London Letter

Why Morrison won’t take his just reward

BEVERLEY BAXTER August 15 1959
London Letter

Why Morrison won’t take his just reward

BEVERLEY BAXTER August 15 1959

Why Morrison won’t take his just reward

London Letter


There are rules for everything in the British Parliament. Take for example the terrace, which is

much occupied by tourists just

now — especially those from Canada. At one end of the terrace

there is a short space with a warn-

ing sign that it is for the exclusive

use of Mr. Speaker. At the other || end there is another short space

reserved for peers. Finally there is || a special space for members of the || House of Commons.

But in the centre all can mingle || with all. including guests. That is the way the English do things. They have been at it for hundreds || of years, and the mere fact that

Mr. Speaker never walks in the Ü space reserved for him does not

f alter or reduce his rights.

| There are rules as well in the

ff members’ dining room where, of

course, no strangers can be ad!f milted. By custom there is a min-

| isterial table, and a whips’ table

f but with those two exceptions it

| is a free-for-all choice.

f Inevitably as we stroll into the

| dining room for the evening meal

we survey the scene with an apii praising eye to see where the most

| congenial company can be found

f and where the bores can be avoid-

H ed. On balance, however, there is

Ü not much fraternization of the

parties even at the dinner hour. Broadly speaking, Socialists dine with Socialists, and the Tories dine with each other.

All this is a preamble to a recent evening when I entered the dining room just before eight o'clock and saw Herbert Morrison dining alone at a table set for tw'o. He was obviously in a pensive mood which was understandable. On the previous day he had issued an announcement to the press that he would not contest the next election.

“Come and join me,” said Morrison, and gladly I sat down for dinner with one of the most amazing and significant men in the history of British politics.

"Why are you giving up the House?” I asked him when a waiter had brought us two glasses of the wine of Scotland. "What will you do with your evenings? Churchill is running again and he's over eighty. You are just seventy if I remember rightly.”

“Seventy-one,” said Morrison. “You shouldn't try to reduce my score.”

There was one subject which had always puzzled me, and because Morrison w>as in a wistful retrospective mood I asked him a question

continued on page 47

”1 was a stubborn chap,” Morrison says. He still is.

London Letter continued from page 10

For a devoted pacifist, Morrison was remarkably belligerent’

which had long been a mystery: “Why jn 1914 did you declare yourself a conscientious objector?”

(The reason for recalling so personal and so strange a moment in fiis career was to try and understand the motive behind it. As the son of a lowly paid London policeman he had lost the sight of one eye when he was a mere child because of an accident in his home. Therefore when he was called up for war service in 1914 he had merely to plead the loss of his eye to be declared unfit for military service.)

“I was a stubborn chap,” he said. “I guess that’s the reason.”

When the 1914 war broke out Morrison was a part-time secretary of the London Labor Party at a salary of one pound a week. "Rightly or wrongly,” he said, “I believed that it was an imperialistic war. They couldn't have called me up with just one eye in my head but I thought it would be cowardly to shirk military service on that count.”

Incidentally when he was summoned before the tribunal he refused to plead his physical disability. It is to the credit of the tribunal that they accepted his plea of conscience.

“If you had that moment with the tribunal to live over again,” 1 asked, "would you take the same decision?”

“That is a question I often put to myself,” he answered. “I'm not sure that I know the answer.”

Fate can be a cruel jester as well as a great benefactor. The one-eyed cockney was sent by the authorities to work for a market gardener in the rural district of Letchworth. There he met Margaret Kent, the pretty daughter of idealistic working-class parents. She liked hooks and especially she liked dancing. So did young Morrison. They married in 1919, when the world had returned to sanity. She encouraged him to enter local politics and with his usual energy and self-confidence he fought in the London County Council election and was certain that he would top the poll. That was a slight miscalculation — he was at the bottom.

Discouragement is never easy to take, not even in youth, but Morrison met it with a jest. "I was worried to death that I was really not fit to be a metropolitan councilor,” he told his friends. "From now on I won't worry about anything.”

In 1920 he became the mayor of Hackney, a borough of cast London. In 1923 he was elected the member of parliament for South Flackney. But also a year before he had become leader of the London County Council, which is the powerful body that controls the heart and centre of the greatest city in the world. In short Morrison was clearly a man of destiny.

Yet he had to face not merely the opposition of the Conservative party at all levels but also the conservative way of thought. To the financiers in the city it was preposterous that the London County Council should be led by a cockney jester instead of some dignified figure from the world of finance.

“I will show them that democracy can work,” snapped Morrison. The wrangle over the plan for rebuilding Waterloo Bridge had been going on for years. There were endless letters published in The Times protesting at the blasphemy

of the vulgarians who proposed to put efficiency before history and dignity.

The wrangle went on and on for years and then Morrison and all others who favored the new bridge were dealt a heavy blow. Having to choose between

a secure modern bridge and an historic but wobbly bridge which was actually a menace to life, Prime Minister Baldwin declared for the monument. In fact Baldwin was so determined that he decided to use his power under an act which

demanded parliamentary approval of loans to the county council.

"Very well!" snapped Morrison. “We Londoners will raise a special penny rate for five years and pay for the bridge ourselves. There is one thing certain. That new bridge will exist when Baldwin is forgotten.”

For a man who had chosen the pacific role of a conscientious objector in the war Morrison showed a remarkable belligerency. “Demolish the old bridge!” he ordered. "Bring in the new.”

There was a great outcry but the old

bridge proceeded to disappear and the new bridge slowly but relentlessly took form. Morrison had raised a special penny rate of two hundred and fifty thousand pounds a year for five years. His boast and his prophecy came true and the government at Westminster threw in the towel. Baldwin instructed his transport minister to announce that the government would agree to paÿ sixty percent of the cost of the new' bridge with public money.

By this time the Morrisons and their little daughter were living in a modest suburban home. And then came the great temptation.

A big commercial house offered a long-term job to Morrison at an annual salary of five thousand pounds. It may have been that private industry thought he would prove a good businessman. On the other hand, faced by the rising tide of socialism, they may have thought that there was no harm in having a friend in the socialist movement. But Morrison said "No!" Politics, not pounds, was his passion.

In 1923 when Morrison was elected to Parliament, a middle-class idealist from Wimbledon named Clement Attlee was elected at the same time for the salubrious constituency of Limehouse, also in London’s Hast Hnd.

It w'ould have seemed utter insanity at that time to predict that Attlee, the middle-class, comfortable, university graduate. would achieve the ultimate power in the Socialist party, and deny the political throne to Morrison.

A feud crowded him out

Now we must leap over the years with all their intense drama, confusion and vacillation to the end of the Hitler war. Churchill had led to victory a coalition which comprised the whole of parliament except for a very few cranks, dreamers and pacifists. Because of the war there had not been a general election since 1935. We were indeed a victorious but jaded parliament although Churchill’s star still glistened in the firmament. Or so we thought.

With the end of the Hitler war the great coalition was dissolved and the mighty Churchill was able to offer himself and the Conservative party to a grateful and victorious country. Grateful did I say? When the votes were counted Churchill and his victorious Tories had been swept to utter and humiliating defeat.

Who would head the newborn government when the Socialists took their seats at Westminster with so large a majority that we Tories were shoved into one small corner? The two outstanding Socialist leaders were Ernie Bevin and Herbert Morrison, but in the course of the war they had become inveterate enemies. It was their feud that had made possible the election of Attlee to the leadership. And also it was their feud which made Attlee the postwar premier after the grateful British public had kicked Churchill downstairs.

The crafty Attlee in the role of prime minister had a clever idea. With a magnanimity that nearly brought tears to the eyes of innocent people he appointed Morrison leader of the House. What an honor! What a culmination to a great career! But who or what is the leader of the House? He arranges the business, he answers questions, he winds up debates — and does exactly what the prime minister tells him.

Yet Morrison did not allow himself to become embittered. He spent endless hours and days training the new young

Socialist MPs to do their job. In addition he supplied ideas to Attlee, who was short in that department, and gave the grace of humor to our long-drawn debates. He also headed a mission to Canada and the U.S.A. and made a fine impression.

Then he fell ill. Like his enemy, Ernie Bevin, he was to find his body unequal to the demands of the mind. Even his Tory opponents sent messages of goodwill and encouragement to him.

And so to the general election of 1950. when the Socialists were staggered by an almost complete revulsion of the electorate. So catastrophically had their majority shrunk that Attlee could not introduce legislation with any certainty that it would be carried. He hung on for a year and then quite rightly announced that he would go to the country again and ask its verdict. This time the Socialists were swept out on a receding tide and Churchill, with his Tories, was carried to victory.

Attlee resigned his membership in the Commons and as a former prime minister was rewarded with an earldom. Hugh Gaitskell, to the chagrin of Aneurin Bevan. was elected to the role of party leader.

And what of Herbert Morrison? After a time he was relegated to the back benches which, to use a popular cliché, was where he came in. Never again would he speak from the dispatch box. Unless he goes to the Lords his splendid story will end when the next general election takes place.

“Will you take a life peerage?” I asked him as we sat and chatted in the dining room. Needless to say a man who held such high ministerial posts is automatically entitled to a life peerage or even a full peerage. But would the cockney policeman’s son end his days as Lord Morrison? Churchill refused the earldom that the Queen offered him; he wasn't going to lose his status as the greatest commoner in Britain’s history.

So what will Morrison do? I urged him to accept the situation and go to the Upper House where he w'ould strengthen the opposition and give the benefit of his great experience to the nation.

"1 can’t take a peerage,” he said quietly. “It just isn’t in my story.” ★