London Letter

Sir Winston Faces the Storm

Beverley Baxter January 15 1954
London Letter

Sir Winston Faces the Storm

Beverley Baxter January 15 1954

Sir Winston Faces the Storm

London Letter

Beverley Baxter

CONSIDERING the time of the year it was a lovely sunny day and I do not doubt that Sir Winston Churchill's spirits soared as he made the short journey from No. 10 Downing Street to the House of Commons.

The House was meeting at 2.30 p.m. as usual. There would be an hour for questions and ministerial replies, followed by a desultory debate on whether or not a humble address should be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Transitional Powers Act of 1945, about to expire, should he given a new lease on life for one year. It was just one of those bread-and-butter days when a good housekeeper tidies things up.

The only chance of any controversy lay in a group of questions put down to be answered by the parliamentary secretary for defense. There were seven of these questions altogether, six in the name of Tories and one from a Labour member. All of them wanted to know from the junior defense minister whether the small and aged group of retired regular officers —numbering a mere three hundred and fifty-

nine—were to have their pensions raised from the 1919 level on which they were still based.

To the surprise of the House Sir Winston rose when the questions were reached. “I have asked leave,” he said, “to reply to these questions myself and, with the permission of the House, I shall do so at the end of question time.”

An adroit fellow sitting beside me whispered: “Winston’s going to hand oui some

lollipops and wants to get the credit for it.”

The comment was not intended to be sardonic nor flattering. It was just the British House of Commons in its usual mood.

But when questions came to an end and Churchill rose there was no Father Christmas smile on his face. Obviously he was going to make an announcement that would bring thunder about his head. That was why he had taken the matter out of the hands of the junior minister. Churchill has his faults but running away from the storm is not one of them.

Quietly but firmly he expressed sympathy with the plight of this small group of pensioned ex-regular officers. He admitted that these military servants of the Crown, like their brothers in the civil service, were suffering

much hardship because of the failure of pen-

sions to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

“The Government,” said Churchill as he came to the end of his statement, “recognizes the hardship . . . but we have come to the conclusion that it would not be possible to treat this problem as a special case at a time when so many other demands are pressing.” Whereupon the storm broke.

Up jumped Sir Edward Keeling, a Tory and former mayor of the Borough of Westminster. Since it was still question time the MPs had to phrase their protests in the interrogatory form. “Is my Right Honorable friend aware,” demanded Keeling, “that his reply and the decision of the Government are wholly unacceptable on both sides of the House?”

Lt.-Col. Lipton, a ranker-officer ex-regular, asked from the Labour benches whether Churchill realized that he was creating the impression that he wanted to solve this problem by allowing a small and dwindling number of men to die out altogether? Not content with that cruel thrust Lipton asked: “In view of the very small amount of money

involved, will the Prime Minister not reconsider this very deplorable position?”

“Answer!” shouted a dozen voices. It was taken up by others on both sides. “Answer! Answer!” Churchill flushed angrily but made no attempt to rise. He was going to let the storm expend its fury before he tried to ride it.

Suddenly from his own ranks came not only a denunciation but a threat. Anthony Marlowe, QC, who sits for Brighton-on-Sea, declared that if Churchill did not alter his decision

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London Letter

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there were many Tories, including himself, who would refuse to vote for the service estimates.

This was something new. This was not only mutiny but rebellion. A government that could not carry its service estimates through would have to resign. It would mean there would be no pay for the regular forces nor the expenses of normal military requirements.

If the socialists had been wise they would have kept quiet and allowed the Tories to play the picador to their own hull. But in the excitement and the sense of drama our old friend Emanuel Shinwell could not keep quiet. After all he had been secretary of state for war in the Labour Government and he had a priority right to intervene.

Carefully he first, asked Churchill how much it would cost, to give the pensioned officers the increase that was being suggested. After the figures had been given, Shinwell asked if Churchill would not agree that so small a sum could hardly be regarded as substantial. Once more we heard the old plea that the baby was such a little one.

'Fliis was too much for Churchill. It is not in his nature to offer the other cheek but rather to return two blows for one, and he had been behaving with extraordinary self-control. For him of all people to be denounced as the exploiter of the helpless veteran officer! For him to hear that he was being callous, cynical and even cruel to his comrades in battle who had become the casualties of peace! Like Hitler, his patience was exhausted.

But still keeping his anger under control he rose and pointed his finger at Shinwell, taunting him and the socialists for this sudden sympathy for ex-officers. “I think it remarkable,” he shouted above the din, “that Mr. Shinwell in the long years in which he and his colleagues were in office, if they felt so strongly on the matter, did not deal with it themselves.”

But even that did not allay the storm which swept against the Prime Minister from both sides of the House. The unkindest cut came, like the thrust of Brutus against Caesar, from a gallant Tory war veteran named Brigadier Peto. “Are you aware,” shouted Peto, “that your answer today will be regarded by those few old officers who still survive, despite the cut, as a betrayal of the trust they have previously held in you?”

In the noise and excitement Peto had forgotten the rule of the House that an MP of whatever rank must be referred to in the third person and not in the first.

The astonishing thing is that Churchill kept his temper. No one doubted that he was deeply hurt. No one doubted that he was deeply resentful. But he would have been less than human if he had not risen to declare: “I was well aware that the answer I gave would not be received with satisfaction, and it was for that reason that I felt it. ought not to he given by a departmental minister but by someone speaking with the authority of Her Majesty’s Government.”

Just for the moment the tempest lessened. We are a strange lot in the British House of Commons hut as a unit we have a swift generosity that can extend at times even to our opponents. We realized that Churchill had deliberately gone to the storm centre although there was no logical reason why the junior minister should not have taken the brunt of the attack.

But, cruelly—-and I think too cruelly

—it was left to young Major LeggeBourke to drive home the knife. “May I ask the Right Honorable gentleman . .

To the public that is quite harmless. To the people in the public galleries it meant nothing. But to those of us on the parliamentary benches it was the very refinement of rebellion. This, 1 agree, requires an explanation.

There are two kinds of MPs in all British political parties: the few who

are Privy Councilors become “My Right Honorable friend” to members of their own party, or “My Honorable friend” if they are just ordinary MPs. Within a party everyone on the floor of the House is a friend of one degree or the other, while in the enemy camp he is either the Honorable or Right Honorable gentleman.

Therefore Legge-Bourke’s reference to Churchill was one of calculated mutiny. He was addressing Churchill as one outside the party. The Labour members spotted it at once.

Colonel Lipton sneered: “So the

Right Honorable and Gallant gentleman (Churchilll) is no longer the Honorable and Gallant gentleman’s friend now?”

I do not want to pose as a detached arbiter of such a scene. The tendency of a writer is always to retain a degree of detachment. Therefore, I did not join in the uproar for the simple but formidable reason that I could see something in both sides.

What Would You Answer?

Undoubtedly Churchill had referred these questions to Chancellor Rah Butler. If I knew that there had been such a conference I would not set it down in print, but simply as an observer of the political scene I assume that the matter was so discussed.

Again, pursuing the path of logic, I imagine that Butler said: “These

ex-officers have an undoubted claim upon us and if it were an isolated case I would grant their demands. But we must remember that we are the Conservative Party. If we selected this solitary example the socialists would shout that we only recognized the claims of the poor and underprivileged when they happen to belong to the officer class. It would make my deliberations with the trade unions more difficult and it would bring all sorts of claims of ex-civil servants, oldage pensioners, service pensioners and widows upon us. Hard as it is—and it has brought a row from our own chaps—we simply have to say that the recovery of the nation must be put before the claims of any section of the nation.”

Now I ask any reader of Maclean’s to say what he would answer if he were prime minister and if the chancellor of the exchequer put those arguments to him. I must go further and ask myself what my own attitude as a British MP should be.

I do not doubt the complete sincerity of any of my Tory colleagues who opened fire on Churchill. It takes considerable courage in a political party to attack your leader in the open. All my sympathies were with the little forgotten band of half-starved ex-officers living out a wretched, humiliating existence on something far worse than half-pay. Yet I found myself acutely conscious of Churchill’s position.

There is much hardship in Great Britain because we fought against Nazi Germany from the first day to the last and paid a terrible price in gold and blood. No one wants to be reminded of that—certainly not the U. S. A. and probably not the Commonwealth. The old actor who tells everyone that he

once played Hamlet is a bore.

But now we are carrying a new and heavy burden in the cause of Western defense. We have to compete economically against countries like the United States which never endured the direct destruction of war. We have to fight our way back in a world that is rather weary of our reminders that we were and are a great power.

Poor Churchill! Does anyone imagine that he begrudged the few paltry thousands of pounds that would have done justice to less than a battalion of ex-officers? But on a wide front, extended to the limit, a commande) cannot give way at any point. Thr.l was Churchill’s position.

Let me repeat that every MP must decide according to his conscience. Churchill was about to leave for Bermuda where he would meet, among others, the heads of the U. S. Government in conference. Was I to shout: “This man does not represent the Conservative Party! This man has shown himself unfit for leadership by his cruel treatment of ex-officers?”

Every heat of my heart is for the ex-officers. Every process of the mind says: “Do not lessen the prestige or

the authority of the man who is going to represent his nation in inter-allied conference.” I agree that there is nothing heroic in backing the leaders of one’s own party but that is exactly what I intend to do. If it brings sneers I do not care a tinker’s cuss.

Now I must knock off for a few hours because I must go to a secret meeting of the Conservative members of parliament where Eden and Butler, on behalf of Churchill, will face the rank and file of the party. Therefore, if you will forgive me 1 shall lay down my pen until later in the evening when I shall make such further report as the situation allows.

Midnight:

As you will understand, a party meeting—held behind closed doors— must he secret and therefore I cannot disclose what happened. It is sufficient to set down that neither Eden nor Butler overplayed their hands, and that most of the party realized that the problem was not so simple as it seemed the day before at question time.

I WONDER what there is about power that men reach for it like starving beggars for food. Churchill’s immortality is assured not only by his actions but because he has written the history of his time.

There are no glories to be added to his escutcheon, no new laurels for his brow. Yet from the pomp and panoply of war he is now engaged in the mundane business of trying to make the nation live on its earnings.

Thus in his eightieth year he faces trouble, disappointment, fatigue and the impatience even of his own supporters when something like this pension episode occurs.

It is harsh music when a prime minister hears the cry of “Shame!” from his own followers. But I must set down that on the following day he looked neither troubled nor revengeful.

Perhaps great men, like Wagner’s Brunnhilde, are protected by a sacred fire that no one else can see. ★

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