HC Deb 24 July 1941 vol 373 cc1160-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Major Dugdale.]

Mr. Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

Perhaps my first word might well be of congratulation to my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch (Mr. Thurtle), who now sits on the Government Front Bench and who has come here to-day in order to answer certain criticisms which I am afraid I have to offer. I might couple with my congratulations a word of commiseration, because the answer, to which I objected and which led me to give notice that I would raise the matter on the Adjournment, was not given by my hon. Friend or by his right hon. Friend, but by one of those who formerly occupied the offices which they now adorn. This matter concerns the playing of the Russian National Anthem on the occasion when it was still the custom to play, on Sunday evening, prior to the 9 o'clock news, the Anthems of those Powers, in alliance with whom we are waging this war.

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Major Dugdale].

Mr. Silverman

In a sense, although perhaps only a partial sense, the matter is one of merely academic interest now, because it is no longer the custom to play these National Anthems on Sunday evenings. It might have been thought, in view of that, that the question might well have been allowed to drop. I know some people take that view, and I confess I was tempted, at one time, to take that view myself. I think, however, that that would not have been wise, for this Debate—it can only be a short one—might be useful if only as a footnote to history. The first thing I would like to know is; Who bears the responsibility for the decision not to play this National Anthem? I ask that question because the Question which I put down on the Order Paper about it was, in the first place, directed to the Prime Minister, as I think was right. He, however, exercising the discretion which undoubtedly is his, asked the Minister of Information to reply to it. I am wondering whether in fact it was the policy of the Ministry of Information? Was it their decision? Do they accept responsibility for it?

The answer given to the query, not merely in this House but in another place the day before, was that it had nothing to do with the Ministry of Information at all, but was a decision of the Foreign Office. It was said that the Foreign Office was the proper authority to determine who were and who were not our Allies, and that the Foreign Office had given the most extraordinary ruling that Russia was not in fact an Ally of this country. One wondered what was the basis of that ruling, and subsequent events have made it even more obscure. It was said that Russia was not an Ally but an associated Power. The Allies, it was said, were those Powers or nations with whom we had Treaties of Alliance, and as we had at that time no Treaty of Alliance with Russia, Russia therefore was not an Ally and it would have been most improper to play the National Anthem of Russia at the same time as we played the National Anthem of Abyssinia or Luxemburg. But that was a very bad reason, because when we looked into the facts we discovered that of the whole series of National Anthems which delayed the 9 o'clock news on Sunday evening, only two were the Anthems of nations with which we had any Treaty of Alliance at all. One was France—no longer our Ally; the French forces who arc fighting with us in this country, in the Near East and in other places are not a government and not a nation, they are the Free French Forces and they alone, I think, among all the people fighting on our side, are not recognised as a government. True, we have not yet recognised the people at Vichy as the government of France, and I suppose the whole position is somewhat anomalous in that respect, but we still play the "Marseillaise."

Mr. Cocks (Broxtowe)

Why not the "Carmagnole"?

Dr. Russell Thomas (Southampton)

Why not the opening bars of Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony"?

Mr. Silverman

Why not, indeed? Perhaps when we come to German tunes we shall remember that one too. The other nation with whom we did, in fact, have a Treaty of Alliance was Poland, but all the others were not Allies if that be the definition. We began to play the Czechoslovak National Anthem a little later than the others, but it was only the other day that we recognised Dr. Benes and the other Czechoslovak leaders in this country, except as a provisional Government, and exchanged diplomatic representatives with them, but we played their National Anthem. Had we a Treaty of Alliance with Norway? No, and I think we have not one yet, but we play their National Anthem. If we are playing any National Anthems, it is right that we should play theirs.

Greece, Holland, Belgium, are all countries that we warned for months that they were about to be the subject of attack which could be successfully resisted, if at all, by association with us, on plans made in advance. Each one of these countries refused to have any sort of understanding with us. They became —I must not say allies on that definition, because we have no Treaty of Alliance yet—but they became associated Powers with us when they were attacked and began to resist, and when there came, in that way, a community of interest between them and us. The same applies to Yugoslavia. But in the case of Abyssinia, we had recognised the King of Italy for years, as Emperor of Abyssinia, formally and officially. When the war started there was no Abyssinia, so far as official recognition by this country was concerned. The time came when we did what many Members of this House thought we might have done many years ago: we came to their assistance, too late for this purpose perhaps, but not too late for other purposes. When we had driven out the Italians, or most of them, lo and behold, the Abyssinia National Anthem was added to the rest. If, indeed, a Treaty of Alliance is a necessary preliminary to entitlement to be considered an Ally, then none of these nations were Allies and, be it noted, they became, if not Allies, associated Powers with us on the same basis and in precisely the same circumstances as did Russia.

Mr. Henry Strauss (Norwich)

May I ask the hon. Gentleman one question? On the occasion on which he says that the Russian National Anthem was not played, is it not a fact that the B.B.C. did play the very same Russian tune as Mr. Stalin himself had had broadcast before his speech?

Mr. Silverman

The answer is, No. They played that after. I shall have something to say on that in a moment. They did not even play that on the first occasion. That has not been advanced among the conflicting reasons put forward by the Ministry of Information. No doubt the Parliamentary Secretary will be grateful to the hon. Member for the suggestion. It is not even so simple as has so far been outlined. On a later occasion my hon. Friend the Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) asked the Foreign Secretary for a list of the Treaties of Alliance with all these countries. He was told that it is not necessary to have a treaty with a country before that country becomes your Ally. I was greatly relieved to hear the Foreign Secretary say so; but it removed the only foundation, such as it was, that had been so far advanced for the refusal to play the National Anthem of Russia. Only a week later there was a formal Treaty signed in Moscow which if it was not a Treaty of Alliance meant nothing at all, and which the Prime Minister, when he announced the fact of the Agreement to this House, referred to as being "of course, an Alliance." But still they did not play the National Anthem. An hon. Member asked me, Did hot they play something else? He is quite right, but why play something else?

Mr. H. Strauss

I suppose the reason is that, if Mr. Stalin has dropped this gloomy tune, there is no reason why we should go on playing it.

Mr. Silverman

There is no more reason for reproducing the gloomy tunes of other people than for reproducing the gloomy speeches of other people. But it is not for us to decide whether a particular tune adopted by another nation for their own purposes is gloomy. Goodness knows, some of those that we played on Sunday evenings were gloomy enough. I am certain that our own National Anthem is not played on its musical merits, and I am certain that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who is going to reply, would be almost the last Member of this House to declare that its merits consisted in its words. That is not the point. The point is that we had decided, rightly or wrongly, that we would play the National Anthems of our Allies, and it was not for us to decide whether we liked those National Anthems or whether we did not. What was the objection? Is my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary going to say, "We did not like the tune; we though it was too gloomy"? I am sure he is not going to say that. I have heard him singing it. If there were any gloominess in the performance then, the fault may not have been in the tune.

Dr. Russell Thomas

Is the tune that the hon. Member has in mind a National Anthem? I always thought it was the tune of the Third International.

Mr. Silverman

It is the tune which, I understand, the Russian Ambassador in this country, when he was asked about it, said was the National Anthem of his country. I am told that he was asked whether some other tune would do. I am not privileged to know what his reply was, but if the effect of it was that he was not the Russian Government but only the Russian Ambassador, and that he could not change the Russian National Anthem, in order to please my hon. Friend or anybody else, I think that would have been a good answer.

Mr. H. Strauss

Does the Russian wireless play it?

Mr. Silverman

Perhaps the hon. Member will listen to the Russian wireless, to find out. I hope that it will encourage the hon. Member and that he will begin to think that things are not as gloomy as he thought. If the Russian Ambassador said," We do not care whether you play your National Anthem or not. Please yourselves, it is your B.B.C. and your radio, and you are entitled to play what you choose, but if you want to play our National Anthem, it is so and so, "he would be entitled to say it. If he said," There is no doubt that it was adopted as the National Anthem of Russia at this time," for my part, I would not regard it as an objection to that National Anthem that it has an international appeal. I do not think that that is the objection at all. The objection may have been in the minds of some people that "this is a revolutionary song. It may have been adopted by the Russians as their National Anthem, but it had a history before that. It had already a history, and an international history; controversy surrounds it. It was a revolutionary tune, a revolutionary selection, a revolutionary theme."

Surely that cannot be the objection? What greater revolutionary tune or revolutionary theme has there ever been in history than the National Anthem of the French? The "Marseillaise," surely, is the greatest revolutionary tune ever invented. Did it arouse controversy in its day? The point is that we play it now as a National Anthem, not because of the political controversies of 1789, but because the French say that this is the tune that they play on ceremonial occasions to act as a kind of national expression in music of the communal sense exactly as we play our own. I do not think that it is fair to say that this is so surrounded with controversy that it cannot be played. As I say, it belongs to a great many people. It was sung by the Labour party at their most recent Annual Conference, this year, three months ago. It is true that: they sang it as if they were singing about facing the last fight, as though they expected to lose it anyhow. But that, no doubt, arose out of the circumstances of the moment. I do not know, but there it is. It was sung. It appears in every Labour party song book that I have ever seen, and my hon. Friend knows that perfectly well. There is nothing subversive about it. I am sure that my hon. Friend would never sing anything that was subversive, that he never has done and never will, and certainly will not defend it now on this occasion. It has been sung by the Labour party, who are Members of the Government and supporting the Government, at their annual conference.

Perhaps I have covered the ground sufficiently, but I would say, in conclusion, that there are those who say—and I agree with them—that had the understanding between this country and Russia existed before the war, there would in all probability have been no war. There are those who say—and here I am not entirely in agreement—that the principal reason—I am certain it is one reason— why there was no such Alliance was that because the British Government at that day did not desire such an Alliance. That is not true, I am sure, of the Government to-day, but it is most important that they should not, in little symbolic things of this kind—we live by symbols—do anything whatever to lend any support to the view that Russia is in some way an unwelcome or undesirable partner in this struggle. If Russia loses this struggle, we lose, and if Russia wins, we win. Our interests are as close as that, and I do hope that we have seen the end of this policy of pin-pricks, designed to keep apart people who ought to be together. We are playing the national airs of these various countries now, and next Sunday we shall be playing the National airs of Russia. I appeal to my hon. Friend to see that among these airs the Russian National Anthem is, at last, included.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Information (Mr. Thurtle)

I would like, in the first place, to thank my hon. Friend for his kindly personal references to myself. They were all the more gracious because there have been occasions when we have had rather sharp differences of opinion. Before I say anything else, I would like to say a word in defence of the "Internationale," because I gather from something that my hon. Friend said that he was seeking to judge the merits of that tune from the fact that he once heard me sing it. Well, I want to tell him that I have never been. guilty of singing a hymn in tune in my life, and, therefore, if he heard me singing the "Internationale," he might have an entirely wrong impression of its merits.

My hon. Friend's speech was largely based upon what he alleged were contradictory answers to questions which have been asked at various times in this House. I think it would be vain, and an unprofitable thing for roe, new in my office, to examine those questions and answers and seek to justify them, and I do not propose to do so; but, to bring the thing into its proper perspective, I would like, if I may, to give a short historical account of the way in which these National Anthems came to be included in broadcasts. First of all, in fairness to the B.B.C., and in answer to a point made by the hon. Gentleman, I would like to make it clear that the responsibility for the broadcasting of any National Anthem-has always been assumed by the Government and is not the responsibility of the B.B.C. No anthem was ever put in or ever left out except under the orders of the Government. The anthems were first broadcast on 21st April, 1940, when there were only four—our own, the French, Polish and Norwegian. The march of events added others. Belgium and Holland came in on 12th May, 1940, Czechoslovakia on 28th July, 1940, Greece in March, 1941, Jugoslavia in April, 1941, and Ethiopia in May, 1941.

That brought the total up to 10, and in addition to this number it will be remembered that the National Anthem of Luxemburg was played. Now this item began to assume somewhat unwieldy proportions and was, I think, the object of jokes because it was of such inordinate length. The Ministry of Information, before Russia came into our struggle, began to consider changing the character of this particular item. One of the suggestions made was that as election of National Anthems should be played each week so that the Allies got their turns regularly and not weekly. Another suggestion, which was approved by the ex-Minister of Information, was that each week a selection of gay and patriotic tunes, excluding the National Anthem, of a single country should be played. As is known, this particular form of programme came into force last Sunday with a French programme, and next Sunday, as the hon. Member correctly pointed out, our Ally Russia is to have her turn, and in due course the turns of our other Allies will come. [AN HON. MEMBER: "Abyssinia."] I have no doubt the turn of Abyssinia will come in due time. When Russia came into our struggle, there is no doubt that a discussion took place as to whether the "Internationale" should be broadcast as the National Anthem of Russia or not, and the decision was taken that it should not be broadcast. The hon. Member pressed me to give the reasons why that decision was taken. I am sorry to say that I am not in a position to meet him.

Mr. Silverman


Mr. Thurtle

Because I am not aware of them. But one thing stands out about the "Internationale," as I think we must all agree; it is, after all, in a somewhat special category as a National Anthem. For one reason, it is, in fact, as its name implies, almost the antithesis of a National Anthem. It is an international anthem, and—I think this must be common ground, too—it certainly raises controversial issues in a way which is distinctly unusual in National Anthems as we know them. I do not know, but probably these were the considerations which led to doubts about the wisdom of broadcasting this particular anthem. I suggest to hon. Members that, if they look at the matter objectively, those reasons, in the present situation, are not without a certain validity. In any case, let me make it crystal clear—and I can say this with positive assurance—that the decision which was taken was not taken with the slightest intention of slighting the Russian Government, which we rejoice to have as our Ally. This controversy is getting a little ancient, and I hope that, with the explanation I have given, the matter may be allowed to drop.

Mr. Mander (Wolverhampton, East)

What was the view of the Russian Government?

Mr. Thurtle

I do not think the Russian Government pressed us in the slightest degree to broadcast this particular tune.

Mr. Mander

Do they take the view that it is their anthem?

Mr. Thurtle

I think they do take the view that it is their anthem. In conclusion, I think the hon. Member is as anxious as anyone to see this war brought to a successful conclusion. I hope he is as happy as I am that at last the Russians are fighting side by side with us in this struggle against Hitlerism'; and I hope he will agree with me that now that confidence has been restored between the two countries, anyone who does anything or says anything—

Mr. Silverman

Or omits anything.

Mr. Thurtle

—which tends to disturb that confidence is doing an ill-service to the country.

Mr. Noel-Baker (Derby)

My hon. Friend has always made the best of a bad job, but I think there are many people in all parties who feel that a mistake has been made and that some harm has been done.

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.