Since we last met, the House has suffered a very
grievous loss in the death of one of its most distinguished Members,
and of a statesman and public servant who, during the best part
of three memorable years, was first Minister of the Crown.
The fierce and bitter controversies which hung
around him in recent times were hushed by the news of his illness
and are silenced by his death. In paying a tribute of respect
and of regard to an eminent man who has been taken from us, no
one is obliged to alter the opinions which he has formed or expressed
upon issues which have become a part of history; but at the Lychgate
we may all pass our own conduct and our own judgments under a
searching review. It is not given to human beings, happily for
them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to
predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In
one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to
have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective
of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There
is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History
with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past,
trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle
with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth
of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only
shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions.
It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield,
because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and
the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however
the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.
It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the
supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be
disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a
wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed?
What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that
faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and
benevolent instincts of the human heart-the love of peace, the
toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even
at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity
or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these
terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain
acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove
to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful,
to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which
we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as
far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.
But it is also a help to our country and to our
whole Empire, and to our decent faithful way of living that, however
long the struggle may last, or however dark may be the clouds
which overhang our path, no future generation of English-speaking
folks-for that is the tribunal to which we appeal-will doubt that,
even at a great cost to ourselves in technical preparation, we
were guiltless of the bloodshed, terror and misery which have
engulfed so many lands and peoples, and yet seek new victims still.
Herr Hitler protests with frantic words and gestures that he has
only desired peace. What do these ravings and outpourings count
before the silence of Neville Chamberlain's tomb? Long, hard,
and hazardous years lie before us, but at least we entered upon
them united and with clean hearts.
I do not propose to give an appreciation of Neville
Chamberlain's life and character, but there were certain qualities
always admired in these Islands which he possessed in an altogether
exceptional degree. He had a physical and moral toughness of fibre
which enabled him all through his varied career to endure misfortune
and disappointment without being unduly discouraged or wearied.
He had a precision of mind and an aptitude for business which
raised him far above the ordinary levels of our generation. He
had a firmness of spirit which was not often elated by success,
seldom downcast by failure, and never swayed by panic. when, contrary
to all his hopes, beliefs and exertions, the war came upon him,
and when, as he himself said, all that he had worked for was shattered,
there was no man more resolved to pursue the unsought quarrel
to the death. The same qualities which made him one of the last
to enter the war, made him one of the last who would quit it before
the full victory of a righteous cause was won.
I had the singular experience of passing in a
day from being one of his most prominent opponents and critics
to being one of his principal lieutenants, and on another day
of passing from serving under him to become the head of a Government
of which, with perfect loyalty, he was content to be a member.
Such relationships are unusual in our public life. I have before
told the House how on the morrow of the Debate which in the early
days of May challenged his position, he declared to me and a few
other friends that only a National Government could face the storm
about to break upon us, and that if he were an obstacle to the
formation of such a Government, he would instantly retire. Thereafter,
he acted with that singleness of purpose and simplicity of conduct
which at all times, and especially in great times, ought to be
the ideal of us all.
When he returned to duty a few weeks after a
most severe operation, the bombardment
of London and of the seat of Government had begun. I was
a witness during that fortnight of his fortitude under the most
grievous and painful bodily afflictions, and I can testify that,
although physically only the wreck of a man, his nerve was unshaken
and his remarkable mental faculties unimpaired.
After he left the Government he refused all honours.
He would die like his father, plain Mr. Chamberlain. I sought
permission of the King, however, to have him supplied with the
Cabinet papers, and until a few days of his death he followed
our affairs with keenness, interest and tenacity. He met the approach
of death with a steady eye. If he grieved at all, it was that
he could not be a spectator of our victory; but I think he died
with the comfort of knowing that his country had, at least, turned
At this time our thoughts must pass to the gracious
and charming lady who shared his days of triumph and adversity
with a courage and quality the equal of his own. He was, like
his father and his brother Austen before him, a famous Member
of the House of Commons, and we here assembled this morning, Members
of all parties, without a single exception, feel that we do ourselves
and our country honour in saluting the memory of one whom Disraeli
would have called an "English worthy."