Orders of the Day — British Museum Library

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th November 1967.

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Photo of Mr Charles Hale Mr Charles Hale , Oldham West 12:00 am, 16th November 1967

I am much obliged to my right hon. Friend, because I have to consider other hon. Members who have a better right than I to speak.

I wanted to speak as just an ordinary bloke who uses the British Museum; who sits in the Reading Room. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for demolishing some of the dafter arguments that have been put in opposition. No one has put forward the vital arguments, which do not affect the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Lena Jeger) or her constituency. I used to live in Bloomsbury, and the Prime Minister—the present Prime Minister, not the previous one—used to call at my flat on his way down from Hampstead. I can well understand her problems in Holborn, which are not very much different from those in Oldham, where we are building 1,200 houses a year and rebuilding the town. We can do that without stopping the establishment somewhere of a great new building of national learning which is vital for every purpose.

With respect to my right hon. Friend, it is no argument to say that the Tories did not do anything. The point is that we said, whether it was truthful or not that the Tories did not do anything, that when we came to power we would do something. The thing to do is not to stop a plan that has been going on for 25 years. I fought my first election in 1929 on a programme of Keynesian expansionism, as a Liberal—building roads all over the country and finding work for the unemployed. That was duly denounced by the Parliamentary Labour Party of those days, and we are now beginning to build those roads inch by inch at twenty times the cost.

At that time a report had been made that the British Museum Reading Room was inadequate, needed expansion and could not supply the needs. The needs have not grown arithmetically, but algebraically. Of course it is convenient to have it next door to the University of London, but what the hell has that to do with it? It could be next door to the University of Manchester which has fewer privileges than London. I am not putting the Metropolitan argument—I am sick of the Metropolitan argument. A gentleman has written to The Times saying "I can pop in after my meeting for a quarter of an hour". That is exactly what was said of the brothels of Paris in the days when I was in that city years ago, and when I was pressed to visit one which claimed to be patronised by his late Most Gracious Majesty King Edward VII.

I have to talk to my right hon. Friend rather firmly. He enjoys a considerable measure of respect and esteem in this House; I cannot understand why, except that he is a very nice fellow, undoubtedly learned and very popular. The last time we had an argument in this House was a long time ago. We do not often have an argument now. He said that we had a kgotla. We had a pow-wow and this was the result of a careful pow-wow. Has he had a palaver with Lord Radcliffe? Lord Radcliffe says that he has pneumonia and perhaps he is less forceful than he otherwise would have been. I am getting in a poor way myself.

Lord Radcliffe pushes a button, which is important, but he does not push very hard. He puts to my right hon. Friend that he has not got the services of a sufficient number of people of learning adequately to advise on this decision. If the answer is "yes" then we should not have them as they are wasting their time there. They should be in the service of those institutes of learning which have not the staff they need. If we have not the services of those people, my right hon Friend is not competent to decide this matter.

The last thing I should like, this perhaps is my somewhat eccentric way of doing things, is to suggest that this is not a problem of vital importance. Whenever we get learned people putting a case they make a mess of it. I found it much more convenient to defend criminals than intellectual professors. We have watched the correspondence in The Times and, apart from Lord Radcliffe, someone said why should be not have the Bibliothèque Nationale at Ivry-sur-Seine? The Bibliothèque Nationale is housed in a building of historic importance. The chap who built it lost playing picquet with Cardinal Mazarin. Anyone who played picquet with Cardinal Mazarin deserved to be cheated.

I have had the privilege in the last six or seven weeks of spending a couple of weeks at the British Museum and a couple of weeks at Bibliothèque Nationale and another week or two at the Institut et Musée Voltaire in the City of Geneva. There there is the creation of a distinguished Englishman, one of the greatest living bibliographers. He has created an exceptionally small library, but one where one can sit in peace and comfort and study the whole of the 18th century in graphs and books which have been selected with special care and are available to be read in perfect conditions for study. When one sees a small but select institute like that, the case for the National Library becomes overwhelming.

Theodore Besterman, who edited the 107 volumes of Voltaire's letters beautifully annotated, is an Englishman who is respected anywhere. It is hardly necessary for me to say that, it is almost insulting for me to say it. These volumes deal with the life of a man who lived from 1696 to 1778 and when one reads his correspondence with Tsarskoe-Selo and Potsdam one is really studying a century. I have been attempting myself to write a book. I do not suppose it will ever be published. It is a work of biography of someone who is almost completely for gotten. I do not object to travel. Of course one has to travel. It is a futile argument to say that you can get everything together in Paris rich in all its museums. If one wants to study Toulouse-Lautrec one has to go to Albi. The fellow who talked about the Bibliothèque Nationale at Ivry-sur-Seine had forgotten about the great archives—the Archives Nationale—in the Hotel de Soubise. The last owner is the man who is depicted on the battlefield of Rossbach looking for his troops and saying, "Where are they? They were here yesterday morning", which is the sort of thing which can happen to political leaders nowadays.

When I was at this wonderful library in Geneva, I found that in 1740 M. Perronet had embarked upon a great reforming highway programme. Then there was an economic crisis. The economic crisis was Madame de Pompadour. To be fair to Louis XV, his liaison with Madame lasted and proved much more durable and much less expensive than my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's liaison with President Johnson.

I found something in Voltaire about Swiss bankers which I think is interesting—not wholly 18th century, but relevant. Voltaire said, "If you see a Swiss banker jump through a plate glass window, jump after him at once. There is 10 per cent. in it". That is one we shall do well to remember.

The real case is this. A national library is as essential to us as any part of our great heritage. It must be a national library. The objection to Colin-dale is not that it is Colindale half an hour from London. It is that it is half an hour from the rest of the Library were the tools are—and you cannot repair the blooming pipes in Colindale if you have left your plumber's equipment at the British Museum.

I am inclined to agree that the argument for the British Museum being in London is overwhelming, with 1½ million visitors. The argument for the Library being connected with the Museum applies with great force in certain limited but important departments of research such as archaeology, palaeontology, and so on. However, it would be absurd to put that as an argument which would be wholly decisive. It should be weighed in the balance.

My right hon. Friend's assurances are more reassuring coming from him than some statements from the Front Bench. The argument is that the decision cannot be held up any longer. If a decision is taken, it must be in favour of a great national library, following upon what has been done elsewhere. We are told that there are plans in Paris. There have been plans in London for a long time. Czechoslovakia has established a national library. The gentleman who wrote to The Times saying: should the Library of Congress be in Richmond, Virginia, could have talked a damnsight more sense if he had asked why Congress was in the worst-governed town in the United States. The Library of Congress is not only a national library, though there is an immense library there. The national library spreads over this great country.

Let me say a few words about the management of the British Museum, in case I should get diverted from the subject. They have worked under terrible conditions for a long time. They have laboured under a dreadful handicap for a long time. This Parliament passes wonderful Bills about nice offices for nice people, but the conditions under which our own staff work are deplorable. Our own reference library, with its wonderful and helpful staff, was unable the other day to find me a New Testament—not that I wanted to read it—I wanted to administer the oath as a Commissioner.

The most bitter internecine strife in the Labour Party in the pre-Wilson era was over the question whether we should move an open coal fire in favour of converting it into a reference library. I cannot remember which side my right hon. Friend was on in that dispute. We are told that some elderly Welsh Members sat round this fire warming their knees, talking of the Eisteddfod and the Mabinogion, that this went on for an incredible number of years and that they almost established a right by prescription. This battle was fought with some vigour. This was not an occasion when people said, "We are going to vote for you tonight but do not do it again." They were not going to vote at all.

The management of the British Museum has issued at this very difficult time a magnificent 250 volume index. How they have done it, I do not know. I am told that the Library of Congress is still working on one which is going to cost £3,500. The Bibliothèque Nationale started an index in 1898 and has not finished it yet. The lack of a dictionary of national biography in France is an absolute tragedy. A powerful committee started to produce one in 1933. The first volume was published in 1933 and they are getting through to the letter "D" at the moment. We in this country have much to be proud of.

I do not wish to emphasise too much the use of microfilms. There is a Parliamentary precedent when we introduced a cure for animals in Africa which was announced six years before it was ready, and, although people may agree that the development of microfilms is a vital matter, it is premature to make extravagant claims in view of the present cost. I understand that the Ministry of Technology spent a sum of £31,000 at Hatfield for the development of and investigation into micrography for the reproduction and distribution of books. In America already this is an industry with a £100 million turnover while we, as part of our programme of development, are spending £31,000.

I am looking at the clock with regret and with apologies to my hon. Friends. [HON. MEMBERS: "Go on."] Perhaps I could take a few more minutes. I have it in mind that in four or five weeks' time Her Gracious Majesty will entrust me with the temporary custodianship of the venerable Hundreds of the Chilterns. Then I shall leave this Palace of Westminster, never to return—not because my memories of this place are not pleasing. I treasure friendships I have been honoured within this assembly and the generosity I have received. I shall prefer not to await my old friends in the queue to the cafeteria. I am going.

In those circumstances, I feel that I might arrogate to myself tonight the privilege, having no longer any axe to grind, of not merely paying my last respects to the Chair, still the symbol of democracy throughout the world, but of conveying to its present distinguished occupant my thanks for great generosity to me and my rejoicing that it is occupied by someone who is relied upon to have the cause of democracy at heart, when it is not quite so strong as it was in some parts of the world or even here, where there are talks of coalition.

It is strange that I come back to the period of the Pompadour. On a previous occasion I adapted an epitaph of Piron—Ci-dit Piron qui ne fut rien, pas même Academicien, asHere lies Hale who was nothing or less He was lever even a P.P.S. I have had almost every experience that a back bencher can have, as a member of a Royal Commission, a joint Committee of Lords and Commons, everything except an invitation to a Ministerial dinner or a free trip with C.P.A.

I have nothing to repine about. I go grateful to this House. I go quietly, almost treading tenderly, in the circumstances. I shall go with the satisfaction of knowing that I have had great friendships, stretching from my oldest friend from Northampton to Antrim South, glad that I have known and loved two Members for Ebbw Vale. I think, also, that I have had some esteem from the great people of Oldham.

I apologise for this somewhat over-personal conclusion to what was not intended to be an emotional speech. I am grateful to my hon. and right hon. Friends for giving me a moment or two over the odds, and I am grateful to the House.