London Letter

What the weather does to Englishmen

BEVERLEY BAXTER February 28 1959
London Letter

What the weather does to Englishmen

BEVERLEY BAXTER February 28 1959

London Letter

What the weather does to Englishmen

BEVERLEY BAXTER

The giant pear tree in my garden is like a skeleton with a dozen wrinkled arms. A solitary sparrow twitters to itself and then flies away into the overhanging mist. The people on the street walk quickly with their coat collars turned up to protect them from the wind which slaps at their faces like a wet rag.

What have the morning newspapers to tell us? Here are some actual quotes from the newspaper which lies on my writing desk: “Liverpool air pollution from the fogs was ten times the normal amount and could be fatal to chest sufferers.” — Medical Officer of Health.

“We have had so many reports of minor road crashes that we have stopped counting them.”— Automobile Association Official. “The blizzards which swept across southwest England and South Wales turned beauty spots into Arctic wastes.” — Royal Automobile Club.

“Villagers at Braemore, Caithness, who have been isolated for 13 days by snowdrifts, in places 15 to 20 feet high, cheered yesterday as three men broke through the final barrier bringing urgently needed foodstuffs. One of the men said: ‘Conditions were atrocious and we had to struggle our way up to our waists in drifts so deep that our heads touched the telegraph wires.’ ”

I am aware that this may seem a mere nothing to Our Lady of the Snows but the British, unlike the Canadians, are as unprepared for a snowy winter as they are for a drought in summer.

However, my purpose in giving you this weather report is not to chill you to the bone, nor even to invite your sympathy, but merely to explain how the weather affects the British people.

It is both a psychological and physiological fact that by the time February is well on its way the patience of the British is exhausted. Anything may happen and usually it does.

Therefore we were not surprised when Lord Altrincham, known affectionately as “The Pipsqueak Peer,” erupted again. You may or you may not remember that he and the youthful Lord Londonderry once took it upon themselves to criticize the Queen.

On that occasion Lord Londonderry’s grandmother gave her grandson “wot for not ’arf” and he has never been heard of since, but nothing can suppress Lord Altrincham. Headlines attract him like a purple sin. Only a short time ago he opened fire on the Archbishop of Canterbury, as the head of the Anglican Church, using a Birmingham newspaper as his medium. Full of reforming zeal Lord Altrincham wrote that if he

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“May the gods forgive me but I suspect that even Mr. Diefenbaker is guilty of ambition”

were the archbishop he would arrange for misfit parsons to be more easily removable, for the Church Assembly to be more representative of ordinary churchgoers and that Anglicanism should become more like a form of Gandhi-style Christianity.

“The present state of the Church of England,” he wrote, “is surely rather laughable. It resists the authoritarian claims of the papacy, and its clergy get very hot under their dog collars if the Pope propounds some new and highly indigestible dogma.”

Then with a final fling: “Most English parsons are much happier talking about a test match than about the Resurrection." After which our lordly Pierrot prances ofT the stage with a coquettish glance at the gallery. Accepting a few claps as an encore he prances again on the stage and in a few short, well-chosen words declares that he would like to see marriages between the Royal Family and people of different race or even color.”

Hardly had Lord Altrincham finished his pas seul when the noble Earl Attlee, Knight of the Garter, Privy Councillor, holder of the Order of Merit, and former prime minister, took it upon himself to bite the hand that fed him—and not only to bite but to chew it.

Filling his fountain pen with acid he proceeded to attack British politicians in general, and not merely on party lines. The medium he chose was the periodical Political Quarterly but quite rightly the newspapers lifted it and gave worldwide circulation to the diatribe.

The little coroneted left-wing bantam declares in the article that MPs are puffed up with self-importance, that we put private interests first, and that we are title seekers. Then, rather oddly, he admits that the majority of us are imbued with the incentive of service— some wholly so—and that a number of us are pure gold.

Warming to his task, yet anxious to maintain an air of fairness, the noble earl proceeds to explain that men are drawn to public life for motives that are not wholly detached from personal ambition. There are MPs, he says, who take up politics quite frankly to further private enterprises in which they are concerned. There are others who are there to serve big business in which they are directly concerned.

With a final swipe Lord Attlee declares that there are out-and-out careerists who have no settled convictions on anything but to creep and climb into the fold. He should have added that in the House of Lords you can have the glory without even bothering about the fold.

1 have always liked Clem Attlee and felt that his critics underestimated him, but 1 cannot understand the bitterness

with which he has turned on the British parliamentary system which made him prime minister and ultimately a coroneted peer. Nor did his favors end there. Using the prestige of his political background he has now become a newspaper commentator who is paid a very high fee for his contributions.

But let us look with clear appraising eyes at the charges made against Parliament and its elected members. Take first the accusation that many MPs are committed to support the cause of industries or a business in which they have a direct financial interest.

Actually there is a parliamentary ruling on that very point. Providing an MP declares to the House his private interest in the matter under debate he is not only welcomed for his close knowledge of the subject but often given priority in the debate.

If the subject under discussion involves a clash between, let us say, the trade unions and the employers, Mr. Speaker will deliberately call MPs from both sides of the House who have an intimate knowledge and even connection with the dispute. Let me repeat that these MPs must declare their interest before they begin their speech.

There was just such a clash when the Socialists were in power and debated the nationalization of the steel industry. Of course those MPs who were steel directors not only put their arguments before the House but automatically disclosed their private interest. In the same way any Socialist MP who had worked in a steel plant would be given priority in the debate over a Socialist MP from, say, East London.

The duty of Parliament is to govern the country and to ensure legislation that will benefit the nation generally. If

there are MPs who deliberately put their personal interests before that of the nation there is always the local party association which can demand an explanation and, if necessary, withdraw its support.

Now let us deal with the other charges made by Earl Attlee. He says that there are men in Parliament who are careerists. In the name of Beelzebub what does that mean? I never had any doubt that Harold Macmillan was ambitious. Nor did Winston Churchill or Lloyd George lack that same quality. May the gods forgive me but I suspect Mr. Diefenbaker is guilty of the same charge.

Is a man with a legal brain a careerist because he embraces the law as a profession? Is a designer of aircraft engines a careerist because he brings special training to his task? Was Shakespeare a careerist because he gave enchantment to words?

Does a man enter Parliament at Westminster because he dreams of being rewarded with a title? It might he said that Attlee took up politics because it was the only way he would ever acquire a title, but it would be a monstrous lie. He was a careerist in the best sense of the word and he rose to supreme office.

But when the time came for him to leave the House of Commons he found himself in the same dilemma as Ramsay MacDonald who, like Attlee, became a Labor prime minister. As it happened Stanley Baldwin went with MacDonald to proffer their retirement resignations to the King. Baldwin came back with an earldom, Ramsay MacDonald came back with nothing, which was his own decision.

On his return from the palace I asked MacDonald why he had not accepted an earldom. MacDonald was a vain

man in many ways but there was complete simplicity and sincerity in his reply to my question: “After all these years,” he said, “with the fisher folk of Lossiemouth calling me ‘Jaimie’ do you think I’m going to have them touching their caps and calling me ‘milord’?”

Clem Attlee would no doubt say that in his own case he accepted an earldom on retirement because that is the traditional honor bestowed upon a retiring prime minister—and why should a Socialist admit a lower status than a Conservative?

But just a minute. In accepting an earldom our one-time Labor prime minister brought into being no less than five courtesy titles in addition to his own. Mrs. Attlee became a countess, their son became Viscount Prestwood. and their three married daughters became Lady Gertie—Lady Mary—and Lady Helen—or whatever their first names and married names happen to be.

Again I offer no criticism because a man who has served as prime minister is entitled to the highest honors which the monarch can bestow. But if Earl Attlee chooses to denounce members of parliament in general as careerists and title chasers he must admit that he took away almost everything but the kitchen stove when he left the House of Commons.

These then are the charges which Earl Attlee has seen fit to make in print rather than on the floor of the House of Lords where such a reply would have been made as occurred to the peers who were present.

Attlee is not a physical coward — his service at Gallipoli proves that — and he is not a moral coward. But what can we say to a man who never attacked the House of Commons as an institution when he was one of its members, and never made a speech in the House of Lords urging that it should be changed into a senate which would admit into its membership both peers and commoners.

The only explanation seems to be the weather (which is simply vile) plus the strange English custom which makes them deride England and the English as though they were referring to some other country and some other race. Hence Lord Altrincham, the Pipsqueak Peer, and now the noble Earl Attlee who traveled from Putney to Gallipoli, to Limehouse, to the Commons, to Downing Street and to the House of Peers and now pronounces the last thrilling, pregnant line of the drama: “It stinks!”

As I said before the English—and I mean the English—love to decry the country that they love, especially when there is a raw east wind like the one today which is colder than charity, if