HL Deb 08 July 1941 vol 119 cc689-94

LORD STRABOLGI had the following Notice on the Paper: To ask His Majesty's Government, who decides which allied national anthems shall be played on Sunday evenings before the nine o'clock news; what is the reason why the Russian national anthem was no: played with the others on the evening of 29th June; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion which stands in my name. If I might just remind your Lordships of the fact, it has been the pleasant custom of the British Broadcasting Corporation to play the anthems of the nations fighting with us against Nazi tyranny before the nine o'clock news on Sunday evenings. On June 22, at dawn, our Nazi enemies made a wanton and murderous attack on the territories of the U.S.S.R., and that evening the Prime Minister made his great speech over the ether in which, I venture to say, he gave a lead not only to the peoples of the Empire but to the whole world, declaring our firm resolve to fight with Russia to victory and to give all possible aid. With reassuring promptitude a British Military, Naval, and Economic Mission was sent to Moscow, and I very much hope a Russian Mission is on its way here. It might be able to give us some badly-needed advice.

On June 29, the following Sunday, Herr Hitler having followed his usual practice of attacking a neighbour on a Sunday, the national anthems were played as usual, but the Russian national anthem was omitted. I happen to know that this created a great deal of surprise among a large number of people. Nor indeed was it played last Sunday. I submit that there are two hundred reasons for playing this anthem with the others, and they are the two hundred or so Russian divisions fighting at the present time against the enemies of mankind. I do not know what the official apologia is on this matter. I understand my noble friend Lord Snell will give the official reply, and he may argue that we have no formal alliance with Russia and therefore the Government of Russia is not an Ally. I have not heard of a formal alliance with the Government of Luxembourg, but I have been very glad to listen to the Luxembourg national anthem played over the ether. It may be argued that the national anthem of Russia, which is "The Internationale," is not a national anthem but an international song. It is perfectly true that some years ago it was fairly common for "The Internationale" to be sung at Labour Party gatherings in this country.

I have heard the present Home Secretary, Mr. Herbert Morrison, singing it with great gusto and evident enjoyment. I have even heard, more than once, my noble friend Lord Snell singing it with great efficiency. If my noble friend Lord Addison had been here, T should remind him that I have seen him going through the motions of singing it. Apart from that, those of your Lordships who visited Russia in the post-revolutionary days will have good cause to know that it is indeed the national anthem of that country. It is played there on every possible occasion, much more frequently than we play the British national anthem here. One important exception was when my right honourable friend the present Foreign Secretary, Mr. Anthony Eden, visited Moscow before the war, and "God Save the King" was played. I understand that after the speech on the Russian wireless by M. Stalin a few days ago, the playing of "God Save the King" followed.

There may be another argument, and that is that the words of the anthem are objectionable. You can take certain words from their context in "The Marseillaise," and if you sent them to certain quarters in this country they would say without hesitation that they were subversive. Lord Swinton's Committee, for instance, if some of the words of "The Marseillaise" were brought to their notice without explanation, would say, "Who dare utter these sentiments?" It is only a little more than a hundred years since Englishmen were deported or imprisoned for singing "The Marseillaise." Many of the national anthems we hear with pleasure on Sunday evenings, especially those of countries constituting the Succession States of the old Austrian Empire, were born in revolutionary times, and if you read their words literally they may be rather disturbing, but they have become the recognised anthems of these States. I do not think that that argument is at all a sound one.

If we recognise the full implications of alliance, with its symbolic aspects of which, of course, this is one, it does not mean that we embrace the principles of Communism here, as the Prime Minister in his magnificent speech on June 22, pointed out. Noble Lords in your Lordship's House before the present war used to advocate a closer understanding with the Nazi Government, but I never heard it said that they were advocating the principles of Nazism in this country. I therefore venture to put this Motion on the Paper, which I beg to move, in order to explore the situation. I would ask my noble friend Lord Snell, who is responsible in a case of this kind? The only light I have found on the matter is a cutting from the Sunday Despatch of the 29th June. According to this, the enterprising editor had got in touch with the Foreign Office authorities and with the B.B.C., and both declined any responsibility, the B.B.C. saying that it was a matter for the Foreign Office, and the Foreign Office saying that it was a matter for the B.B.C. If my noble friend tells me it is the Ministry of Information that is responsible, then I am very delighted to hear that the Ministry has been given some responsibility in at least one direction. Powever, it would be of interest to know whose responsibility it is, and if my noble friend could explain why this particular anthem is left out, I, for one, would be grateful. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, I do not propose to comment upon what has fallen from the noble Lord opposite, partly because in this Chamber it was almost as difficult to hear what he said as it was to see across it. No doubt there will be many opportunities of discussing it later on. I therefore only desire to ask one question, and that question is: Has this question on the Paper been put down at the request of the Soviet Government? I can hardly think that that is the case. I am inclined to believe it is due to what I might call the sympathy of the noble Lord opposite with his Soviet friends. In any case, I venture to suggest with great respect that the answer should be very carefully considered and not lead to any difficulties. It seems to me that at the present moment of all others, in view of the fact that Hitler is now trying to agitate the world against Bolshevism, it is a most urgent matter that we should not identify ourselves with Bolshevist principles or action generally. I am quite aware that this view has already been expressed by the Prime Minister, and I think it ought to be repeated upon the present occasion. No doubt there will be plenty of other occasions when the opportunity will arise for discussing this particular question.


My Lords, the noble Lord asked the general question as to who decided the anthems that were to precede the nine o'clock news on Sunday evenings. I will try to explain as shortly as I can precisely how these anthems have been selected and the reasons why some, at the present time, are left out. The playing of the national anthems of the Allies before the Home Service news at nine o'clock on Sundays began in the spring of 1940, when the only Allies involved were France and Poland. The Norwegian national anthem was added in April, 1940, the Dutch and Belgian in May, and the Czech national anthem in July, 1940, the Greek in October, that of Luxembourg in December, the Yugoslav in April, 1941, and the Ethiopian in May, 1941. The various countries were added as and when their Government refused to subject themselves to German control. The Danish and Rumanian Governments have never fulfilled this condition, and consequently the national anthems of these countries have not been added to the list. The Czech national anthem began to be played as soon as the Government of Dr. Benes had been recognised by His Majesty's Government. In somewhat the same way the Ethiopian national anthem was not played, in spite of pressure to the contrary, until the Emperor actually re-entered Addis Ababa.

There have been other competitors for inclusion in the series. Those have included the "Star Spangled Banner," which I imagine all of us would welcome if we heard it, the national songs of the Dominions, and even those of England, such as "Rule Britannia," and those of Wales and of Ireland. The reasons why these have not been included are fairly obvious. There is first of all the time factor. The number of Allies has become so great that the time needed to play their anthems in full is considerable enough to run the risk of boring some listeners. Accordingly various suggestions have been considered, such as playing shortened versions of these anthems, a course which might give rise to some soreness on the part of the nationals concerned, and of playing only a few each week.

The responsibility, which the noble Lord asked about, the decision of policy in this matter, rests with the Ministry of Information, which, however, consults the Foreign Office where suitable, and feels obliged to follow its views, for example, as regards the playing of anthems of countries not officially allied to us. The question whether the playing of national anthems of a seemingly endless series of Allies, all the victims of Germany, exercises a depressing or a heartening effect, has been considered on several occasions by the Ministry, and on balance it has been decided to retain the feature, at any rate for the present. The anthem of the U.S.S.R. was not played because, as was indicated in the Prime Minister's speech on June 22, the U.S.S.R. is not at present in the accepted sense of the word an Ally of this nation. That fact was recognised by the noble Lord in his opening remarks. I have no feeling about it myself other than if it were played I do not doubt I should feel my usual thrill of satisfaction at hearing it.


My Lords, I am very much obliged to my noble friend. Your Lordships will agree he has given us some very interesting information. I thank him and I am sure your Lordships would wish me to thank him on behalf of the House. I do hope that these national anthems, whatever the decision may be about Russia, will not be dropped, because I have reason to believe they are a very popular feature. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, I think was trying to enliven our rather hot proceedings this afternoon by a little joke when he suggested that this question had been inspired by the Russian Government. Of course it had nothing whatever to do with any outside source at all. The only person consulted when this question was put down was my noble friend Lord Addison, whom I always consult before putting down any Motion, and he immediately agreed. However, I dare say my noble friend Lord Newton did not seriously intend what he said. As for alliances, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and I before very long will be walking together in Unter den Linden, and we can then cheer Russian and British tanks going in procession down that great thoroughfare. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned.