Chuter-Ede, James Chuter, Baron Chuter-Ede 1882-1965, parliamentarian, was born 11 September 1882 in Epsom, Surrey, the son of James Ede, a grocer, and his wife, Agnes Mary Chuter. He had one sister. He was educated at Epsom National Schools, Dorking High School, Battersea Pupil Teachers' Centre, and (with a scholarship) at Christ's College, Cambridge. However, the scholarship was insufficient to maintain himself, and he left without a degree. He became an assistant master in Surrey elementary schools until 1914. He was elected to the Epsom Urban District Council in 1908, becoming chairman of its electricity undertaking, and in 1914 he was elected to the Surrey County Council.
When war broke out in 1914 Ede enlisted in the armed forces, becoming a sergeant in the East Surreys and Royal Engineers. During the war his political views encouraged him to join the Labour Party; in 1918 he stood as Labour candidate for the newly formed division of Epsom. He was defeated, but five years later he became, briefly, MP for Mitcham, losing his seat the same year. He returned to Parliament in 1929, as Labour member for South Shields, a seat which he held until 1931, and thereafter from 1935 to 1964.
His first ministerial appointment was in the 1940-5 coalition Government, as parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Education, a post for which he had unique qualifications. R. A. Butler (later Lord Butler of Saffron Walden), the minister of education, and Ede made a highly successful partnership during the passage of the Education Act of 1944. Ede, who changed his name by deed poll to Chuter-Ede in 1964, played a major part in the delicate negotiations during the preparation of the Bill, and in piloting it through the committee stages.
Yet it is as home secretary that he will be chiefly remembered. He held that office for over five years (1945-51), longer than anyone for many years, and at a time when much needed to be done to revise wartime legislation and to catch up with necessary reforms in many areas of Home Office business. He was thus faced with a programme of legislation formidable both in size and variety; in 1947-8 alone he sponsored six major Bills—a British nationality Bill; a Bill to make better provision for deprived children; legislation adapting wartime defence regulations; a police pensions Bill; a large and controversial Bill on parliamentary representation; and the most substantial criminal justice Bill for many years, which made important changes in court powers and in the prison regime. In other sessions he dealt with the denationalization of the fire service; the peacetime organization of Civil Defence; the resettlement of Polish forces; major changes in magistrates' courts; and reform of the licensing laws. To this unprecedented burden of legislation was added the day-to-day administration of the Home Office, which presented special problems at a time of rapid social change. Among his most important tasks was the modernization of the police service. Endurance and versatility are qualities which home secretaries need, but few in such measure as those required at such a time.
The difficulty of the criminal justice Bill was greatly increased by the controversy which arose about capital punishment. The Cabinet had decided to allow a free vote on a new clause put down by a private member, providing for the abolition of capital punishment for an experimental period of five years. Ede, giving the Government's advice, argued against accepting the clause on the grounds that public opinion was against any change, that there had been a marked increase in violent crime, and that careful consideration by the home secretary of every case ensured that the death penalty was exacted only when it was absolutely necessary. But after one of the most dramatic debates in recent years the clause was passed by a small majority.
When the Bill reached the House of Lords the new clause was decisively rejected, and Ede then tabled a compromise clause limiting capital punishment to a number of specific offences. This also was rejected by the Lords and Ede then advised the Commons not to insist on the new clause, which would have meant the loss of the whole Bill for that session.
Shortly afterwards the Government set up the royal commission on capital punishment, whose report was debated in 1955. By then Ede's views had changed; he was much influenced by the controversy about the execution, during his time as home secretary, of Timothy John Evans, for whom he had denied a reprieve and later came to believe was innocent, and he had also come to the conclusion that the case for capital punishment as a deterrent could not be proved either way. Of public opinion, to which he had attached so much importance in 1947, he said, I doubt very much whether, at the moment, public opinion is in favour of this change but I doubt also whether, at any time during the past hundred years, a plebiscite would have carried any of the great penal reforms which have been made. He voted for a motion to suspend capital punishment, but it was not carried.
In 1956 there was yet another debate, in which Ede himself moved an amendment urging the Government to abolish or suspend the death penalty. This was carried by 293 votes to 262 on a free vote. This led to the passage of the Homicide Act which restricted capital punishment to specific types of murder (the compromise rejected in 1947), and before long to the abolition of the death penalty.
Capital punishment is a particularly emotive example of the conflict between the protection of society and concern for the individual which is central to so much of a home secretary's responsibilities. Chuter-Ede's part in this long controversy showed his integrity of character and his parliamentary skills in a dramatic light. Although he found his duties in dealing with individual capital cases profoundly distasteful, he carried them out with scrupulous and impartial judgement; and while he still believed in the need for the death penalty, he put the case for retention forcibly, but without exaggeration. But when he changed his point of view he had the courage to explain why he had done so, even if this exposed him to the charge of inconsistency. It is a tribute to the respect in which he was held by the House that his sincerity was never doubted.
To those who did not know him well Chuter-Ede often appeared austere and they may have been reminded of his early training as a schoolmaster. He was a radical of the old school and a puritan in the sense of a phrase used by one of his favourite poets, James Russell Lowell, in that the home-spun dignity of man he thought it worth defending. It was this respect for human nature, coupled with a natural tolerance and good humour, that were the essence of his character.
He became PC (1944), CH (1953), DL (Surrey), and an honorary freeman of several boroughs. He received an honorary MA from Cambridge (1943), and honorary doctorates from Bristol (1951), Sheffield (1960), and Durham (1954). He served on many public bodies, including the BBC advisory council, of which he was chairman for seven years.
His personal tastes were simple. Among his pleasures were horse-racing (he always had a box at the Epsom Derby meeting, and recalled with pride that his father had had the contract for painting the course railings); excursions on the Thames in a small motor-cruiser; and a yearly Christmas visit to the circus, to which he used to invite a party of children from a Surrey orphanage.
Ede married in 1917 Lilian Mary Stephens (died 1948), daughter of Richard Williams, of Plymouth. She was a fellow member of the Surrey County Council. In her latter years she became crippled and he was often to be seen pushing her about the House of Commons in a wheelchair. They were a devoted couple, and he was much affected by her unexpected death. There were no children. In 1951, Chuter-Ede was for a few months leader of the House of Commons, having been deputy-leader in 1947, He became a life peer in 1964 and died in a Ewell nursing home 11 November 1965.
The Times, 12 November 1965
Contributor: Arthur Peterson