When Louis Spoke and Winnie Listened

Beverley Baxter April 16 1955

When Louis Spoke and Winnie Listened

Beverley Baxter April 16 1955

When Louis Spoke and Winnie Listened


HOW BIG is the City of London? Sorry, you are wrong. What is the population of the City of London? Twelve millions? Any advance on twelve millions? Dear, dear, dear! You could not be more wrong.

Forgive this somewhat didactic opening to my London Letter but as one who has normally an indifference to statistics I feel a glow of virtue in my special knowledge on this subject. The City of London is quite a tiny place, a mere seven hundred acres. You could put it into Toronto and hardly know it was there.

I am sorry to have to inform you that when night falls the City becomes almost uninhabited unless there is a banquet at the Guildhall or the Mansion House. Whereas in 1890 there was a night population of nearly forty thousand it has now dwindled to little more than four thousand.

Believe it or not; this small community used to send six MPs to Westminster. Then as the scythe of progress swung in its endless war on tradition the six were reduced to four, the four to two, and now it has no exclusive representation at all. In fact the City of London has been blended, for parliamentary purposes, into the constituency of Westminster.

But my Tory friend Sir Harold Webbe, because his seat contains the City, can sit on the Government front bench at the opening of parliament whether he is a supporter or an opponent of the Government.

All this is a preamble to the fact that a few weeks ago I received an official invitation to attend the Guildhall at eleven o’clock of the morning when Mr. Louis St. Laurent, Prime Minister of Canada, was to have the Freedom of the City of London bestowed on him. This meant that we would have to dress as if we were going to Ascot but it would be worth it.

The Guildhall was badly damaged when Hitler bombed it on that mad Saturday night in 1940. Hitler was an odd fish. Even the German Intelligence must have known that the City would be sparsely inhabited at night, and also that most of the buildings were antiquated and would have to be replaced in due course.

Fortunately the flames from the mad incendiary attack stopped just short of St. Paul’s. It was a matter of a few yards, almost a few feet, but the cross on Wren’s masterpiece seemed to hold the flames at bay as if to show that the Spirit could defy the very Devil.

When the war ended and the vast national rebuilding problem faced the British it was wisely decided that the Guildhall should be restored. That was a brave decision, and a wise decision. Tradition is a precious thing.

So we gathered to the Guildhall on this mild winter morning and were shown to our seats by gowned ushers carrying what seemed to be very long billiard cues. In fact they looked as if they had been playing a game and had been interrupted by our arrival.

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London Letter


When we lesser folk were in our places the Big Fellows began to arrive. Each one was duly announced and was then conducted by the senior billiards

player to the platform reserved for the stars. The Commonwealth Conference was on at the time so we had a chance to see most of its political leaders and to give them such measure of applause as our hearts and heads dictated.

That pensive, smiling, handsome mystic, Nehru, drew quite a round of approval. So did Sir Godfrey Huggins who has given his life to the Rhodesians. Mr. Holland was hailed enthusiastically because everybody likes New Zealanders, but it was burly, handsome Bob Menzies of Australia who received the biggest ovation.

I remember dining with him in London early in the war and asking him what was his majority. ‘‘You are looking at it,” he said, with a grim smile. It was literally true. His government had a majority of one, which is not enough.

I suggested that if he were defeated in Australia he ought to come to London and join the Conservative Party. He could become the great imperial figure at Westminster. London, and all Britain would acclaim him and, who knows?—he might rise to the leadership of the Tory Party. He loved London so much that on his periodic visits here he would wander I for miles in the highways and byways I of the great metropolis, happy to be alone in the vast companionship of the Baghdad of the West.

“My job is in Australia,” he said and went home to be defeated.

Well let us return to the Guildhall and the billiards players. Their game was nearly over. A few British cabinet ministers and their wives were shown to their seats with varying degrees of applause. And then there came a dramatic pause.

The British do this kind of thing magnificently. They have a sense of pageantry greater than that of the ancient Romans. Their timing is perfect. No one ever issues an order or a command. They have been doing it for centuries and they have nothing to learn from anybody.

Outside in the swirling, crazy streets of this ancient miniature city, omnibuses, motor cars, cyclists and pedestrians were crowding each other in the normal mad congestion, but the police saw to it that the official guests were given precedence over the taxpayers. And so, sharp on time, there appeared at the entrance of the hall the quiet, smiling Prime Minister of Canada.

The senior billiards player took a deep breath and in stentorian tones announced: “The Right Honorable

Louis Stephen St. Laurent, member of Her Majesty’s most excellent Privy Council, Learned Doctor of Law, Queen’s Counsel, Prime Minister of Canada.”

And as a mighty roar rose from the concourse those of us who were Canadians had something like a lump in our throats. We were proud of this man and we were proud of Canada.

So Mr. St. Laurent was conducted to the platform and duly welcomed by the Lord Mayor. The billiards players retreated to an obscure place and the big show was on.

Louis’ Joke Drew a Roar

In a felicitous speech the Lord Mayor, in his robes, paid tribute to the guest of honor. He said all the right things and showed that he either knew Canada pretty well or had swot-, ted up on the subject and, having welcomed this son of Canada (with his mixed Irish and French blood), the Lord Mayor duly bestowed on him the Freedom of the City of London, whereupon we all applauded loud and long.

But do not imagine that you can enjoy such a distinction without responsibilities. In solemn tones Mr. St. Laurent was informed that he must acquaint the authorities if he heard of any plots against the safety and the happiness of Her Majesty the Queen. Not only that but he must at once inform the Lord Mayor of any dirty work on foot to lessen the dignity and authority of the Corporation of the City of London. Mr. St. Laurent’s eyes twinkled hut his nod indicated that he would be on the lookout for any such rough stuff.

Then he rose to acknowledge the honor and there was a second ovation. Now the test had come. Oratory is not always the attribute of Canadians. R. B. Bennett was sonorous and logical but he lacked the magic of language. Mackenzie King was as shrewd as Mazarin but his voice was thin. I don’t know about Sir John A. Macdonald but he must have been an effective speaker to have dominated his generation so successfully.

I never heard Sir Wilfrid Laurier speak but he was undoubtedly an orator of great persuasive quality. Now in the Guildhall the assembly waited to hear the attractive French-Canadían accent of Monsieur St. Laurent.

But there was no such accent. Mr. St. Laurent spoke with what might be called a soft Ontario enunciation. He had no tricks. He had no Churchillian asides. He made no ladder of words on which to climb to glory. Yet he scored neatly when, after describing the long struggle between the French and the British, he said: “After a time

they decided on a device not, I believe, unknown in the City of London. They amalgamated.”

That could not have been better, for of course the City of London is the centre of the banking, shipping, insurance and finance houses. A roar of appreciative laughter swept the Guildhall.

Soon we began to see why this quiet, sincere man had become the first citizen of Canada without intent or planning. Men of great ability in politics have striven through the arid years for such a prize only to find that their fingers could not reach it. Even Winston Churchill with all his gifts would never have been Prime Minister if Hitler had not bombed him into Downing Street.

Mr. St. Laurent did not want office and never sought it. As a lawyer he had risen to the top of his profession and was looking forward to the autumnal ease of a happy and successful life. But the war was on and the powers of Mackenzie King were waning. No doubt Mr. King said to him: “I need you. Canada needs you. The world needs you.”

Therefore the political novice joined the harassed, weary war cabinet. Listening to him at the Guildhall it needed no great gift of imagination to understand how his clear, unsullied mind and his quiet strength of character must have brought a new strength to Mr. King’s government. He wanted nothing and therefore lie was given everything. Other fine men in that cabinet had taken the brawling of the hustings and the arid heat of a long war but his spirit was untouched by the feuds and the strain of political life.

I do not doubt that there was resentment toward him in the cabinet — unless Canadian politicians are selfless and without personal ambition —but there could never have been personal dislike. The man of character and mind who wants nothing is always a formidable figure.

Thus, although a political novice, he succeeded to the premiership. It is an astonishing story. Perhaps he felt like Bonar Law who, after being made leader of the British Conservative Party, drove to parliament with Lord Beaverbrook. “Now you are a great man,” said the Beaver. Bonar Law’s eyes twinkled. “If that is so,” he said, “then all the great men in history were frauds.”

I do not believe that Mr. St. Laurent was the only one who could have led Canada in the closing stages of the war and the stormy years of war’s aftermath. George Drew has splendid qualities of leadership, and in Britain we not only believe in him but we like him.

Forgive me for this excursion. At any rate Mr. St. Laurent has now concluded his Guildhall speech to great applause and the gathering duly breaks up because we have to stroll or drive to the Mansion House where the City of London is going to give its new Freeman a bang-up luncheon.

Churchill, who was not at the first function, was present at the luncheon but with commendable delicacy he did not speak. Instead he looked as rubicund as a baby who had illicitly eaten ten lollipops.

Once more Mr. St. Laurent had to enter the oratorical lists, and once more he was excellent. His voice has more notes than we had first thought, and he

was completely at ease. Full as we were of sherry, champagne and port we applauded loudly, but we would have done the same if they had served us water.

With a couple of my parliamentary friends I walked to the House of Commons along the Embankment and we discussed the mysticism of the British who established sway over so many parts of the world by reconciling the irreconcilable. We had been honoring a man of Irish and French background who had come to the Commonwealth Conference as Prime Minister of a

mighty dominion. Yet Ireland’s status of a republic had evolved through years of hatred and violence. France and Britain had fought in Europe through the ages, and the battle had spread to Canada. Yet here as the honored guest of the City of London was an IrishFrench Canadian as Canada’s Prime Minister.

And listening to him was Mr. Nehru who fought for India’s independence beside the saintly Gandhi. They won their struggle, and having won, here is Nehru sitting in conference with the other Prime Ministers of the Common-

wealth. Empires rise and fall—but the British Empire, no matter how we change its title, goes on and on.

Nor was I entirely without a local pride in all these doings for I am a Liveryman of a City Company and have been told that within the narrow precincts of the ancient City I cannot be arrested for drunkenness and, if I so desire, I can wear it bayonet.

It may or may not be true, but if I see a bayonet going cheap, and if there are many more luncheons like the one to Mr. St. Laurent, I might put the matter to the test. if