HC Deb 12 December 1963 vol 686 cc699-710

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

10.8 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)

Mr. Deputy-Speaker, you may recall that yesterday my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) gave the House a glimpse of the way in which elections are conducted in the Tory pocket borough of Kinross and West Perthshire. We got another taste of the way in which those elections are conducted on Friday, 6th November, in the small rural village of Madderty, in Perthshire, and that incident is the topic of this Adjournment debate. I have written to the Tory Member for that constituency and he has kindly replied.

Mr. Charles A. Howell (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Who is he?

Mr. Hamilton

My hon. Friend will find out in due course. The story, briefly, is that on the morning of Friday, 1st November, the Tory candidate—a man called Home—had arranged to have an election meeting in the village hall. Unfortunately he was late for the meeting. I say unfortunately because a number of school children were kept waiting in the cold and rain for him to turn up.

Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)


Mr. Hamilton

The children were from the village school—about 40 in all. They were brought a distance of about 1½ miles to see this one candidate out of seven in the field. I should like to quote from an article that appeared not in the Daily Worker or in the Daily Herald, and not even in the Daily Mirror, but in the Scottish Daily Express of 2nd November. It is headed, Even The Children Could Scarce Forbear to Cheer. It says: They had been standing there at least 20 minutes before you "— that is, the Tory candidate— arrived, and they were still standing there in what was pretty heavy rain…after you drove to meet the farmers in the Perth cattle market There they were in a silent admiring huddle…about 40 small children who had been fetched…from the village primary school, a mile and a half away". He goes on to say that some of them were coughing, some of them were blue with cold, and makes other remarks of that kind.

I was in the constituency at the time, helping our candidate, and I wanted to know—I was desperately anxious to know—who had organised this particular exercise in modern democracy. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland asking him personally to intervene. I wrote on 6th November to try to find out and I asked specific questions. The hon. Lady the Under-Secretary of State replied in a lengthy letter dated 21st November—quite a long letter, two pages—but, interestingly enough, with not a single reference to the Tory candidate. There are 12 references to the Prime Minister in this letter, but not a single reference to the Tory candidate. No doubt this is an attempt to "brain wash" me.

Briefly, the story which the hon. Lady got from the Director of Education for Perthshire was this—I do not think that she will deny that this is the gist of it. A few days before the meeting, apparently some of the parents of the children asked the headmaster to release their children to go to see this man. The head told those parents that he had no authority to do that. Then, several of those parents made it clear that they intended to take the children in any case, and the headmaster yielded to that pressure from some of the parents. These are the words used in the hon. Lady's letter.

The headmaster thereupon consulted the Director of Education and the director consented to a 30-minutes absence on certain conditions. First, that the headmaster ensured that only those children should go to see the candidate whose parents wished them to go. Secondly, that the parents arranged the transport of the children. Thirdly—I think that this is rich—that the children of the dissenting parents stayed at school. This was to sort out the "conformists" from the "nonconformists." Fourthly, the children must watch the candidate, but not listen to his political speech—about the only bit of sound advice that they got.

How were the parents consulted? The letter says that there was a shortage of time, in fact, there were a few days, according to the letter. But shortness of time prevented the headmaster from consulting the parents personally, but he asked the children to consult the parents. According to the letter: All the children reported that their parents agreed. No doubt the same result would have been obtained in the Soviet Union if the same kind of exercise had been gone through.

The parents laid on the transport and the children went to the village hall, not to sit comfortably inside the hall but to stand, miserable, wet and cold, waiting for the appearance of the "Jehovah" called Home. They waited for more than 20 minutes before he arrived. They were still waiting after his meeting, when he sped on his way to the Perth Cattle Market, and it was turned mid-day before they got back to school. That is the official version of the hon. Lady, the Under-Secretary in consultation with the Director of Education for Perthshire.

What is the version of the man who was on the spot? The man on the spot had no doubt what happened. Mr. George Gale said: I spoke to Mrs. Willie McIntosh—she's the wife of the local branch chairman of the Unionist Party—asking her, 'Who laid this on', pointing to the children. ' Oh, we did,' she said. 'The school is a mile and a half away'. 'Whose idea was it?'—' Oh, mine and my husband's, I think. We spoke to the schoolmaster about it and I think the director of education'. 'Have you considered putting the cost of the cars down on the election expenses? '—'Oh, no. After all, he is the Prime Minister', she said. Having got that information from the Tory organisers, he then went to the headmaster, Mr. Ian McKinnie, and in that interview with the headmaster there was no mention by the schoolmaster of any conditions having been laid down by the Director of Education as indicated in the official letter from the Department. According to the headmaster he had just mentioned it to the director who, "did not mind". In fact, the headmaster gave the impression in the interview that it was his idea. To quote his words: We thought it would be interesting for the children… adding hastily, this is Mr. Gale's report— …'I am not very keen that my name should be mentioned. We're supposed to be neutral'. This is the local headmaster. When the Tory candidate saw the publicity that was given to this incident, he excused it on two grounds. First, he said that he knew nothing about it. I remember another Prime Minister saying that in another context—no one had told him. Secondly, he said that, anyway, a Prime Minister was an odd specimen. We all agree on that. He did not visit places like Madderty every day of the week and, therefore, the children, naturally, would want to see him. I am sure that this is indelibly inscribed on their memories. They will never forget the sight of this man coming to their village and it will probably be the last time he will ever be there.

I ask the Under-Secretary: if my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition had gone as Prime Minister to that constituency, supporting a Labour candidate, and had appeared in Madderty, does the hon. Lady think that those children would have been brought along to see him? One has just to ask the question to realise the absurdity of it. In any case the candidate, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, was not there as Prime Minister. He was there as the Tory candidate, one of seven in the field.

Again, I quote the article: Now this, Sir Alec, is not a royal visit. It is not even a Prime Minister's tour. You are, up here in Perthshire, one of seven by-election candidates. It is not your fault that everywhere you go, you are followed by a vast cavalcade of reporters and photographers, of course. Nor is it your fault that people gather by the wayside to see your car speed by. This is how he did his canvassing, at 70 miles an hour. In fact, he was shrimping for votes in Madderty and nothing else.

Of the two versions of the story I accept that of Gale and I reject the version of the Department, coming as it did from the Tory-controlled education authority. I think that the truth is that local Tory pressure was brought to bear on the headmaster. The pressures of scarcely veiled threats of social ostracism which we had fondly thought belonged to a bygone age were everywhere apparent in this by-election. Everyone who went there saw this—

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. J. A. Stodart)


Mr. Hamilton

—and, not surprisingly, none more servile than the hon. Member who this day has his reward.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Will my hon. Friend accept from me the fact that one of the other candidates who stood against the Prime Minister has, for business reasons we believe, emigrated because his business has been taken away from him?

Mr. Hamilton

I am not in the slightest degree surprised at that. There are, I think, considerable pressures—economic and other kinds—brought on nonconformists to the Tory political doctrine in that constituency.

It is not surprising that the headmaster of that small school yielded to that kind of pressure. He may be a Tory supporter and it would be interesting to know whether he was a polling official on election day, because I have never seen—and in this I support what was said yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley—the electoral law flouted so openly as it was at that by-election. My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) was perfectly justified in what he said yesterday.

If the people of West Perthshire and Kinross want to wallow in their fuedal subservience and sickening obsequiousness, that is their doubtful privilege. Of course, the Prime Minister has lived and fed on that kind of society since he was born. Whether he chooses to continue to do that for the rest of his life is a matter for him, but, meanwhile, I suggest that he should discourage his over-enthusiastic local supporters from debasing the political coinage by stooping to such odious methods as were used at Madderty on this occasion.

The hon. Lady the Under-Secretary said that it was all above board, all legitimate, that it was an educational visit for these children to go and see this fellow. But as the Scottish Daily Express concluded, and as I conclude: But your supporters, Sir Alec, are very enthusiastic people and I daresay many of them haven't seen a Prime Minister before. Sometimes, driving between meetings you listened to the car radio. I don't know if you've heard it, but immediately after we drove off from Madderty, Max By graves came on the radio to sing a song from a new show, 'It's legitimate, it's legitimate. It's as pure as the driven snow'. It may all have been legitimate today. But, looking at the children standing in the cold rain at Madderty, as we drove away, it seemed to me, as the American wit Dorothy Parker once said,' As pure as the driven slush'. It was, in my view, all the more reprehensible because it was all so unnecessary in a constituency like West Perthshire and Kinross. There is not a seat in the Soviet Union safer than that from the point of view of the Tory Party. The Prime Minister could have put one of his own sheep up and the Tories would have voted for that sheep. Therefore, it seems quite absurd that the Tory Party should lend itself to the suspicion that this was laid on for Tory political purposes, and the educational value of such a visit was absolutely nil.

10.24 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lady Tweedsmuir)

If I may say so, I thought that the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton) made extremely heavy weather of a rather interesting affair because, apart from him, and, I understand, an old-age pensioner, no one has complained to the Secretary of State about the events of 1st November at Madderty, and the education authority, which fully supports the Director of Education and the headmaster, knows of no complaints whatever.

After the appearance of the article in the Scottish Daily Express the headmaster spoke to a number of parents and none of them expressed dissatisfaction at what had taken place. Indeed, it is interesting to note that the parents were very pleased indeed that their children should have been given the opportunity of seeing the Prime Minister. Some of them expressed considerable annoyance at the terms of the article in the Daily Express. As the hon. Member has not seen fit to do so, perhaps I should briefly recount the circumstances of this case.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

The noble Lady was not there.

Lady Tweedsmuir

No, I was not, but the hon. Member has raised the matter on the Adjournment and therefore it is my obligation to answer the debate.

The management and control of Madderty School rests with Perthshire Education Authority, which through the Director of Education gave prior approval to the arrangements proposed by the headmaster as, indeed, I specified, as the hon. Member said, in a rather lengthy letter of two pages. But the hon. Member asked me a rather lengthy number of questions and I thought in fairness that I should give a lengthy reply.

The children were released on the initiative of some of the parents and with the agreement of all of them. They were released specifically to see the Prime Minister, and the arrangements were intended to ensure that they were not present while the Prime Minister was giving his talk. I have to record, however, that one of the comments which I made in my letter to the hon. Member was not correct. I think that I said to him that the hall was reserved for a political speech. After further inquiries, which owing to the postponement of the Adjournment debate I had further time to make, I found that the hall was reserved only if it was raining.

Although Mr. Gale who wrote the article in the Daily Express said that all the children's noses were blue and it was raining very hard, the fact remains, as I understand, that it was not raining hard enough for the meeting to be taken in the hall itself. I understand that Mr. Gale was not accustomed to the bracing climate of Perthshire and, that being so, he did not realise that a little rain was not what we in Scotland would call rain which would make it necessary to go into a hall.

I must admit that as a result of this arrangement the children were forced to listen to a political speech. The parents were informed that children whose patents did not want them to see the Prime Minister would remain in school under supervision until the others returned, but no parents chose to take advantage of this arrangement. The parents made their own arrangements for conveying the children to and from the village. The school work was interrupted for only about 35 minutes beyond the normal morning break. Therefore, I am driven to the conclusion that no breach of the electoral law or of the Schools (Scotland) Code occurred.

The code lays down in Regulation 10 that subject to certain arrangements in primary and secondary schools, meetings shall each extend over a period of not less than two hours. I should like the House to appreciate that the morning meeting of Madderty School starts at 9.30 and ends at 12.30, and as the children were absent from class only 45 minutes, including the normal morning interval of ten minutes, the requirement of two hours' secular education was fulfilled.

I should also draw the attention of the House to Regulation 1(1)(i) which defines a meeting an a series of periods separated only by time devoted to religious instruction or to school meals or by short intervals for changes of class room, recreation or other purposes. It is difficult to quote a precedent for the Madderty incident since the practice of letting children out for short periods to see distinguished public figures is so well established that education authorities normally expect headmasters to use their own discretion and not to seek prior approval from the Director of Education. Therefore, without examining school log books, directors would know only incidentally of such occasions.

The hon. Member for Fife, West seemed to imply that there was some kind of political indoctrination. I also happen to have read this article in the Daily Express and I perceive it was reported that the hon. Member for Fife, West said It is political indoctrination of our school children. Of course, one would not presume to suggest, although, in the context in which it is raised it cannot have failed to cross one's mind, that the Labour candidate was, of course, a school master and had in fact on very many occasions been very close to the school children in question, but one would never suggest—

Hon. Members


Mr. Willis

Not in west Perth.

Lady Tweedsmuir

—that he was in any way responsible for indoctrination—

Miss Herbison

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lady Tweedsmuir

No. I will not.

Miss Herbison

A shocking statement.

Lady Tweedsmuir

Because I absolutely fail to see that one could suggest that there was political indoctrination by the Prime Minister.

Furthermore, I would like to say that I understand from the public Press that the children of the Liberal candidate also had a peep at the Prime Minister. They had a peep, and they were of the opposite party and they apparently did not seem to suggest that there was any political indoctrination.

Mr. Hamilton

Did the hon. Lady ask them?

Lady Tweedsmuir

We like to show interest in a British Prime Minister, irrespective of party.

Mr. William Hannan (Glasgow, Maryhill)

On a point of order. My hon. Friend, on the Adjournment, was directing attention to a public authority for which the hon. Lady has some responsibility. Is it in order in reply to that debate to depart from the charge which is made against the Department and resort to an argument which is a personal inference that one of the candidates in this election was, because of his position as a teacher—

Miss Herbison

A shocking inference.

Mr. Hannan

—abusing it? Is it in order for a Minister in reply to an Adjournment debate to raise personal inferences of that kind?

Mr. Speaker

It is subject to the rules of order which govern our debates on the Adjournment.

Lady Tweedsmuir

I was very careful to say that we would certainly not suggest that the Labour candidate, because he was a school master, was responsible—

Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)

Will the hon. Lady tell us what she is suggesting?

Lady Tweedsmuir

I was refuting the suggestion that there was any political indoctrination. I would suggest to the House that the interest in a British Prime Minister is such that it is irrespective of political party. The Unionist candidate as such could not escape from being the Prime Minister. In fact the Prime Minister himself said: The Prime Minister is an odd specimen. I suppose they like to come and look. Therefore, the parents, it is not surprising, wished that their children should not be excluded from this historic event in their own countryside.

We have had six Scottish Prime Ministers since the century began, and only three have held or represented constituencies in Scotland, and the Prime Minister is in fact the fourth. I would suggest that this particular campaign was in many ways not unlike those of those candidates who have been Prime Ministers or who had hoped to be Prime Ministers. In particular I refer hon. Gentlemen to the famous Midlothian campaign of Mr. Gladstone. It will not be forgotten—and here I quote Bigham's Prime Ministers of Britain—that He unfolded to vast Scottish audiences, which hung upon his words, the principles which, as he conceived, should govern the policy of this country.

Mr. Willis

The children, too?

Lady Tweedsmuir

He made a succession of declamations which had an immense effect on the country as a whole.

Therefore, I would suggest to hon. Members that maybe with the present Prime Minister, a British Prime Minister, the parents of Perth and Kinross sense a greatness that in time they will not deny.

10.35 p.m.

Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)

The noble Lady the Under-secretary has treated this matter in a most disgraceful manner.

Mr. Lawson

In a facetious manner.

Miss Herbison

Yes, in a facetious manner.

The noble Lady started by treating the House as if this were of no importance whatever. She tried to say that there had been no breach of the Schools (Scotland) Code. We are not interested in whether this is a breach of that code or not. What we are interested in is the fact that children were taken along to hear one candidate of seven and that they heard that candidate. If the noble Lady does not think that is a disgraceful thing in a democratic country, she should not at any time in the future criticise, as we criticise, the kind of elections that they have in the Soviet Union and other places.

I have never heard from the Dispatch Box anything so disgraceful as the noble Lady's implication against the teacher who was standing as a candidate. Later, she said that she was not implying anything. The very fact that she mentioned that he was a teacher was a vile implication against his integrity as a teacher. I myself taught for many years before I became a Member of Parliament. At no time did I or any of my Socialist friends ever take advantage of our being teachers to indoctrinate our children in any way politically.

I now resume my seat so as to give the noble Lady half a minute to withdraw, in decency, the implication that she has made against a man who cannot himself stand up here and ask her to withdraw it.

Lady Tweedsmuir

I am delighted that the hon. Lady has left me half a minute in which to reply to the article which was the subject of this debate, in which it is clearly stated that the hon. Member for Fife, West—[Hon. MemBers: "Answer the debate!"]—said: It is political indoctrination of our children. I would say from everything that I have recorded in this debate that in no case—

Mr. W. Hamilton

Answer the charge.

Miss Herbison

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I gave way, leaving the noble Lady half a minute for one specific purpose. I was only giving way. The noble Lady, again in a very wrong way, has used my giving way for some other purpose.

Hon. Members


Mr. Hamilton

Will the noble Lady take this opportunity to withdraw the accusation she made against the Labour candidate in the constituency?

Lady Tweedsmuir

Mr. Speaker, I understood that you were about to rule on the point of order.

Mr. Speaker

I cannot do anything at all now. I confess that I did not understand that the hon. Lady was giving way. I thought that she had finished.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-two minutes to Eleven o'clock