FIVE days of fog ... no sun, no moon, and no sign of lifting. It, is uncanny to hear the heartbeat of London slow down until it, seems as if it might stop altogether. At night there are strange cries at the crossroads as if from slaves being smuggled down the river. The engines of the cars and omnibuses growl but the sound does not pass on. Mankind which can split the atom and hurl a rocket 2,000 miles against its target is unable tx> disjrel a fog or prevent t he common cold.
At Southampton the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth and the Aquitania, the three largest ocean liners in the world, aro unable to leave harbor. Trains crawl across the country and arrive hours late.
In the West End actors play to half-filled theatres, while all day long the box-office telephones ring with cancellations.
Last night I left the House of Commons with the amiable intention of picking up my car in Palace Yard and driving home. It was difficult enough to find the car: it would have been almost impossible to get it out the gates and past the Abbey. With the adaptability of the British, attendants were putting in emergency beds in committee rooms for M.P.’s who could not get home. However, I decided to use the Underground and get as near my home as possible and then grope the rest of the way.
Yesterday I prowled through the fog to listen to the evidence at the tribunal enquiry into the alleged bribery and corruption of public servants.
How dramatic can be the association of events! Church House, where the tribunal is sitting, is just beyond Westminster Abbey in the ancient quadrangle of Dean’s Yard. Here is a modern building given over to the managerial activities of the Church of England with a large conference chamber. When I entered the chamber there were three judges at their table on the platform, a witness being grueled by an array of
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counsel, the tragic figure of John Belcher, the undersecretary of the Board of Trade, a platoon of witnesses waiting their call, an entire company of newspapermen and a dense crowd of spectators. The corruption hunt was on !
Eight years ago on a Monday morning we gathered at the gates of Palace Yard and saw the ruins of the House of Commons which had been destroyed by bombs on the Saturday night. “Church House, Dean’s Yard, gentlemen,” announced the imperturbable attendants. Hitler had certainly destroyed our House but he was not to be allowed to interrupt the age-long story of the British Parliament. So off we went to Dean’s Yard and eventually ended up in the Conference Room to find an extemporized Speaker’s chair, the clerk’s table, the benches arranged along the sides and facing each other. So there entered the Speaker, with the Sergeant-atArms carrying the mace which had been put away in a place of safety, and we heard the chaplain pray for God’s blessing on our deliberations.
There we sat day after day with the Battle of the Air raging intermittently over our heads while Churchill’s voice rang out against the enemy who seemed to have us by the throat. It was there that we saw the fury of the Battle of London subside. It was there that we heard the news that the Bismarck had been winged. Not long afterward we moved back to Westminster and took over the Debating Chamber of the House of Lords where we sit today, although our new House will be ready in another year or so.
Eight years after those events I made my way once more to Dean’s Yard, not to take part in a glorious resistance against an evil enemy, but to listen to a story of intrigue and debasement.
Yet as I listened to the thrust of the Attorney-General’s brilliant, inquisitorial mind and watched the witness twist and turn, my mind again went back to a day in the House of Commons in 1936 when J. H. Thomas and Sir Alfred Butt were compelled to resign from the House of Commons because of a budget-leakage scandal.
Each of them made his statement to the House—Jimmie Thomas, with his misplaced aitches which had helped toward his popularity, and the rich Sir Alfred Butt declaring his innocence. Then they withdrew never to set foot again in the House where they had both made so much of their careers.
When they had gone, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin summed up the events in words which gripped us in a silence that was painful.
How to Get Trapped
First he said that the two M.P.’s had taken the only possible course in resigning. An independent tribunal of enquiry had definitely established that Mr. Thomas had imparted budget secrets to Sir Alfred as well as others, alt hough whether or not they had acted upon this knowledge was not proved.
“They have paid a terrible price,” said Baldwin. “But which one of us in this House could say that if all our private papers were exposed to the merciless glare of a tribunal there would be nothing that we would wish to conceal?” There was a muttered murmur of assent. Baldwin was not going to play the Pharisee or let us play it either.
Remembering this I found myself in considerable opposition to the whole business of the present enquiry at I
Church House. Briefly this is its origin. For some time stories were circulating that certain enterprising citizens were boasting that, for a consideration, they could secure licenses for imports or general supplies from the Board of Trade. One man named Stanley was the most brazen of these gentlemen. In fact he went so far that eventually complaints were made and the Lord Chancellor advised the Government to set up a judicial tribunal of enquiry.
Now this sounds excellent and eminently fair. No one is charged with any crime, and what has any honest man to fear from being questioned? Unhappily this is not how it works out. Since I am fortunate enough not to be involved in any way with the present investigations, I shall try to show how quite easily and innocently I could have been drawn into it and my name blackened merely by the association.
Supposing some financier of repute writes me a letter saying that he is giving a luncheon in a private room at the Savoy Hotel where he wants to explain to me and one or two other public men some of the problems confronting exporters today. Well, one of the duties of an M.P. is to listen to complaints and learn about existing problems. So I accept the invitation.
One of the half-dozen guests is this Mr. Stanley. He is obviously the host, while the financier is the stooge. On the other hand they want to do business (which is not a crime) and they find it hard to get import licenses (which is no surprise). The wines are expensive at the lunch, and when Mr. Stanley finds that I like a cigar he shoves three of them into the breast pocket of my jacket. I don’t want his cigars any more than his wine but what does it matter? If it is true that every man has his price (although I do not agree) then three cigars are not mine.
Let us assume that toward the end of the lunch we are joined by John Belcher, the undersecretary of the Board of Trade. As a member of the Opposition I might then say, having no responsibility whatever for the virtues or the sins of the Government:
“Belcher, I hear that your department is holding up these gentlemen from increasing their production.’’
Having rid myself of that ponderous remark I then take leave and walk along the embankment to the House of Commons, vowing for the 1,000th time that I am never going to any such lunches again.
Baxter on the Griddle
Then comes the bombshell! The tribunal is set up, with Belcher and Stanley as the two principal figures. In course of time I receive a courteous but firm request to attend and give evidence. I enter the box and Sir Hartley Shawcross, the Attorney-General, picks up a file of papers and very courteously asks me if I entered Parliament in 1935, etc. Then something like this takes place.
Q: Did you receive an invitation
to lunch at a private room at the Savoy?
Q: No doubt from a friend of yours?
Q: Well, then, an acquaintance?
Q: Do you mean to inform the
tribunal that a busy man like yourself gets an invitation from a complete stranger and you accept it?
A: Every member of Parliament
knows . . .
Q: Never mind what every member of Parliament knows (laughter). Just one will be enough.
A: I accepted the invitation because it seemed to be routine duty.
Q: Thank you. When you got to
the Savoy was there a Mr. Stanley there?
Q: Had you met him previously?
Q: So you had never met your host
or the principal guest?
A: I had never met either of them.
Q: Have you any idea why this
luncheon was held in a private room?
A: No. Unless it was thought that it would be easier for us to talk.
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Q: Or more difficult for others to
A: I don’t know.
Q: Well, at any rate it was held
in a private room. Were wines served?
Q: What wines, Mr. Baxter?
A: I can’t remember.
Q: Would you say a sherry, then
perhaps a Rhine wine or a claret and brandy to follow?
A: Something like that.
Q: Were there cigars?
Q: Were they good?
Q: Did the waiter serve you the cigar?
A: No. Mr. Stanley gave them to me out of his own case.
Q: Them? Did you smoke more than one?
A: I smoked only one, but he gave me three others.
Q: You knew, or suspected by that time, that Mr. Stanley was the man behind this luncheon, the man who wanted something from the Board of Trade, the man who was anxious to have the assistance of Mr. Beverley Baxter, a Conservative M.P.?
A: Yes, I gathered that.
Q: What does a good cigar cost?
A: Anything from eight to 15
Q: It must be an expensive habit.
A: I do not often smoke cigars at that price.
Q: Now, Mr. Baxter, I must ask
you another question. Did you meet Mr. Belcher at this luncheon?
A: Yes. He arrived toward the end.
Q: Can you remember exactly what you said to him?
A: Not exactly, no.
Q: Approximately then?
A: I said that Stanley wanted some I ¡censes from the Board of Trade.
Q: Is that all?
A: I think so.
Q: Try to remember.
A: I cannot think of anything else.
Q: Did you or did you not use these words: “I hear that your department
is holding up these gentlemen from increasing their production?”
A: I may have done so.
Q: Is it your opinion as a long-
established M.P. that in thus advising Mr. Belcher, who entered Parliament in 1945, you had performed the very task for which you had been invited?
A: I don’t know.
Q: Now, Mr. Baxter, I am going
to ask you a question which you need or need not answer. Were you born in Toronto?
A: I have no memory of the event
but there is evidence that I was.
Q: That is all, thank you.
* * *
I don’t want to be unfair to Sir Hartley Shawcross who, although a political opponent, is also something of a friend, and therefore I have tried to keep his supposed interrogation within reasonable limits of satire. Actually in the tribunal itself he has endeavored to prevent himself acting too much like a prosecutor.
Yet the mud sticks. By the time the public had read and discussed my evidence there would be a general feeling that I was rather a cheap crook, taking my pay in food, wine and cigars, but ready to take money if the opportunity occurred.
Many of us feel that the whole matter should have been placed in the hands of the police who would have decided whether or not there was a case for criminal prosecution. There may be criminal prosecutions as a result of the tribunal’s enquiry, but where could you now find a jury whose mind was uninfluenced by the evidence already published? As it is, several men of good character will suffer heavily for merely being mentioned.
* * *
The miracle has happened!
A blood-red sun, like an illuminated orange, has forced its way through the fog. Glory hallelujah! The fog is in sullen retreat but soon it will be a rout.
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