HC Deb 27 March 1939 vol 345 cc1842-50

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That this House do now adjourn"— [Captain Margesson.]

11.6 p.m.

Mr. R. Acland

At Question Time to-day I asked a question concerning broadcasts on the subject of foreign affairs, to which, quite frankly, I did not receive a very satisfactory answer. This was the more remarkable in that I had been asked twice to postpone the question for the convenience of the Government. The question was originally put down last Wednesday. It is my experience, and I think the experience of my hon. Friends, that the habit of asking for questions to be postponed is a growing one, and I should like to put it on record that this is a favour which the Government ask of Private Members, a favour which, on this occasion, I was quite willing to concede; but I think that in return for such consideration afforded to the Government, I ought to have received a straightforward answer to a perfectly straightforward question. Instead of that, I was, in effect, told by the Prime Minister to consult my own party leaders. With all respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I would say that we put questions on the Order Paper not for the purpose of getting the answers of our party leaders, but for the purpose of getting what we are entitled to receive, the answers of the Government.

I understand that even now I am not to have a reply from the Prime Minister, and with all respect to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman who is to reply, I doubt whether he can, on his own responsibility, give an answer to the question I am raising. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman was good enough to speak to me about this earlier in the day, and I hope that he will be able to give the Prime Minister's answer to a question which, in my submission, only the Prime Minister can answer, and which he could have answered, if he had been so disposed, at Question Time to-day, which would have saved the right hon. and gallant Gentleman and myself a certain amount of trouble. This is not a Post Office matter. It is not a B.B.C. matter. I am informed by a responsible officer of the B.B.C. that their point of view on this matter is that, within reason, they will give facilities for such political broadcasts as the leaders of the different parties in this House may mutually agree upon. On this matter on which I was invited to consult my party leaders, there can be no doubt that the leaders of the Opposition parties, and I should imagine one or two private Members who occupy roughly comparable positions to party leaders, would be particularly glad of an opportunity, not in times of acute difficulty, as I made clear in the question, but at appropriate times, to express their views on the wireless on foreign affairs.

Therefore, the question whether they are to be allowed to express their views or not falls to be decided by one man alone, namely, the Leader of the only other party concerned, the Leader of the Conservative party. It was his answer that I really wanted. When I gave notice that I would raise this matter on the Adjournment, an hon. Member behind me asked, "Why should he not broadcast? Remember he is the Prime Minister." That is precisely the point I am raising. I wish I could feel that the right hon. Gentleman himself was sufficiently aware that, after all, he is only the Prime Minister and not anything more. He is only the leader of one of the political parties in this country, differing for the moment from the other parties in this respect; that whereas 56 per cent. of the electors voted for that party, only 44 per cent. voted for the others. He therefore stands in relation to the other party leaders as the figure 56 stands to the figure 44 and it is not for him, on that account, to claim privileges which are denied to them. In this country, with our unwritten Constitution, we are apt to slip into things without noticing them. Something happens and nobody cares about it. It happens again once or twice, and we wake up one morning to find an addition to the British Constitution.

I am a little anxious lest in connection with this question of broadcasting on foreign affairs we may not be slipping into something. The Prime Minister speaks once and then again and nobody replies to him, and we slip into acceptance of the fact that the Prime Minister is entitled to state his views on foreign affairs when he chooses, and that no other leader of a political party is entitled, on any occasion, to make any reply. Of course it is said that when an announcement on foreign affairs is to be made, it is proper that the whole nation and, indeed, the whole world, should hear it from the lips of the Prime Minister. That is the theory but what is the practice? I will not speak about the Prime Minister's broadcast two days before Munich. If the performance had been as good as the speech, nobody-could complain. Nor will I speak of his speech to the foreign correspondents, although if I chose I could say a good deal about that. But take the speech which he made at Birmingham last Friday. Was there any statement of a new policy which had to be given to the whole country in that speech? On the contrary, that speech contained in a phrase, which was probably not lost on Herr von Ribbentrop, an exact confirmation of the long argument in which the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer rejected the policy put forward from both Oppositions—which also happens to be the policy put forward by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden). There was no new statement of policy in that speech—nothing but a confirmation of the old policy.

In the same speech the Prime Minister expressed everybody's condemnation of what had been done by Herr Hitler. There was nothing new in that, except that the Prime Minister was then condemning what everybody else had condemned 48 hours previously. He said he shared the disappointment which he was sure the majority of people felt that the Munich policy had not succeeded. I do not know how he knew that a majority of people were disappointed. I do not believe that it is possible, technically, to be disappointed when something does not happen which you did not expect to happen, and the record of the by-elections shows that at no time was there an overwhelming majority of people who had any hopes or expectations from this Munich policy which could have been disappointed. Lastly, the Prime Minister was wildly inaccurate in claiming that a large majority, I think he said an overwhelming majority, was on his side. The part of his speech, however, which seemed most exceptional, was the first part, which contained a long justification of his own attitude. Every line and sentence in it contained matter of the most highly contentious character. Not a single line in the first quarter of his speech was not subject to the severest argument. If that argument could be made in this House, it would be all right; but that speech was made on the wireless, with no possibility of anyone having a chance to reply. I should have thought there were two alternatives. If the Prime Minister was going to speak on foreign affairs, either he should avoid all matters which are, or could be, matters of current political controversy, or other people of corresponding calibre to himself should be given an opportunity to reply.

Lastly, it is said that Opposition speakers are so irresponsible that their voices must not be heard upon the air. That, again, is a point of view very suitable to a dictator country, where opposition speakers are so irresponsible that they must not be heard over the wireless or anywhere else. But if we are talking of responsibility, I would like to draw attention to the speech of the Prime Minister himself, because in the course of his justificatory statement he said some rather remarkable things. He said, "If I was right then, I am right now." Further on he said that there was nothing that Britain, or France or Russia could do which would have saved Czecho-Slovakia from invasion. Because I have some sense of responsibility I avoid commenting on that statement as fully as I might, beyond saying this: If that statement was right then, and if it is right now, how is it proposed now to save Rumania, Poland, Holland, Denmark, Switzerland and many parts of the British Empire from invasion? I should have thought that was an interpretation of the right hon. Gentleman's speech which would not have escaped foreign observers in the totalitarian and other countries.

The right hon. and gallant Gentleman will forgive me, I am sure, if I say that in this matter I am not interested to be told what are the arrangements for broadcasting at election times nor what is now the position of broadcasting on political events of an unimportant character. Both those matters have been explained to me, and I think I understand them. The question which I ask, and to which I think the House and the country are entitled to have an answer, is whether the Prime Minister claims that he is above all other statesmen and all other politicians, and that he is entitled to make these statements on foreign affairs, containing not only matter of current importance to the nation as a whole, but party political statements of his point of view which go into every home on the wireless and to which nobody else is to be given any opportunity of replying, either now or at any other time.

11.19 p.m.

Mr. Silverman

I would like to refer to something that occurred at Question Time to-day. An hon. Member on this side put a question to the Prime Minister having reference to recent events in Czecho-Slovakia. The reply that he got from the Prime Minister was merely a reference to this particular speech which had been made in Birmingham, so that the thing takes on a new importance, if the speech that gave rise to the question asked by the hon. Member is to be taken to be an official statement of Government policy when no record of it exists and no opportunity of questioning it or replying to it arises.

11.20 p.m.

The Postmaster-General (Major Tryon)

The hon. Member who spoke last did not mention that the Prime Minister also referred to statements he had made in the House and that we have had ample opportunities of discussing foreign affairs. I do not intend to pursue that matter. I propose more directly to deal with the matter to which the Prime Minister obviously referred. There are arrangements by which the various parties in the State have opportunities of discussing public matters, and those arrangements are made through the leaders of the different parties. Therefore, it is quite natural that the Prime Minister should have referred the hon. Member opposite to his leader, because it is with the leaders of the different parties that the allotment of time is generally made. There are three ways in which the different parties are given opportunities by the B.B.C. The first one is through what is called "The Week at Westminster," where, at the end of the week, the public are reminded—and it is as well they should be reminded—that we have been working here all the week. I think the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Mr. Acland) takes part in that discussion himself, and, therefore, he can speak more frequently on the wireless than the Prime Minister of this country. Then there is the ordinary arrangement which is now going on, which is comparativly new, in which various subjects agreed to between the different parties are discussed by three representatives of the parties in this House. As the hon. Member's own party, which by no arithmetical calculation can be said to be a large one, has on these occasions exactly the same opportunity of being represented as the whole of the Government forces, surely he has nothing to complain of- On the principle of proportional representation his party is very well off.

Then we come to the matter to which the Prime Minister was obviously referring, and that is the plan by which, before a General Election, arrangements are made whereby the leaders of the main parties in the State should have opportunities for speaking to the electors. There has always been considerable difficulty in allotting that representation, and I am sure the B.B.C. would be delighted if the parties could agree on it. I believe the B.B.C. have sometimes had to come to a decision as to that representation. What they did last time—

Mr. Acland

I think the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has misunderstood me. My question did not relate to the arrangements made during a General Election campaign, but to an opportunity being given before the opening of the General Election campaign.

Major Tryon

It seemed to me that the hon. Member's complaint was that he had been referred by the Prime Minister to his Leader. I think that the arrangements in question would probably answer to the general description of a compromise, as something to which everyone is expected to accede and from which no one gets what he wants.

Let me say definitely that it is absolutely inaccurate and unjust to the Governors of the B.B.C. to say that one man alone decides when the Prime Minister speaks. That is absolutely unfounded. By the sequence of events which I will describe it is evident that it was not the Prime Minister who made that decision. It was not made by the Prime Minister or by the Governors of the B.B.C; it was really made by the world. It arose from the fact that the people of the United States wanted to hear the Prime Minister, and the arrangements were made at the request of the American broadcasting authorities. Neither the Government of this country nor the B.B.C. have any control whatever over what is broadcast in America, although we give facilities to the American broadcasting authorities, in the same way in which the different countries give facilities to each other as a matter of course.

Then we get to the position where the speech becomes, not one of a party leader talking at, say, an annual party meeting, but that of someone speaking as the Leader of the Government of this country. We have now got to the position where the speech had become not one of a party leader talking to a party meeting or to an annual meeting of an association, it was the case of someone speaking as the Leader of the Government, speaking to the world as the Prime Minister of this country. It was a speech made to the whole world, and the position, therefore, was that the B.B.C. would have been withholding from the people of this country in the name, I suppose, of the hon. Member's democratic views, a speech which was given out to the people of the United States, which was broadcast to America, but which, because it was given to the people of this country, roused the indignation of the hon. Member. Moreover, it was only when this position developed, that the speech would have been withheld from the people of this country, that the Prime Minister consented at all to the speech being broadcast, and I have authority to say that the Leader of the Labour party and one of the Whips of the hon. Member's own party were consulted and raised no objection to the speech being broadcast. Yet the broadcasting of this speech, which was a speech made to the whole world, a speech which the whole world wanted to listen to, a speech which could not lightly have been withheld from the people of this country, is attributed to the Prime Minister's saying "I will speak," That is inaccurate.

Mr. Acland

The right hon. and gallant Gentleman has misunderstood me. I am not saying that the Prime Minister dictates to the B.B.C. or that he dictates that he shall speak. Nor am I objecting to the fact that he did speak. I am objecting that, as far as I am aware, nobody else is ever to be allowed to reply, except at the Election. I am saying also that it rests with the Prime Minister to say whether anybody shall, at some future time, have a chance to reply.

Major Tryon

The hon. Member is entirely wrong. Surely he must know that the future of the B.B.C. was decided by this House after a very full Debate, on the recommendations of a committee which had the most valuable assistance— for which I have already thanked him— of the Leader of the Opposition and to which the hon. Member for East Birkenhead (Mr. White) contributed a great deal. The Charter was debated in this House in full, and under it these matters are not in the hands of the Prime Minister or in my hands. They are in the hands of the Governors of the B.B.C. It is unfair of the hon. Member to suggest that the Prime Minister dictated that he should speak or that the Prime Minister intervenes in the daily work of the B.B.C. It is a matter for the Governors of the B.B.C. to decide, and I hope that the hon. Member will realise that he has made a mistake in making this suggestion.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes after Eleven o'Clock