lords, I beg first of all, on behalf of my noble friends, to welcome very sincerely the members of the new Government. I refrain from congratulating them on the vast and immediate responsibilities that they have assumed. I should like, on behalf of my friends, to wish for them health and strength to carry on their work and insight so that that work may be completed with success and with honour. I should like, too, to join in the thanks which the noble Viscount has suggested to those who served under the last Government. Political services are very soon forgotten and it is well that on every occasion possible we should say to those with whom we may have disagreed that we recognise their services, admire their qualities and regret that an adverse fate has overtaken them. I should like to join with the noble Viscount in saying how much my noble friends and myself have appreciated the courtesy and the never-failing consideration of the late Leader of the House. From him we have received all the help that it was in his power to give to us, and we thank him most sincerely for his services.

My noble friends and myself have not yet had an opportunity to confer together on the question of whether we have any longer any status in your Lordships' House. We have been a small but I think not unheroic Party, a leader without much of a following; and now both leader and following are disarmed, and our position is quite uncertain. This may indeed be a kind of valedictory address of mine to your Lordships. But I can say that, whatever our future duties may be in your Lordships' House, we shall give to the Government all the support that we can in the prosecution of the common task. If our habit of criticism does not fall from us completely and all at once, I hope that the criticism at least will be directed to strengthen the cause rather than—for the moment—to disrupt the Government.

We have listened with very great attention and approval to what the noble Viscount has said to us. The British nation as one people are to-day sorrowful indeed, but quite resolved to continue the task upon which they have begun. To meet the challenge that has been thrown down, this peaceful nation of ours sinks all internal differences, suspends all controversies and pools all its strength, in an attempt to restore decency and freedom upon the earth. To all of us on this day the call is to courage, to resolve and to endurance. Speaking for my noble friends, I have to say that we do not hate the German people and we do not want to prevent their natural and rightful development; but we will not tolerate their lust for domination, nor will we tolerate the bred-in-the-bone brutality of their present Government. His Majesty's Government are entrusted with the task of mobilising and of using the whole strength of the nation to rescue humanity from a great and immediate peril and to ensure that for all time free men shall be secure in their freedom upon the earth. In support of that ideal, so long as His Majesty's Government pursue it, we shall give all the help that we can.

3.35 p.m.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friends on these Benches I must declare our unreserved assent to the terms of the Resolution which has been moved by the noble Viscount opposite. After the debate of last week here and in another place, it became evident that the representatives of the nation, while recognising that His Majesty's Government were united in purpose, thought that they did not appear to be altogether concentrated in effort; and that made it obvious that nothing but a change of Administration would satisfy the national mind. That was brought about with great rapidity, and I desire to echo what fell from the noble Viscount by saying that we appreciate the attitude which the late Prime Minister so promptly took in placing his resignation before His Majesty. It was not altogether an easy or the obvious thing to do; many men might have thought that some days' consideration would be acceptable. The late Prime Minister, however, saw that the moment had arrived for laying down his great office, and he also realised that his successor was the man whom the nation would most willingly see in his place. Perhaps I may be allowed to say a word about the present Prime Minister, because I enjoyed the friendship of his distinguished father, for whom I had a great regard, and I have been able to watch and sometimes to join in the stirring events of his career. We must all feel, I think, that both his political and his special experience fit him in a very remarkable degree for the place which he is now called upon to fill.

As regards the changes which have taken place in your Lordships' House, I join most heartily both with the noble Viscount and with the noble Lord who either leads or possibly does not lead the Opposition in expressing our gratitude to the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, for the manner in which he led the House. He possessed all the qualities of courtesy and of consideration which are necessary to anyone who fills that position. We have also to note a change in the occupant of the Woolsack. The noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, as a bird of passage, perched for a very short time on that illustrious seat, but I am glad to think that we shall still in this House have the benefit of his experience and of his knowledge, and, particularly in these difficult times, of his special knowledge of Admiralty affairs. I may perhaps be allowed to say a word of welcome to my right honourable and learned friend who now occupies the Woolsack. We all know that the House will gain vastly by his appearance here, with his great knowledge of affairs and all his experience both in foreign and domestic matters.

The noble Viscount in conclusion touched upon the situation abroad. We must all feel, I am sure, the very com- pletest sympathy with the two countries, Holland and Belgium, with which in different ways and for different historical reasons we are so closely tied by memories and by the essential facts of to-day. We feel confident that both nations will now, as in the past, do justice to their reputation for courage and tenacity. It is impossible, my Lords, not to reach the conclusion—and the sad conclusion—that all the efforts which have been made during the past few years to come to terms with the German people were ineffective and doomed to destruction. It is difficult not to believe that, at any rate since 1934, there was practically no chance whatever of bringing Germany into the orbit lately represented by the aspirations and the ideals of the League of Nations. Perhaps we ought to have seen that the rulers of a country who could behave as they did in the years 1933, 1934 and 1935, could not be rulers with whom it was possible to deal on terms involving an equal appreciation of equity and International Law. We have seen how from stage to stage the demoralisation of Germany has proceeded, and—what is perhaps the most serious consideration of all—that during those years every young German man who has been growing up in school or college has been inoculated with the poison. And therefore, as the noble Lord, Lord Snell, said just now, while we have no animosity against the German people—that in a sense is of course true—we do feel that by some process that virus must be eradicated before the peace of the world can be achieved.

3.45 p.m.

My Lords, perhaps it is natural that one word should be spoken from that section of your Lordships' House which I have the honour to represent. It shall only be one word. The Spiritual Peers in your Lordships' House stand apart perhaps more completely now than at any previous time in history from any political Party. We have no comments to make on the political implications of the changes that have been made, but we recognise—I speak for myself—that the formation of this new united Government coincides with the time when, quite fully plainly, irrevocably, the ultimate issues which many of us have discerned to lie behind this combat of nations are made plain. There was a time, when war seemed possible, even when it had first been declared, when there were many who doubted whether the clearly moral issue had been established—many who were so convinced of the utter futility of war that it seemed likely to do more harm to Europe than good to encourage the prosecution of it. There were some who thought that even then it might be possible to negotiate terms of peace with the German Government. All these possibilities are now by this ruthless, fourfold invasion of peaceful nations, cast to the winds.

There can be no sort of doubt that, as the noble Viscount has so clearly said, it has now been made abundantly plain that there is a force at work in Europe, strong, ruthless, determined, with which any principles of the moral ordering of men's affairs can have no possible terms. In these circumstances it must necessarily be a great satisfaction to know that through the re-formation of the Government the unity of the nation will be so far as possible secured. It is not for me to make any comments on these changes. They bring to me many personal regrets but, if I may say so, among these regrets there is one element of satisfaction, that it enables me to welcome my lifelong friend who now adorns the Woolsack in your Lordships' House. If this Government can, as we trust it may, secure the unity of the whole nation at this most critical time, those whom I represent will, I am sure, cordially support the Resolution which the noble Viscount has moved. Will your Lordships forgive me if I add one other word in which I would express what I think lies deeply in the hearts of many of your Lordships, that in view of the quite tremendous responsibilities at this fateful hour in the history of our country and of Europe which have been entrusted to His Majesty's new Government, we pray that they may receive from the Divine Spirit who moves behind all these confused issues in full measure the gift of counsel and of strength.

3.49 p.m.

My Lords, perhaps it would not be out of place for one of your Lordships who is not in any official position in your Lordships' House to add one word. Let me in the first place re-echo all that was said by the noble Marquess just now of the gratitude which we feel to my noble friend Lord Stanhope, who has so recently led the House with such skill and such universal favour. We are very grateful to him, as we are to all his colleagues. And may I say also that we are very grateful to the noble Lord who acted as Leader of the Opposition? He seems to feel a little uncomfortable at not knowing whether he is in opposition or not, but may I assure him that as far as the estimation of your Lordships' House is concerned it makes no difference? We have learned to appreciate not only his eloquence but his generosity, and we are quite certain that, in whatever quarter of the House he sits or with whatever official or semi-official dignity he is clothed, he will always be welcomed and listened to with profound respect.

These are dreadful times, my Lords, and I do not think that the depth of the feeling has been brought home to me so much before as by the speech which my noble friend the Foreign Secretary has just delivered. I think perhaps, in all the horrors of the time, it is at any rate some satisfaction to know that the people of this country are appreciating to the full the emergency in which we stand. This is no occasion for boastful speech. There cannot be a doubt that we are up against a very difficult and dangerous position. They are words like those delivered by the Foreign Secretary just now which are most wanted to nerve us for the struggle. I need not say that I am immensely grateful to him and that it is one, perhaps almost the greatest, satisfaction to be drawn from these present changes that at any rate we shall still continue to be guided and encouraged by my noble friend in his great office.

I do not think this is an occasion on which to say many words. Of course I welcome—indeed, everybody welcomes—the formation of an all-Party Government. That was what was evidently quite essential in the situation. But I think a special word of deep gratitude must be paid to my right honourable friend Mr. Churchill for his wonderful power of resource and vigour in being able to form a Government so rapidly and with, as I believe, such success at so critical a moment. I do not suppose it has ever fallen to the lot of a Prime Minister to have to form his Government in such circumstances as the present. Mr. Churchill, of course, has great advantages. He has immense experience and most notably in the field of war. I think that in the course of his career he has held almost every office which has to do with the Services. There is no part of the machine of war, and of what is necessary to make successful war, with which he has not made himself familiar; and he combines that great experience with an energy and an enterprise which I am sure will react upon all sections of the people and are the best augury for the conclusion of these dreadful operations. We are very very grateful, of course, to my noble friends the outgoing Ministers for all their work. We are quite sure that their work for the country has not come to an end. We know that we cannot do without their help over and over again in the course of our future history; but for the moment we welcome the all-Party Government and we wish it the best and greatest of success.

3.55 p.m.

My Lords, before I say a word or two on the Resolution, may I be permitted to welcome the new Ministers and the new Government here this afternoon; particularly, as a lawyer and as an old friend and colleague, the Lord Chancellor to the Woolsack? And let me join in the regrets which all your Lordships must feel that the retiring Ministers will no longer be able to assist us in an official capacity, although doubtless they will continue their help in the same measure and degree that they always have done. It is an honour and a privilege to support this Motion. Let no one be downcast or dismayed. We have a good cause, we have stout hearts and we have loyal leaders. Great Britain has passed through days more dangerous and more difficult than the present ones, but, unshaken and unterrified, she has been the home of justice, the supporter of the weak and a refuge for the oppressed. This war will not last for ever. Doubtless we shall see changes, but one thing will continue. Our fathers, by their courage, by their steadfastness and by their endurance have handed down to us a great empire and a great civilisation. Let us, my Lords, by our courage, our steadfastness and our endurance uphold and maintain it.

3.57 p.m.

My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed three sentences to thank those who have been so much too generous to me in what they have said as regards the services I have rendered to this House. I am well aware of many failings, but I am also aware that anything that has been said as regards the success of my work here is very largely due to the splended assistance that I was given as Leader of the House, and to the unfailing help and kindness I received from all your Lordships and from the officers of this House, and it is to that, far more than to anything that I have done, that praise must be given. Indeed, so generous was the praise that I began to think I was listening to my own obituary notice. But I may say that there is still a great deal of the old Adam left in me—it may be because I am half Irish—and therefore I am not prepared to give a pledge that I shall not perhaps criticise this or any other Government. But I will say this, that once more, as a private member of this House, I shall do my very best, as I have done in the past, to serve the State and to serve your Lordships' House, and if in this crisis I can do anything to help in any way, my services will be at the disposal of the future Leader of this House.

May I say one thing in conclusion as a layman? The most reverend Primate referred to the guidance that we all hope this Government will have from above. We are assembling in the midst of Whitsuntide, a time when those in Christian countries think above all else of guidance from the Holy Spirit. May it be that that comes in full measure on this Government so that we may be guided through all our trials and difficulties and dangers—and they are going to be many in the coming months—and may it be that they will be able to lead us to complete and lasting victory, and that, I hope, at not too distant a date.

On Question, motion agreed to, nemine contradicente.

Speaker Of The House

acquainted the House that His Majesty had (by Commission) revoked certain Letters Patent and had appointed the Chairman of Committees for the time being, the Earl of Donoughmore (formerly Chairman of Committees), the Earl of Onslow (now Chairman of Committees), any person who shall have been Chairman of Committees (such person taking precedence by reference to the date of his appointment to that office), the Lord Denman, the Earl of Granard, the Lord Stanmore, the Earl of Clarendon, the Earl of Plymouth, the Viscount Hailsham, the Earl of Lucan, the Viscount Mersey, the Viscount Sankey, the Viscount Maugham, the Viscount Caldecote, the Lord Strabolgi, the Lord Templemore, and the Lord Atkin, Speakers of the House in the absence of the Lord Chancellor.

Business Of The House

4 p.m.

My Lords, are His Majesty's Government able to say anything about the future business of the House?

My Lords, I do not think I can say anything except that on the Motion for the adjournment I should propose, with your Lordships' permission, to move that the House should adjourn until Tuesday of next week, unless recalled earlier, when it is proposed to take the business that appears on your Lordships' Paper.

House adjourned at one minute past four o'clock.