HC Deb 30 May 1946 vol 423 cc1466-74

Order for Second Reading read.

9.20 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Glenvil Hall)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The object of this Bill is to enable the trustees of the British Museum to-lend the Lacock Abbey copy of the Magna Carta to the Congress Library in Washington for a period of two years. The consent of Parliament is necessary to this because the British Museum, under the British Museum Act of 1924, can only make loans of its exhibits to galleries, museums, and exhibitions in this country, and not abroad. The British Museum, as I think most hon. Members know, has three copies of Magna Carta. Two came to them under the Cotton gift in 1700, but it was part of the terms of the gift that neither copy was to be sent abroad. Since then, through the generosity of Miss Talbot, another copy, know as the Lacock Abbey copy, has now come into the possession of the nation. No such limitation applies to this copy. The United States having expressed a desire to have a copy of Magna Carta on loan, this Bill will enable the Lacock Abbey copy to be sent.

This copy was issued 10 years after the gentlemen whose effigies adorn this Chamber had forced King John at Runnymede to sign the original Charter —

Sir Patrick Hannon (Birmingham, Moseley)

May I interrupt? I am interested in this copy. Do I understand the Financial Secretary to be supporting the decision taken in another place that the Charta should be lent and that the "h"Is not to be retained? Is he going to murder the aspirate in the title?

Mr. Glenvil Hall

Fortunately—perhaps largely due to the work of the gentlemen whose effigies are round this Chamber— this is a free country. My hon. Friend can put the " h "In if he likes or, like a very distinguished Member of this House who adorned its Debates some years ago, he can drop it entirely if he wishes. No one can say him nay I am using the spelling which has been adopted ' but I do not wish to foist it on any hon. or right hon. Member.

Sir P. Hannon

I am sorry to interrupt again. Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that in the Court Rolls of 1279, the historical significance of which, no doubt, he will, recall at once, the Charta was spelled —

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)

I think if the hon. Gentleman desires to speak, he had better seek to catch my eye.

Sir P. Hannon

Thank you, Sir.

Mr. Glenvil Hail

I have no doubt, Sir, that if my hon. Friend does catch your eye he will elaborate the point he is now making. My job here tonight is no more than to move, as briefly as possible, the Second Reading of this Measure. I was saying that owing to the kindness of Miss Talbot this copy has now come into the possession of the British nation. It is proposed under the terms of this Bill, which has already been passed in another place, to lend it for a period of two years to the United States for exhibition in the Congress Library at Washington.

The United States takes a great interest in this particular document. I understand that the Founding Fathers of the United States relied on this particular document, rather than on the original copy issued ten years before, for many of the principles upon which the constitution of the United States was founded. Therefore, it is apt that this particular copy should go, and I am sure that the House will agree to accept this Measure permit ting this.

9.26 p.m.

Mr. David Eccles (Chippenham)

I am sure there will be no opposition to this Bill, and I am very glad to associate my hon. Friends on this side with the tribute which the Financial Secretary has paid to Miss Talbot. Miss Talbot gave to the nation her copy of Magna Carta, which had been in the possession of her family for upwards of 700 years, and her munificence did not stop there. As the House probably knows, she also made over to the National Trust the abbey and village of Lacock. I suppose we shall debate to the end of time which is the most beautiful English village, but, laying aside my personal predilection for Wiltshire and my affection for the part of the country which I represent, I do not think there could be found in the United Kingdom a more lovely group of buildings, taking the village and abbey together, set in a more lovely countryside.

Miss Talbot, having given away her real estate, might have kept, or sold for a great price, this copy of Magna Carta. She might have got over half a million dollars for it. It was the only copy in private hands of the most famous document relating to English liberties, but she chose to give it to the nation. If any hon. Member should ever be tempted, and I am sure that none ever will, to think poorly of the voluntary spirit, he might ruminate upon this act. I could wish that this copy had stayed at Lacock in the keeping of the National Trust, but centralisaion is in fashion and London stretches out its tentacles and grasps all the valuable things from the provinces. Miss Talbot was persuaded, so it was stated in another place, that this manuscript could only be properly looked after in London. It was said that, as soon as it had been conveyed to the British Museum, it would be absolutely safe and free from all risk. But what happened? Within a few hours of Miss Talbot making her gift, His Majesty's Embassy in Washington was applying through the Foreign Office for the manuscript to be sent across the Atlantic.

I am aware that Mr. Speaker is one of the trustees of the British Museum, and I have no doubt this request from Washington came as a surprise to the trustees, but what a symbolic story it is. Here is freedom's charter, wheedled out of the countryside by a high-sounding plea that the stuff and form of liberty will be safe in London, and, no sooner does the country cousin get to London than she is to be packed up and shipped off 3,000 miles away from her promised refuge. Miss Talbot was quite right to agree that the document should go to the United States. I think its presence there might do some good at the present time. In that country, founded on a desire to escape from the arbitrary control of government, there is now a regrettable doubt about the strength of our love of liberty, and some antidote is needed to Socialist professors and other illiberal exports. I can well imagine the Lord President of the Council and his colleagues jumping at the opportunity to despatch across the Atlantic so signal and salutary an instrument of.decontamination. We on this side of the House applaud that decision.

I would like to say a word about the principle of allowing the treasures of the British Museum to go abroad. In my judgment, we should only do this as an exception and not as a habit. The Museum possesses many priceless and indeed, unique treasures and it would be unwise to have any number of them running round the world on journeys where the risk of loss or damage must occur, however well they are packed and however well they are looked after. I hope that after this Bill there will be no pressure to bring in a more general Bill to give the trustees of the Museum power to accede to any request coming from abroad. We ought to treat each case on its merits. I was delighted to hear the Financial Secretary state that the other two copies of Magna Carta now in the possession of the Museum could not properly be sent abroad owing to the terms of the gift of Sir Henry Cotton, I think it was, at the end of the 17th century. I only wish that the Minister of Health, when he was framing his proposals for dealing with the endowments of voluntary hospitals, had had a similar respect for conditions attached to the gifts.

I do not know what my hon. Friend the Member for the Moseley Division of Birmingham (Sir P. Hannon) is going to say about the spelling of " Carta."In my opinion, their lordships in another place very properly removed from the text of the Bill the offending aspirate, the vulgar interloper in the word " Carta."I trust that His Majesty's Government will not in any spirit of tit for tat, having regard to what happened to the Borrowing Bill, put down an Amendment to restore that " h " because if they do I must say that I shall come to the Committee armed with all the classical and mediaeval references to support the good conservative proposition that the " h " which King John and his subjects dispensed with at Runnymede should not be restored today by the Financial Secretary and his friends at Transport House. I am glad this document is going to America for two years. I do not think it is the only one of our liberties temporarily out of our keeping. I am sure that the United States will restore this particular treasure to us at the end of the two years and I have a feeling that, about the same time, the British people may demand back all their other liberties.

9.33 p.m.

Sir Patrick Hannon (Birmingham, Moseley)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles) that we ought to be particularly careful about the extent to which we allow our ancient collections in the British Museum, or elsewhere, to be sent abroad. I think he is perfecly correct in the view he takes of the importance of retaining in this country our own treasures under the careful custody of our own local organisations. But, in the matter of the spelling of Magna Charta, I am entirely a" variance with my hon. Friend. In another place, this question was discussed as a matter of very serious and Imperial importance. Indeed, it was much talked about, and my Noble Friend Lord Soul-bury, in a letter to "The Times," staggered me with his research into the ancient writings when he mentioned the preference of Catullus for dispensing with the " h " and spelling it " Carta."I ask the House, what Catullus in the 4th century had to do with the spelling of Magna Charta.

Mr. Speaker

That would be a more appropriate point for the Committee stage.

Sir P. Hannon

I am always entirely obedient to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, but this matter of orthography has been raised, and as I have had some modest association with this matter, I would submit, with great respect to you, Sir, that it cannot be treated like that. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham I am making no complaint about our treasures going abroad, but if this document goes abroad I want it to be spelt correctly.

Mr. Speaker

I would suggest that this point would be more suitable for an Amendment of Title in Committee.

Sir P. Hannon

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will put down that Amendment to the Title at the appropriate time.

9.35 p.m.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

I noticed a discrepancy in the remarks of the Financial Secretary, and I would like to ask for an explanation. He quoted the British Museum Act; perhaps he would refresh the memory of the House as to the date.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

The date was 1924.

Mr. Keeling

He quoted the British Museum Act of 1924 which prevents any copy of the Charter from being sent abroad. He went on to say that two of their three copies were part of the gift of Sir Henry Cotton, I think in the year 1700, and it was an expressed condition in the gift of those copies to the British Museum that they should not be sent abroad, Surely, the Government are not at this stage of their existence going to take any notice of conditions of charitable gifts. Surely, they will base all their faith upon an Act of Parliament. I do not see how they can base it on both.

Mr. Eccles

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I would point out that there are three copies of Magna Carta in the British Museum, and two are in the Cotton gift which have nothing whatever to do with Miss Talbot's copy.

Mr. Keeling

I think that has cleared it up.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

The hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong, but I hope I made that clear in my speech. Actually, there is another copy in Lincoln Cathedral, but I did not refer to it because it is not in the Bill and we were dealing with one particular copy.

Mr. Keeling

If I am wrong I apologise. We shall see in HANSARD tomorrow.

One would have expected this Bill to have originated in another place because, after all, it was the Barons who were responsible for Magna Carta. Another place also took the heavy responsibility upon itself in 1938 of trying to alter Magna Carta. That attempt was very properly rejected by this House. I think it is appropriate that we should lend a copy of Magna Carta to America because American law has been built up on English law, and Magna Carta is just as much a part of American law as it is of English law. However, I would like to make a suggestion to the Government. When this copy of Magna Carta comes safely back from America, would they consider lending it to our Eastern ally who, perhaps, may have even greater need of it?

9.39 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton (Brixton)

May I take this opportunity of congratulating my hon. Friend upon the clarity and brevity of his speech in moving the Second Reading, and of the legislation which we are considering? When this Bill is carried, as I have no doubt it will be, one more of our national treasures will make a transatlantic crossing but, unlike other treasures which have gone never to return, the document in this case will come back to this country in two years' time. The fact that legislation is required to enable the Lacock Abbey edition of Magna Carta to go to the United States of America on loan is an indication of the importance of the concession which this House is now being asked to make. No strings are attached to this loan, and no bargaining of any kind is involved. This loan will, I hope, consolidate the cultural relationship with our American friends. I would not be so temerarious as the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles) in suggesting that the despatch of this valuable document will have a decontaminating effect upon our American Allies. I do say that the strengthening of the links between this country and the United States.of America is a very desirable thing. International relations and mutual understanding do not entirely depend on treaties and financial agreements, but also on mutual appreciation of our common heritage.

It is right, and in my view appropriate, that the country in which "The four freedoms " were eloquently asserted by that great figure Franklin Roosevelt should be the guardian, if only for a period of two years, of that historic document of which, in a sense, the four freedoms are the spiritual descendants. I do not associate myself with the argument which has been put forward, that the proposed loan should be regarded with grave suspicion, and that the document should be kept here so that Americans will be compelled to spend American dollars to come here to see it. If by a loan of this kind we can educate peoples in other lands to share our conception of freedom, or at least to understand it, the proposal under consideration is in the highest degree worth while. Even in these hard-boiled days, and in a hard-boiled country like the United States of America, that is a factor not to be ignored. This country may not lead the world in various aspects of commercial or industrial endeavour, but there are respects in which we must try to lead the world morally, by emphasising those aspects of our common heritage without which the world would be a bleak habitation. This particular proposal is one which I hope may, in special cases and on very special occasions, be repeated in future.

9.42 p.m.

Mr. Maude (Exeter)

I may be the only person in the House tonight who, in the Library of Congress not many years ago, saw a copy of Magna Carta. It was splendidly kept, and very much admired. Everybody in the House tonight can rest assured that the librarian of Congress will look after this document in a manner beyond reproach. Indeed, I would like to add what is sometimes forgotten here, I think, that there are many things in the United States, particularly on the Eastern seaboard, which make an Englishman, and a Scotsman as well, feel at home. For instance, in Philadelphia one can go into the parish church and find old silver, the chalice and so on; in Mount Vernon, Washington's home, there is beautiful English furniture; in Williamsburg one feels oneself in a very beautiful English village. Sometimes Americans do not convey to us exactly how strongly they feel, although it is not always easy to say what one really feels about a foreign country. It was best put, I think—it may be useful to repeat this tonight—when Admiral Sampson, replying to a speech delivered by Admiral Jackie Fisher who proposed die health of the American Navy, was a little embarrassed what to say about the British. He rose to his feet and said what is so real, and so sensible: Gentlemen, I give you a toast. Here's to that damned fine old hen which hatched the American eagle. I can assure the House that sending this copy of Magna Carta to America is an excellent thing, and the Goverment should be congratulated upon it.

Question, put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Monday next— [Mr. Joseph Henderson.]