HC Deb 27 April 1944 vol 399 cc1045-56

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

Sir Richard Acland (Barnstaple)

On 5th April I put the following Question to the Minister of Information: To ask the Minister of Information when will an opportunity be given on the B.B.C. for a reply to be made to the last half of the Prime Minister's recent broadcast speech by someone who can speak for that part of the British people who have no> confidence in the post-war plans of the political party which the Prime Minister leads. The reply I received from the right hon. Gentleman was: The Prime Minister's broadcast was not concerned with the furtherance of the plans of any political party, but with what the present National Government have done and propose to do."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th April, 1944; col. 1997, Vol. 398.] To that reply there are two fairly obvious lines of objection, but I have time to deal with only one in detail. It is known, or perhaps it would be better to say that it is generally understood, that the Labour Party do not intend to remain an integral part of this Government during the period of post-war reconstruction. Therefore, when the Prime Minister goes to the microphone and spends half the time of a long speech in dealing with post-war reconstruction it is quite clear that he is presenting to the electors what will, in fact, become the post-war policy of the party which he leads, namely, the Conservative Party. I am not here to fight battles for the Labour Party; they are quite capable of looking after themselves, but when the Prime Minister uses the microphone in order to present to people what can be done in the way of post-war rebuilding, when land is still owned by private individuals, I must leave it to the Labour Party, whose official policy it is that all land should be nationalised, to take their own steps to see that their views are also presented.

I would prefer to spend such time as I have to take a different line of objection to the Minister's answer, and to accept for the purposes of my argument his view that the Government is one and indivisible and permanently one and indivisible. Accepting that assumption—although I think it is a bad one—I want if I can to dislodge him from any high horse which he might intend to mount and to prevent him from giving himself airs as if on this matter of post-war reconstruction he represents all the solid, sensible, united citizens of this country whereas I, on this matter, represent only a miserable coterie of little folk who run beside the juggernaut car of war to see what fun and notoriety they can get out of it. I do not know what proportion of our electors would have confidence in the post-war intentions of the Labour Party if they came out and really fought for their Socialist principles, but we do know, roughly speaking, what proportion of our people have confidence in the post-war intentions of this Government, dominated as it is by the Conservative Party, because this is an issue which has been tested several times in representative constituencies in the last few months in by-elections when Conservative candidates have offered themselves for election. There can really be no doubt that in every one of these elections the Conservative candidate and his speakers, and the Conservative Press, present the by-election to the citizens of the country as a straight vote of confidence or no confidence in this Government, and, when very large numbers of citizens express their complete lack of confidence, the same Conservative agencies are always at pains to explain that the electors obviously do not lack any confidence in the present direction of the war. Then in what, pray, have they expressed their lack of confidence? Obviously, even apart from having been present at some of these by-elections and having heard the speeches of the leaders on both sides, they are in fact expressing their lack of confidence in the post-war intentions of this Government—

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."—[Mr, James Stuart.]

Sir R. Acland

I should be fully justified in insisting that one half of the electors, that is to say all the fighters and workers in this war effort, have no confidence in the post-war intentions of the Government. If we had plenty of time I would insist on the figure of a half, but I do not want to put up points which might distract the Minister into dealing with side issues, and therefore I will use a quite neutral phrase, because I am not arguing that a half of the time that the B.B.C devotes to post-war problems should be given to citizens who in general agree with me. I should be content with a tenth or a fiftieth of that time, and for my purposes it is enough to use a phrase with which no one on the opposite side will be able to quarrel, and say that it is undeniable that a very substantial proportion of the citizens of the country have no confidence whatever in the post-war intentions of this Coalition Government, dominated as it is by the party which the Prime Minister leads. The Prime Minister uses his position to paint in the most rosy colours a post-war policy with which these very substantial numbers of citizens profoundly and resolutely disagree, and the short point that I am putting to the Minister is, When is one of the representatives of the very large number of our fellow citizens going to be given the right of reply? It is a quite simple democratic point.

I only prolong my remarks in order to prevent the Minister, if I can, from giving me a bad answer. I really do not want him to get up and say, "It is all right, the B.B.C is constantly having discussions on post-war reconstruction. All sorts of people are asked to join in the discussions, so why not the Prime Minister?" I do not want him to take that line, because I know he is constantly arranging little discussions on post-war reconstruction. Of course he is, bless his heart. Therefore I listen to some of these discussions on post-war reconstruction. They are tepid little debates on some little trivial proposals for some superficial reform in the present order of society. In fact, you might be listening to a Debate in the House of Commons. Occasionally even members of the Labour Party are allowed to take part in these debates when the subject is such that they are bound to be harmless, or when their script has been censored, or when their personal opinions are so tame that they will not say anything to which the Conservative Party would object.

Every one of the B.B.C. discussions on post-war reconstruction is, explicitly or implicitly, based on the assumption that the present economic order of our country is to remain substantially unchanged into the peace. That is the basic assumption of the Conservative Party. It is that basic assumption which has been firmly and resolutely rejected by a very large proportion of those now fighting and working for victory, and for a chance of being able to tackle the problems of reconstruction under conditions of democratic freedom. These people are earnestly and sincerely convinced that there is no chance for the survival of this country, unless the economic order as we know it to-day is not merely tampered with, but simply transformed, not slowly but rapidly, into an economic order based, not on the private ownership, but on the common ownership of the means of production.

I am asking a quite simple question: Seeing that the views of these citizens on post-war questions have not once been expressed on the B.B.C. in the last four years of war, when are they going to be expressed? I am not complaining about the Prime Minister's broadcast speech because it is different from or other than the general line of reconstruction talks on the B.B.C; I am complaining because he sets up a highly decorative cornerstone to the whole towering edifice of B.B.C. post-war propaganda. He uses his prestige and position and his microphone skill to paint in glowing colours all that he and the Conservative Party think can be done under public control by privately owned big business. There are some people in this country who think that nothing can be done under that system, and I ask: When are they to be given a chance to speak?

This matter is of some interest to me for rather a special reason. We who are Socialists have to put up with a great deal of criticism of our proposals. We appreciate that we are making far-reaching suggestions and that they have to be examined and criticised from every point of view. One of the criticisms most often addressed to us is that under a Socialist Government those who disagree with the Government would not get a chance to speak. Now we have a state of affairs under which under a capitalist Government you have, for four years, excluded from the B.B.C. anybody who wanted to make any fundamental change in the fundamental things which they believe in. Is the Minister going to put that right or are we going to hear less of this particular line of criticism against those who hold the views which I hold?

Mr. E. P. Smith (Ashford)

. The hon. gentleman said just now that he was a Socialist. Did he not, when he was fighting me in the Ashford Division, say that he was a Christian Communist?

Sir R. Acland

No. I do not think that in so short a time I can clear up the point about these theoretical names. I did not use the name, but I think I shall be right in not wasting time on this kind of point. I have raised a perfectly clear question.

Mr. Edgar Granville (Eye)

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Information is going to make a Government pronouncement upon this very important question of the power of the Government of the day of complete control over what amounts to a monopoly broadcasting system in this country. On occasions when we have raised this question, the Minister of Information has told us that he has taken the trouble to get counsel's opinion on the exact power of the Minister of Information over the B.B.C. Of course, the charter of the B.B.C. is vested not in the Postmaster-General but in the Minister of Information, who has told us that, as regards the war effort, he has complete control politically over the B.B.C. Time and time again, when answering Questions, he has come to that Box in the white cloth of democracy, saying that he does not intend to interfere with the internal workings of the B.B.C, yet everybody knows that, to all intents and purposes, he has absolute and complete political control over the British Broadcasting Corporation. If that is not so, is it not remarkable that we never hear the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan) state his political views on the broadcast or the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher)?

Mr. Bartle Bull (Enfield)

We know tliem already. We have heard them here.

Mr. Granville

Why is it that we never hear the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton)? It must be obvious that this is more than a mere accident of circumstance. As the hon. Baronet has suggested, the Prime Minister has already broadcast the Government's election policy for the General Election, when he gave his views upon health, housing, unemployment and his four-year plan. For instance, the electors in the constituencies of the Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister of Information, whether serving in Burma, North Africa or elsewhere, have heard their election address put over already by the Prime Minister. Surely we have now reached the stage when the Government should tell us when those who disagree with certain aspects of their domestic proposals are to be given an opportunity to state their disagreement with the Government's declarations on post-war plans.

This is a new problem in our Parliamentary democracy. Some of us have suggested that it is important enough to be dealt with at Mr. Speaker's Conference, or by a Royal Commission. In previous General Elections time has been given to the Government, the party in opposition, the Liberal party and various other parties, to state their policies. Surely the Government are not going to leave it until the General Election before other parties can put over their programmes and policies to the electors of the country. In America, where there are competitive networks, it is possible, as Mr. Wendell Willkie did, perhaps with unfortunate results, to buy time and put over your views, but here the apportioning of political broadcasting time is absolutely in the hands of the Minister of Information. It is impossible for Opposition elements to put over their policy unless the Government are disposed to make a decision or interpretation that time should be given before the General Election takes place for democracy to be heard. I hope the Government are going to treat this as an important question. As the hon. Baronet said, it affects the party above the Gangway very considerably. I hope we are not going to be given some remote controlled wisecracks or smokescreens of power politics from Paddington. I hope we shall be told that the Government are of opinion that we are near enough to a General Election to consider this problem from an entirely different aspect from what is known as the war effort. Therefore I beg the House to look at this new and important problem of the relationship of the Government of the day to a monopoly system of broadcasting and in the precedent that is to be established for the future, I hope the Minister will say the Government have considered this and that he will give a favourable reply.

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

On a point of procedure. While I do not mind the speech of the Prime Minister—which I think converted large numbers to my view—I should like to know why we have not a Minister present to-day. This is a departmental matter of principle, and there is no Cabinet Minister on the Front Bench.

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

I will deal with that point at once. The Minister was very anxious to come here and deal with this subject, but there is a meeting of the Cabinet this evening and consequently he is not able to be present, much to his regret.

Mr. Granville

May I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he means, as the Minister is engaged at a Cabinet meeting, that he himself has come here and is to state Government policy and not merely to make a Departmental reply?

Mr. Thurtle

Certainly, I am going to state the point of view of the Minister of Information, and I hope before I sit down I shall have made that quite clear.

The hon. Baronet in the course of his remarks indulged in a good deal of speculation as to what is in the minds of civilian electors and members of the Forces, and as to what will happen when a General Election comes. I do not propose to follow him into that realm of speculation, but to confine myself to hard facts. There is one comment I would make on what he said and what was said by the hon. Member below the Gangway. Both seemed to express great solicitude for the Labour Party and for what might happen to that party. I should like to assure them, as I am a humble Member of the Labour Party, that I think the Labour Party is quite capable of looking after itself. It appears to me that the hon. Baronet, in raising this matter, is under a misapprehension. He seemed to make the assumption that the Prime Minister in his broadcast was speaking as the leader of a political party. That was not the case. The Prime Minister was speaking as the head of a National Government which has within it representatives of the three main parties in the country. The position he enjoys is, I submit, a special privilege. I take it that even the hon. Baronet would not suggest that the B.B.C. ought to have disallowed this broadcast by the Prime Minister.

It is a part of my case that the Prime Minister, as the head of a National Government comprising the three main parties, is in a very special position in regard to the broadcasting system in our country. I would say that that would apply to any Prime Minister, but it applies with special force to the present Prime Minister, because as I say he is not the head of a merely party Government but the head of a National Government comprising several parties. I submit, therefore, he is in a special position. No one would suggest, I think, that the Prime Minister has taken undue advantage of that special position in regard to broadcasting. He has broadcast on a considerable number of occasions, it is true; but he has always broadcast, I think, with the approval of the great mass of the people of this country. It is just commonplace that, because of his rare gifts of language and because of the outstanding position that he occupies in the world, almost every one of those broadcasts has been of great advantage to the Allied cause, and has been very popular with the people of this country. It is true that these broadcasts have dealt in the main with what I might call war and world issues. As I understand it, the objection to this particular broadcast is that it was dealing with domestic issues, and, also, that it was dealing in a partisan way with those issues; in other words, that it was an attempt at vote-catching.

Sir R. Acland

There is no objection to that, so long as somebody can express a contrary view.

Mr. Thurtle

I will deal with that before I sit down. I merely wish to make the position of the Prime Minister quite clear. What he did in this broadcast was to elaborate the views and plans of the Government—he was not speaking for himself, but for the Government—which he had broadcast about 12 months earlier. It may be remembered that on 21st March, 1943, the Prime Minister made a broadcast in which he dealt with the domestic issues of homes, food, and work. He specified that there were five or six fields in which action would be necessary. [An HON. MEMBER: "A four-year plan."] A four-year plan. That was dealing with the transitional period from war to peace. I would point out that there was not the least criticism, not the least whisper of any partisanship, in regard to that broadcast. The second broadcast, about which I am speaking now, was merely a logical amplification of that other broadcast. It dealt with very much the same subjects. It dealt with education, health, housing, agriculture, and demobilisation. The Prime Minister was putting the views of the Government on these essential, urgent matters. Surely it is the right of the Prime Minister to make clear to the people of this country what the Government stand for in regard to those matters. Surely there is no better method of doing that than through the mouth of the Prime Minister himself. The objection which is taken to this seems to me to indicate that some people would rather that the mass of the electors were ignorant of the point of view of the Government on this matter.

Sir R. Actaid

Do not misrepresent us.

Mr. Thurtle

I would point out that there is no question of asking them to approve: the people may approve or disapprove of the policy which is put before them in this way. But surely they have a right to know what it is.

Mr. Kirkwood (Dumbarton Burghs)

This is a democratic country.

Mr. Thurtle

And in a democratic country the great mass of the people are entitled to know where the Government of the day stand on these great issues.

Mr. A. Bevan

Not only the Government.

Mr. John Dugdale (West Bromwich)

Had this statement the approval of the Cabinet first?

Mr. Thurtle

It had the approval of the Cabinet: I can say that without any qualification. I gather that the hon. Member does not object to the Prime Minister being allowed to broadcast. But his point is that other people should be allowed to reply to the Prime Minister. I would say to the hon. Baronet, therefore, that what he is doing is this. He is saying that, when the Prime Minister wishes to broadcast, he will lay down such unreasonable and unworkable conditions that the right hon. Gentleman will not be able to broadcast. [Interruption.] I suggest that the hon. Baronet, in laying down that other parties and other people should be allowed to reply to the Prime Minister when he broadcasts on these issues, is making an impossible condition. If one of the three main parties in this Government were to take exception to this broadcast, and ask to be allowed to reply to it, that would be a matter of very serious consideration. [Interruption.] It surely is not to be seriously suggested that every little set, every political group, is to have the right of reply?

Mr. Bevan

Why not?

Mr. Thurtle

I think the hon. baronet will admit—he has some experience of it —that there is a parlous tendency in British political parties to split apart. I could name him 10 different parties, who, if the right to reply were conceded, would claim that rght. If the hon, baronet were to speak does he think that the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) would accept him as a proper spokesman —and what about the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton)? I say, therefore, that if you concede that these parties should have the right of reply, you are reducing the thing to a farce.

Mr. Granville

Is the Minister suggesting that they will not be given these facilities during a General Election?

Mr. Thurtle

If we are to argue this matter on democratic grounds, and if the Common Wealth Party, for example, is allowed to broadcast, why should not the Communist Party?

Mr. Bevan

Why should they not?

Mr. Thurtle

Why should not all parties—the Communist Revolutionary Party, for example? I submit that it is reducing the whole thing to a farce. The fact is, and this cannot be gainsaid, that the Prime Minister of the National Government, with the three main parties in it, speaking in the name of the Government, is in a very special position in regard to broadcasting. That is recognised, I think, by the bulk of hon. Members of this House and by the great majority of people outside, and that, I think, is a sufficient reply to the hon. baronet.

Mr. Rhys Davies (Westhoughton)

I am astonished at the hon. Gentleman's reply, because what it means, in effect, is that only one voice shall speak and that is the voice of the Tory Party. I want to bring the hon. Gentleman up against a fact which I want him to bear in mind. There are about 20 of us on this side of the House who have sat every week to consider the problem of what the war is about. Why should we not? We have as much right as hon. Members opposite have. We have asked the B.B.C. twice whether they will allow one of our group to make a statement asking, not for peace, not for conditions of peace, but asking the British Government to give a statement of peace aims, and we have been refused on two occasions. I want to enter a protest against the use of this tremendous power of the microphone by a single party—the Tory Party in this country.

Mr. Wakefield (Swindon)

I want to enter a protest against the suggestion of the hon. Member opposite that the British Broadcasting Corporation is being used for the benefit of the Tory Party. The Deputy Prime Minister, the leader of the Labour Party, has spoken on the B.B.C. system, putting forward the policy of the National Government in exactly the same way as the Prime Minister. Does the hon. Gentleman really suggest that when the Deputy Prime Minister broadcasts, he is just putting forward Socialist or Labour Party principles alone and not the policy of the National Government? Surely, the Deputy Prime Minister is entitled to put forward the policy of the National Government in the same way as the Prime Minister. There is no immediate party policy question in putting forward that statement. I would like to—

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.