HC Deb 31 July 1934 vol 292 cc2542-53

3.7 p.m.


We have been told that this is an historic occasion for Members to voice grievances. I have been waiting a long time to voice a grievance which deals with an item of public expenditure. We have not had an opportunity of discussing it, as we should have had. In December last the Prime Minister was asked what were the Government's intentions in regard to a piece of work called the Codex Sinaiticus. The reply was that they were making a grant to buy it. It was valued at £100,000. They were finding the money, and it was hoped that the public would contribute, and the Government would pay pound for pound of the contribution. Asked if there would be an opportunity of discussing it as an item of public expenditure, the reply was that there would be. A further question was put in February, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) asked whether there would be a Supplementary Estimate. Again, the answer was "Yes." A further question whether a free vote of the House would be allowed met with no reply. From that time onward many other questions have been asked, but we have always been put off. We were told that later on there would be an Estimate, and we should have a chance of discussing it. On the 19th instant, when the Lord President of the Council was telling us about the business for the rest of the Session, he was asked whether we should have an opportunity of discussing this Supplementary Estimate, and he said he did not think we should owing to the rush of business. He was quite candid at that moment. At once one realised that we were being taken away from the point when many wanted to express an opinion upon the matter.

Therefore, I have been watching for an opportunity, and on Wednesday night of last week, which was the last possible occasion when an opportunity for discussion might arise, I waited to see whether the Estimate would be reached before 10 o'clock. After 10 o'clock, when an opportunity for discussion had passed, I decided to take the only course open to me, and I appealed to Mr. Speaker to give me the opportunity to-day to express my opinion upon this matter. I had hoped that many other watchdogs of public finance would have been here, because from time to time certain hon. Members opposite ask that public. expenditure should be most carefully considered, and that no money should be given away. I remember on the occasion when the House granted £2,000,000 to Palestine, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert) getting up one Friday afternoon and displaying great indignation about money being thrown away, and claiming to be a watchdog of public finance. This morning I told him that I was going to raise this matter, and said that I hoped that he would help me to defend the public purse against any wasteful expenditure. At any rate, he cannot be here this afternoon, and it would appear that I have lost his help in protesting against money being voted before we have had a chance of discussing the matter.

I have been to see this piece of historical work. I wanted to know what is supposed to interest our people, and to get some idea of the aesthetic taste which some people possess in desiring to obtain ancient literature. I cannot say that I was greatly impressed with what I saw. I am in the same position that I was before I saw it. It is evidently an old manuscript, and it is in a glass case at the British Museum, described in language which I cannot understand. A Supplementary Estimate of £41,440 has been passed as our share towards its purchase, and we understand that, if public subscriptions come in, the amount may be reduced. In any case, there will be a considerable item which this House will have to find. Is it right at a time like the present, when there is such a call for economy and such a cry for people to be provided with the means of life, that the House of Commons should be allowed, without any public discussion at all, to grant such a sum of money for what I consider to be a useless piece of manuscript. Is it right that any public expenditure should be allowed to go through without an expression of public opinion having been given upon it, and why should we buy this kind of thing for the purposes of the State?

From time to time, on the Floor of this House, I have brought forward the needs of our people. I remember quoting an instance of an unemployed man who spoke over the wireless, and said that after he had met all direct calls the family was left with 4d. per head per day. I have also brought forward cases where people are known to be living in sordid surroundings without decent accommodation, and yet here I am, a Member of the House of Commons, taking part in the granting of a sum of money for something for which I claim there is no need at all. How can hon. Members face any of their electors and claim that they are watching the finances of the country when they have allowed an item such as I have described to go through without any comment? There are some public-minded men and others who view this as an opportunity to get hold of a valuable manuscript for the benefit of the State. They will say that there are valuable paintings which we ought to have for the State, and that other manuscripts, such as the one I described, ought to be bought. I do not dispute that question with them, but if they really believe that, they ought to put their hand down and pay for it. If I have any particular bent in life, and there is something which I consider to be essential for my pleasure and taste, it is my duty to get it myself. If public-spirited men think that this manuscript is something that the State ought to have, they ought to be public spirited enough to say: "We recognise that the country has not the means of providing this document, and it is wrong for us to ask the country to provide it at this time, when there is so much want and poverty; therefore we will find the money ourselves."

The £100,000 which it was thought would be subscribed by the public has not been forthcoming; consequently we have to meet the Supplementary Estimate. I hope that the people to whom I have been referring will take to heart what I have said and that they will feel that it is their duty to come forward and find the money in order to relieve the State of that obligation. It is not fair or proper that such a burden should fall on the State. If opportunity had been provided for Debate earlier, it is possible that by protest on the Floor of the House we might have aroused the consciences of those people. It is argued that we ought to have this manuscript in the British Museum, that it ought not to be left in Russia, and that it ought to belong to a civilised country where they respect and honour that kind of thing. Those who take that view will, I hope, take note of my words and find the money. I do not think that it is right that a few men, including the Prime Minister who has taste in that direction, should be persuaded to grant public money without any question being brought before the House of Commons. It is unfair that such a Supplementary Estimate should go through without any chance being given for protest. I hope the Government will realise how we feel on this matter and that the people to whom I refer will also realise it, and that they will respond to the appeal that they should find the money.

3.18 p.m.


I want to add a few words to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) on the question of the Codex, the name of which I will not endeavour to pronounce. The Government have not quite kept faith with the House on this matter. We had a definite promise that any financial commitment that we were involved in would be brought before the House in circumstances which would give an opportunity for criticism of the expenditure. The Government may say that the money has been voted by the House. That is true, but it does not seem to be an implementing of the undertaking to bring forward a money Vote in the huge collection of Estimates that was put through under the Guillotine. The Government ought to have brought forward this Estimate in a form which would have enabled the House to discuss it. I do not think that there would have been an extended discussion on the subject, but there are points of view to be expressed and there should have been an opportunity of expressing them in the House.

I do not want to criticise the action of the Government too much. Hon. Members know that I have very strong interests in the Russian nation. I want to assist its progress in every possible way, and I do not allow myself to forget that the £100,000 we have spent on this document went into the coffers of Soviet Russia. Therefore, I cannot arouse myself to the same degree of hostility as I would had some enterprising private commercial capitalist been hawking the document around. I do not pretend to be a religious man, but I think there is something indecent in carrying on a trade in this particular kind of document. I do not know how the Secretary for Mines feels about it, he is more in touch with the religious life of the House than I am, and I do not propose to rush into territory where angels may well fear to tread, but the hawking around of a document of this description to the highest bidder is not in keeping with my conception of religious people.

The one point with which I am concerned in this matter is this—I think the House should give some little consideration to it. This was initiated very eagerly and was arranged with tremendous facility by the Government. Some of us have shouted at the pitch of our voices for concessions of one kind and another to the very poorest in this land. We have asked for bread, and did not get it. Those who asked for the manuscript got it with tremendous facility. It was all arranged inside a week. Although it is not a huge sum of money that is involved in relation to the whole national income and expenditure there is, nevertheless, a principle involved. The British Museum have become the owners of this document. On the directorate or governing body of the British Museum are, as private individuals Members of the Cabinet, holding office at this moment, and I am certain that if a railway company or a bank was involved in a transaction of this description it would be regarded as quite improper that Members of the Government should vote to themselves, as governors, a particular property—


As trustees.


I hope the hon. Member sees my point, and will not either mislead himself or others by quibbling about words. I might claim to be a trustee of a dozen concerns, and if I was Prime Minister or Lord President of the Council it would be improper for me to use my influence to facilitate the granting of public money to some body of which I was a trustee. I know that it is a difficult subject. There is not much involved financially, as I have said. I think it can be said that it is a good thing that a great national institution like the British Museum should have on it distinguished statesmen, but I certainly do not think it is right or proper that while these distinguished statesmen are actually holding office they should be in a position to vote additional public funds or to procure the voting of additional public funds to the institution in which they have a special and peculiar interest. That very fact should have made the leaders of the Government feel a special obligation to bring the proposal before the House in a form that would take the responsibility off their shoulders as members of the Cabinet and put the responsibility on to the House of Commons. I hope that at the earliest possible opportunity the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will convey to the Prime Minister and to the Lord President the question that I have put as to the propriety of their holding the position that they do hold and at the same time holding positions as directors or governors of a private institution.

3.27 p.m.


I wish to detain the House only for a few moments to offer to it certain observations on the remarks that have fallen from the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) and the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton). Neither of them has made any reference to the destination of the money which constitutes the purchase price paid to the Soviet Government for Codex Sinaiticus. The hon. Member for Bridgeton stated that the sum of £100,000 goes into the coffers of the Soviet Government. But it does nothing of the sort. The Soviet Government, as the House no doubt well knows, has pledged itself to devote the purchase price of this manuscript to goods manufactured in this country. It is, therefore, wholly inaccu- rate to say that this sum of money is to go into the coffers of that Government, whose stability and interests the hon. Member is so anxious to ensure. That seems to me to be a point of substance. It is perfectly true that the goods to be made in this country go to Russia, but the manufacture of them has in the meantime provided employment for British workmen. That aspect of the matter was wholly omitted from his consideration by the hon. Member for Leigh. I therefore respectfully submit to the House that upon mercantile grounds alone this transaction is justified.

But I should like to offer to the House a few observations upon another aspect of the matter. It is not only upon mercantile grounds, surely, that this question ought to be considered. The wealth of a nation does not consist only in its fields, its mines, its factories, and its marts of commerce. It does not live by bread alone. The wealth of a nation consists also in the things that contribute to the culture of the mind: it consists also in its music, its books, its statuary, its paintings, and all those things that go to make up the domain of art. The hon. Member for Leigh, having regard to this aspect of the question and showing himself, as I thought, sympathetic to those who desire to enjoy works of art, argued that those who desire to possess them should pay for them themselves. That argument, I think, is of force where the enjoyment of works of art inures only to particular individuals, but the case is different when the enjoyment of them inures not only to individuals but to the whole nation. The things that are in the British Museum are things the study of which is open to the whole people. It seemed to me that on this point the hon. Member for Bridgeton fell into an error. He several times referred to those who are charged with the management of the affairs of the Museum as governors or directors, and he sought to establish some analogy between the governors or directors of an industrial concern and those to whom is entrusted the management of the affairs of the Museum. He was corrected by an hon. Member who reminded him that it is not a question of directors or governors but of trustees, but he waived the interruption aside as though it were of no moment. His error however was more than a verbal one. It indicated a real fallacy and a real confusion of thought. These individuals are not in the position of governors or directors of an industrial concern. They are trustees of the British Museum, and as such, they are trustees of an institution the possessions of which are available to the whole people.


Does that entitle them to pillage the public purse at any given moment?


Certainly not. There is no question of pillaging the public purse. So I say that the argument of the hon. Member for Leigh that those who wish to enjoy works of art should themselves purchase them, has here no application. The hon. Member referred to this manuscript as useless. Let me assure him that there are many to whom it is by no means useless. He says that it is written in a language which he could not understand. Many Members of this House might experience the same difficulty. I may perhaps remind him that it is described by the trustees as being written hi a script which is "a rather large and handsome uncial, regular and exact but a little heavy." Possibly it was this feature of the script that presented difficulty to the hon. Member. This manuscript is something which it is good for this country to possess. It is one of the primary sources for the text of the Bible. It is certainly one of the earliest, if not the earliest, of those sources. The question of the relative value of the different manuscripts is a highly technical one, upon which I should never venture to pronounce a dogmatic opinion, but this is agreed, that this manuscript is one of the most valuable and interesting of the primary sources for the text of the Bible. The Codex Sinaiticus is not merely a thing which is of the greatest value and interest to Biblical scholars; it is also one of those things which contribute to our culture. It is now part of the wealth of this country, and I am delighted that His Majesty's Government have made the provision which has rendered possible the acquisition by the British Museum of this manuscript.

3.36 p.m.


I have to ask the leave of the House to speak again, having already spoken once, but assuming that I have that leave, I hope to say a few words on this subject, though I think the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has largely established the case for the purchase of this manuscript. I noticed that the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) was anxious to take part in the Debate on the Forth Bridge. Had he done so, he also would have exhausted his right to speak, and we should not have had the advantage of his views on the Codex. With all due respect to the hon. Member, I think his views on the Forth Bridge would have been more valuable to the House than his views on the Codex Sinaiticus. It is the end of the Session, and I am sure that the hon. Member, as most of us, needs a holiday, but I think I can say with truth that seldom have I heard him to less advantage than this afternoon.

In the first place, his strictures on the behaviour of the Soviet Government, which, coming from him, rather surprised me, were not wholly deserved perhaps. It seemed to him, from a religious point of view, hardly decent to hawk about a manuscript of this sort. Nobody would think that he was criticising His Majesty's Government, for it is they who have prevented this manuscript from being hawked about. The people who hawked it about were the Soviet Government, because they offered it first to one Government and then to another, and as they are notoriously and violently anti-Christian and anti-all forms of revealed religion, I do not think they are to blame for trying to sell a manuscript that has to them no value, any more than I can see that His Majesty's Government are to blame for spending money on a manuscript that is to this country, more than to any other country in the world, of very particular value. I would not pretend for a moment that the people of this country are more religious than the peoples of other countries, but I think the hon. Member for Bridgeton himself will agree with me that there is no country in the world on which the actual text of the Scriptures has had a greater effect than this country. There is no country where these words are so well known, where they are so engraved on the hearts and minds of the people, and where they have exercised so powerful an influence, if not wholly over the condition of the people, at least over the whole of English literature.

Then the hon. Member for Bridgeton made the mistake of referring to the British Museum as though it were a private institution. To say that it was improper for His Majesty's Government to assist that institution to purchase anything, in view of the fact that certain Members of the Government are also trustees of the British Museum, is an utterly untenable proposition. The British Museum is not a private institution at all. The salaries of its clerks and other officials are paid by this House, and it is public property, under public control. For the hon. Member to say that the Government ought not to hand over money to the British Museum is as ridiculous as it would be to say that they ought not to hand it over to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture or to any other Department of the State.

The hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) raised two important questions. He divided his speech into two parts, and he complained, first, that no opportunity had been given for discussion. If no opportunity has been given, the only people who are to blame are the leaders of his own party and himself. He knows perfectly well that it is only for his Front Bench to ask for any matter to be discussed, and it is discussed. There have been 20 separate opportunities when, if the leaders of his party had wished to discuss this matter, they might have done so, and they have refused to do so. The hon. Member talked about pilfering from the public purse and spending money without the consent of Parliament. Both hon. Members know as well as I do that not every penny that is spent by this country can be discussed in this House. There is not time, and it is for the Opposition, and nobody else, to decide what matters shall be discussed and what matters shall not be discussed.


The Prime Minister on two occasions said that an opportunity for discussion would be given. That is what I am basing my claim upon. I trusted in his word, and we felt that the opportunity would be given.


I do not think that the Prime Minister has broken his word. Not only one opportunity but 20 separate opportunities were given, and the Opposition refused to take advantage of them. The hon. Member himself said that he would raise the matter at the first oppor- tunity. The other night the House rose at eight o'clock and I was here in my place with all my papers about the Codex, and he was sitting there. I had expected that we should have had a Debate lasting possibly from eight to 11 o'clock on this subject.


I must protest against that. We have to make arrangements to get an hon. Member present to give a reply. I did not make any arrangement, and I did not expect that any opportunity would be given.


It is open to the hon. Member to make this arrangement. I was here assuming that he would take the first opportunity of raising the matter, and I was prepared. There is no case at all for saying that no opportunity was given for discussing this matter. There are, no doubt, many matters which hon. Members opposite would have liked to have discussed. It is their own fault and that of their leaders if those things have not been discussed. The hon. Member says that it is a waste of money to spend such a large sum on a manuscript of this kind. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Isaac Foot) in his place, for I know that he is a noted bibliophile and I assume that I shall have his support in this piece of book collecting on a State basis. The hon. Member opposite has said that the money might have been spent very much better in other ways. You can bring that argument to bear concerning any expenditure of public money not directed solely to improving the health and condition of the people. Is that fair? No doubt it is true that in private life, as the hon. Member has said, a person who wanted a thing of that kind would consider it his duty to pay for it out of his own pocket. That is a very different proposition. But the argument appears to be that although people in this country are still in want, yet we spend £41,000 on an ancient manuscript.

Where does that argument lead us if pursued to its logical conclusion? It you are going to talk that sort of sentimental stuff you may as well say: How would you choose between buying a beautiful picture or feeding a child? If you are to choose between getting a beautiful picture and giving more money to poor people, what would you do? Does the hon. Member suggest that we should sell the whole of the National Gallery and that we should refuse to raise money to prop up the fabric of St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey until we have satisfied the needs of every poor person in the country The Government has to preserve a sense of proportion. It has to harden its heart and say that some things must be of greater importance than others. Money must be spent on maintaining the beauty and dignity of this country. Money must be spent on our museums in making them the finest museums in the world. You can take the parallel of the father and the child. A father may spend money on getting something for the child when the child would prefer to have some other thing, but, none the less, die money is better spent on something that the child will not appreciate and cannot hope to appreciate until he is grown up.

There are many things in this country to-day which the vast majority of people do not appreciate. I am unmoved by the argument that the majority of people cannot read the Codex. The majority of people do not appreciate the most beautiful works of art in the National Gallery. Are we, therefore, to make a bonfire of those works of art, or have a sale to the highest bidder Should we not rather look forward to the time when most of our people, through improved standards of education and a higher standard of civilisation, will be able to appreciate these things It is the duty of the Government to act as the trustee of the people in matters of this kind, and not to wait for a popular vote before they spend a few pounds of the nation's money in securing a manuscript of international fame, the earliest complete manuscript in the whole world of the New Testament, which is particularly sacred to the people of England. Was it not right that the Government should say it was a thing that England ought to possess when it was for sale and a thing upon which the Government ought to be prepared to spend money?