London Letter

Curtain call on the "fateful parliament"

BEVERLEY BAXTER September 26 1959
London Letter

Curtain call on the "fateful parliament"

BEVERLEY BAXTER September 26 1959

Curtain call on the "fateful parliament"

London Letter


The debate came to an end and from the government front bench came the familiar words: “I move that this House do now adjourn.” The electric bells rang through the corridors as the policeman in the public lobby shouted the ancient cry: “Who goes home?” This means that if any of us are fearful of the populace outside we can have a police escort.

On this last night of the session the policeman’s shout and the ringing of the bells had a special meaning. It was in effect the end of this parliament which had been elected in 1955, for when we return from the long vacation it will be merely to declare the dissolution and plunge into the general election.

For those of us who have been parliamentarians for a long time there are little tragedies and sorrows which are inseparable from the passing of a parliament. This time there is the loud-voiced goodlooking policeman who stands guard over our cars in Palace Yard and presses the bell which informs the taxis in the swirling traffic of Parliament Square that a member wants a cab.

On this last night the cheery policeman’s voice was strangely subdued, and there was no smile on his face as we wished him good

night. He had reached the age of retirement and was parting with six hundred friends.

In the members’ dining room there was a pretty waitress who is no longer young, but her humor and her knowledge of every MP’s oddities in the matter of food and drink made her our counselor and friend. If any of us were on a diet she knew exactly what was good and what was bad for us. If a particular table was in high spirits she served the meal as if it were all a lark. If we were subdued or noisily argumentative she treated us like naughty schoolboys.

She was a friend alike to the veteran and the new boy.

Forgive me if I confess to being genuinely touched when on the last night she said good - bye. “You were never cross with me at the table,” she said. I hope it is true.

Then there is the parliamentary hairdresser, in other words the barber. Time and again he has seen his client leap from the chair as the division bells ring and hurriedly wipe the soap from his cheeks. This man is more than a barber. Often he has soothed tempers when a waiting Socialist and a waiting Tory engaged in fierce controversy.

But our barber’s time in Parliament has continued on page 75

continued on page 75

Three leading men who played star roles in the four-year drama

After years of waiting in the wings, Eden succeeded to the premiership but then broke his health and his career on the flinty issue of Suez. Surprise successor Macmillan thawed the cold war by his visit to Russia.

Continued from page 12

come to an end. Never again will he preside over those impromptu debates in his shop or unpack our suitcases in an adjoining room when we have to change to evening dress for some special occasion.

Now, on the larger stage, what will be the verdict on this parliament which has now run its course? What name will history give to it? It might well be called the Parliament of Climax and Anti-Climax. The ultimate historian may decide that it was the Fateful Parliament.

In April 1955, Sir Winston Churchill went to Buckingham Palace and asked the Queen to relieve him of the premiership. There need be no suspicion that her expression of deep regret was a mere automatic act of courtesy. All through his premiership Churchill had maintained close contact with Her Majesty and always consulted her in matters of senior appointments. Their affection was mutual.

According to custom the Queen asked Churchill whom he would suggest as his successor, and there was no hesitation on Churchill’s part. “Your Majesty,” he said, '1 recommend that you send for Sir Anthony Eden.” Lord Salisbury, as Leader of the Tory party in the Lords, concurred. Thus was Eden summoned to the palace, where he became the prime minister — Her Majesty’s first servant of state.

Churchill vs. Salisbury

There was universal sorrow at the resignation of Churchill but there was an immense wave of good feeling toward Eden, the new' prime minister. A brave soldier in World War I, the elegant ambassador of good will who journeyed to countries that had been ravaged by the Kaiser’s war, a brilliant foreign secretary in the second war and the second peace.

Hardly had he reached home from the palace and arranged to move to No. 10 Downing Street when he announced a general election. He was returned triumphantly to power as a man who had critics but no enemies.

But the malignant fates and the midnight hags of ill-fortune had wearied of Prince Charming. He had been in office less than two years w'hen the Suez crisis broke upon his government. Here was an issue of such violence that it would have tested the stamina of the most robust. Unhappily, Eden was anything but that. He was a sick man whose body could no longer sustain his ardent spirit.

We need not linger on the attacks he Mad to meet nor need we debate the rights and wrongs of Suez. It is sufficient to say that Eden came under the orders of his medical advisers who told him that he must choose between his office and death.

So he went once more to Buckingham Palace w'here only a short 21 months before he had become prime minister. Eden had entered the twilight of the gods.

Once more Her Majesty had to choose lier chief minister of state, and once more adhering to protocol she summoned tne Marquis of Salisbury, the head of the

mighty family of Cecils and leader of the conservative party in the House of Lords.

"I ask you to advise me on the successor of Sir Anthony Eden.” said the Queen.

Without hesitation the head of the Cecils said: "I advise you. Ma’am, to send for Mr. Butler.”

Nor need there be any doubt that Salisbury made a strong case for his nominee. R. A. Butler, and was confident that the writ of the Cecils w'ould prevail.

And it u'as just there that the Queen decided to play more than a mere auto-

matic. traditional role. Against all protocol she sent for Sir Winston Churchill who no longer held any position of authority and technically had no more right than any other MP to advise Her Majesty.

I have no knowledge whatsoever of what happened at that secret discussion at the palace — but it is easy to guess. The mighty Churchill, whose family glory comes down in a straight line from the Duke of Marlborough, had come into direct conflict with the Cecil family, who had more or less governed Britain from

the days of the first Queen Elizabeth.

The newspapers, next morning, said Churchill had persuaded the Queen to send for Harold Macmillan. Later Salisbury resigned the leadership of the House of Lords.

The King is dead! Long live the King! Eden had retired to the realm of twilight, and Salisbury was sunk without trace. Macmillan went to the palace, kissed hands and came away Prime Minister.

At last we felt that with the fierce drama of successorship at an end we could get down to the business of looking

after the nation’s affairs. The only doubt in our minds was whether Macmillan had the qualities which supreme office demands. He had been a remarkably successful Minister of Housing but had a brief and unimpressive career as foreign secretary.

It was not long before the test came in a most dramatic form.

Macmillan had announced that he was about to make a tour around the commonwealth so as to make personal contact with the governments of the commonwealth and empire. Bul as the time of departure was imminent he was faced with a direct challenge by Peter Thorneycroft, the chancellor of the exchequer, and the two junior finance ministers.

Thorneycroft had decided to make a cut in the national contribution to the welfare state, and according to custom he had revealed his plans to the prime minister. "I cannot accept it,” said Macmillan. or words to that effect. "The saving is not important enough to justify the irritation and discouragement that would come out of it.”

Whereupon the youthful chancellor resigned and so did his two junior ministers. Definitely, Macmillan was on the spot. Here was a crisis which might well bring down the government.

Would Macmillan cancel his tour? The wise boys said that the question answered itself. No prime minister, not even an inexperienced one, would take wing in such a situation and fly to distant scenes. They were wrong. Macmillan is not only a man of courage but he also possesses a high sense of showmanship.

Sharp on schedule he soared into the skies and was off to distant scenes. But before he went he made the surprise appointment of the almost unknown Heathcoat Amory as chancellor of the exchequer. Macmillan was not only prime minister and leader of the Tory party — he was the boss.

As the months passed Macmillan was so daring and so much the boss that he won the nickname “ Mac Wonder.”

But that was not all. Against considerable opposition he went to Moscow. For the first time it seemed possible that the free world and the Communist world could live side by side even if both of them slept with a bomb beneath their pillows.

And then for no particular reason the British parliament became à weary and even boring assembly. Perhaps it was because we had passed all necessary legislation and there really was not enough work to do. Even the public gallery ceased to hold its attendance. Canadian and Australian visitors in the public gallery looked down on us and wondered what we were talking about — and why.

"If this continues," said a wag in the smoke room, "we’ll have to take the show off."

Yet this strange parliament rose to greatness at the very end. The debate on the report of the Nyasaland rioting brought a tremendous two-day struggle in which brilliance, controversy and eloquence lit the chamber with a splendid glow.

So we come back to our beginning. What name shall we fasten upon this particular Parliament which has entered upon its sunset?

1 believe that for all its faults and its boredom it will be known as the Fateful Parliament. It was strong when strength was needed. It brought conflicting world forces to recognize that nations of different political creeds can work and live together.

So let the bells ring and let us hear the sonorous shout: “Who goes home?” it