HL Deb 07 May 1946 vol 141 cc5-13

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill which is to enable the Trustees of the British Museum to lend the Lacock Abbey edition of Magna Charta for a period of two years for public exhibition in the Library of Congress, United States of America. Your Lordships will notice that the word "Charta" is spelt with an "h," I am reminded that there should be an amendment to leave out the "h," but that is by the way. The position with regard to it is this.

The American people, like ourselves, share this great document in common. It is the foundation of their liberties and of our liberties. Your Lordships know that only quite recently they had in their possession the Lincoln Cathedral copy of Magna Charta, which was one of the four surviving examples of the original issue. That was lent by the Dean and Chapter, and not long ago, as your Lordships remember, was returned with due ceremonial. The Americans were greatly interested in that document, and they wanted very much to have the loan of another copy, but we, the Trustees of the British Museum, found it quite impossible to lend either of the Two copies resting there, because that is put out of our power by the terms of the Cotton Gift, made in 1700, to which they both belong. Meanwhile, as recently as July, 1945, Miss Matilda Talbot, of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, offered to the Trustees as a gift, her example of the final re-issue of the Charter made by King Henry III in 1225, which was, I think, ten years after the acceptance of the Charter by King John. It appears that this Magna Charta has been housed at Lacock Abbey for upwards of 700 years, and it has been in the possession of the Talbot family for a very great part of that time.

It is quite obvious that Miss Talbot, had she been so minded, could have sold that document for a vast sum of money, But she was anxious that the documents so long preserved by her ancestors should become for all time the possession of the British people, and she most generously offered it as a gift to the Trustees of the British Museum. Directly that gift was announced, our Embassy in Washington, through the Foreign Office, applied to the Trustees asking whether they would be prepared to lend the document for a short time—we have fixed the period at two years and no more—to the Library of Congress. We, the Trustees, replied that we should be willing to lend the document always provided that the consent of Parliament and of the donor, Miss Talbot, were obtained. Miss Talbot at once, very readily, gave her consent, obviously desiring that it should be done. Therefore I now come to your Lordships because, rightly I think, Parliament keeps complete control of this matter and the Trustees have no power to lend any document without the express approval of Parliament. It is under these circumstances that I move the Second Reading of this Bill. As I said before, I think it is only right that we should do all we can to consolidate our cultural relationship with the citizens of the great American Commonwealth. Magna Charta is a symbol of our common democratic heritage, and it is very right therefore that we should share it in common. For that reason I think it proper that we should lend this document for the two years specified by the Bill. I beg to move that the Bill be now given a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(The Lord Chancellor.)

2.44 p.m.


My Lords, may I just say that I imagine we shall give a Second Reading to the Bill with complete unanimity. It is not a matter of Party division in any way. If I may anticipate the point which the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, means to raise on the Committee stage I would say that we shall have the opportunity for a little display of pedantry. I would only venture to observe now, having looked it up in the Latin and Greek dictionaries in your Lordships' House within the last half hour, that the origin of our English word "Charter" is not Latin but Greek, and there cannot be the slightest doubt that the Greek word Xaprns is spelt with a X and not with a K. That word, in common with a great many words used in Latin which have their origin in Greek, was taken and copied quite exactly as regards its root. The consequence is that the word is classically written—for instance by Cicero and Pliny—as "Charta." I think that in good Latin it is not spelt without the "h."

On the other hand, I am aware that great authorities point out that the particular declaration as made by King John and confirmed by subsequent kings was called "Carta" without the "h." That may very likely be the better guide to follow. However, that is all I can offer on the pedantic plane at this stage. It will of course be more appropriate for us, when the Committee Stage is reached, to pursue the great principles involved in this little argument.

2.46 p.m.


My Lords, it is with some trepidation that I rise to address to your Lordships a few remarks on this Bill. I feel myself that it would be singularly unfortunate to lend this celebrated copy of Magna Charta for public exhibition in the United States of America. It is true that it was a gift from Miss Talbot to the British Museum, but the purpose of her gift I understand was to enable the British people to see this copy—which as the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, has said had rested for 700 years in her house—and that it should be seen for ever by the British people. I cannot help thinking with reference to these priceless possessions that are left by private donors for the benefit of the British people, that it is singularly unfortunate that Parliament should be asked, by Act of Parliament, to authorize that they should be shown in some foreign country. I agree that it is not quite so hard when we realize that Miss Talbot who was good enough to make this gift has agreed with the Trustees that the copy should be sent to America. But I do trust that this is not to be taken as a precedent, and that other priceless possessions, which are not the property of the Government but which are the property of the British people, should rest where they were originally consigned, namely inside the building of the British Museum.

2.48 p.m.


My Lords, I cannot help sharing the anxiety of the noble Earl who has just spoken. Perhaps I may be allowed to add a little concerning the early history of this matter. When Miss Talbot first gave Lacock Abbey to the National Trust she included her gift of this copy of Magna Charta, and as one of the officers of the National Trust I was extremely anxious that it should remain at Lacock Abbey, where it had been for 700 years. It would have been extremely interesting for the British people, I think, to be able to see it in the place where it had always been. But the British Museum authorities brought great pressure to bear on the National Trust and on Miss Talbot to remove it to the British Museum and not to keep it at Lacock Abbey, because of the extreme danger of keeping in a private house like Lacock Abbey such a priceless national possession. They grounded their case on the fact that if it once went to the British Museum it would be absolutely safe and would never be moved. Now the Museum authorities—presumably under propaganda pressure from the Government—are going to remove this priceless national possession. It would really have been very difficult for Miss Talbot, when the British Museum authorities asked for her permission, to do otherwise than to give that permission, but that is no reason, I think, why Parliament should not look with grave suspicion on this proposed plan. Surely this copy of Magna Charta, if it appeals so much to the Americans, will be a means of persuading them to come here to look at it? I always understood that the Government were extremely anxious to obtain as many American dollars as they could for the purposes of their financial position. Here the Government are throwing away something which will encourage American dollars to come to this country, and in doing so they are running a grave risk, by moving across the ocean and putting into strange hands something which is totally irreplaceable and of great national value.

2.52 p.m.


. My Lords, I do not think that the two speeches we have just listened to should go without reply. As a rule I listen to my noble friend the Earl of Munster with great interest and general agreement—even more general is my agreement with the noble Viscount, Lord Esher. But on this occasion I find myself entirely at variance with the view that they have expressed. It is well, perhaps, that before this Bill passes this House some mention should be made of the reluctance with which Parliament would part even temporarily with possession of a document so precious as the Magna Charta. But that reluctance, I think, ought not to lead us to say that the step taken by the Government was a wrong one and ought to be disapproved by this House. It is quite true, no doubt, that the generous donor of this document has desired that is should be displayed publicity to the British people forever henceforth; but after all the British people have not in fact been looking at it for the last 700 years, and it is no very great deprivation that there should be a further delay of two years before it is presented to the public gaze in the British Museum.

I was sorry my noble friend brought in the question of dollars, and suggested that we are wasting possible revenue, by saying that a possession such as this might attract Americans over here to see it. There are, after all, other copies of the Magna Charta in this country, and in any case here comes a very gracious request from the American Congress that out of goodwill towards America we should go so far as to send across the ocean a copy of Magna Charta itself. That gracious request has been graciously acceded to by the Government, by the British Museum authorities and by the donor of the manuscript; and I think it is striking a wrong note to bring any question of finance or foreign exchange into an issue such as this.

I demur, also, to the phrase used by the noble Earl, Lord Munster, that we are sending this to "some foreign country." The United States of America is not in our eyes "some foreign country." It is our recent ally. It is a country which is animated by the ideas and ideals that have originated in this island. The friendship and the cordial union of the British Commonwealth and the United States is a matter of supreme importance, not only to this country and America but to the world. That friendship rests largely on sentiment and anything which cultivates and endorses that sentiment is a measure to be approved. As to the point raised about the title of the Bill it may be that Charta ought properly to be retained, in order to signify the Greek origin of the word. Bui if so how about Magna? There is no doubt as to the Latinity of Magna. If you say Magna is Latin and Carta is Greek the term is itself a most horrible hybrid, and the sooner we alter it one way or the other the better.

2.56 p.m.


My Lords, I would like to say a word or two on this matter. A few years ago an attempt was made by the Government of that time to obtain power to lend pictures from the National Gallery. Owing, I think perhaps I may say, mainly to my own efforts I got an Amendment carried. There is a very good reason for not lending these possessions. If you lend things from the British Museum, to one country it is extremely difficult to refuse to lend them to another. You may be quite satisfied with the security, say, of the Louvre but you may not be equally satisfied about the security of an analogous gallery in some Balkan State. There is a second point. Once you lend these things, even to Empire countries, it is very difficult to get them back. They go for two years, there is a further request for them to be retained for another year and gradually the things become almost a permanent possession of the borrower. There is a third reason. Although this does not apply so directly to a unique document like Magna Carta, or Charta, it certainly applies to pictures. If we are asked to lend our pictures to some foreign exhibition we do not like to lend our very best, because there is a danger to them. But equally we are not anxious to lend third or fourth rate pictures.

As a result we are always in a quandary over that, and altogether I am sure that the rule which has applied hitherto of not lending our really prime possessions abroad is a good one. These are my only objections, and I would not carry them so far as to object to this particular instance. It is an ad hoc instance; the gift has only just been made and there are special reasons why the United States should have this first confirmation of our liberties. I am not at all certain that the document is not what is called Confirmatio Cartarum and not actually Magna Charta, but I think, as my noble friend has just said, that it would be rather unfriendly not to allow it to go on this particular occasion. I do very much hope that the noble and learned Lord will give us an assurance that this is not to be made a precedent and is not the beginning of a wedge to lend this sort of possession out of the Kingdom.

2.59 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps your Lordships will allow me to say a few words. For a year during the war I had the honour to be Minister Resident in Washington for Supply. At that time one copy of the Magna Charta was in the United States because we had sent it over there to be in the British Pavilion at the World's Fair. I know how much it was valued in the United States of America. I had many friends among the Senators and among members of the House of Representatives. They were always asking why we could not leave that copy of Magna Charta over there on loan. They have given us a great deal of help on loan during the war, and I think it would be a most friendly act to allow the British Museum authorities to loan this copy of Magna Charta to our friends across the sea. I do not see why it should lead to any precedent with any other country because the Magna Charta is, in a way, as much their heritage as it is ours, and it is in that kind of spirit that we lend this particular document. I support the Second Reading of this Bill.

3.2 p.m.


My Lords, as this debate has given rise to a certain amount of dissension amongst political friends and allies, I feel I must take this opportunity of dissenting very briefly from my political friend and ally, Viscount Simon, on the right spelling of the word "Charta." I understood him to say—and I have great respect for his knowledge—that the best version is with "h," because Cicero used it. I would point out that Catullus used it without the "h." I am not sure that this "h" has not got in by some mediæval mistake. The Lord Chancellor's title has "h"—Chancellor. I think the Latin derivation is Cancellarius. I think we should look into this matter very carefully indeed to make sure that there is no error before this document—whether it is Charta or Carta—is despatched to another country.

3.4 p.m.


My Lords, if your Lordships will allow me to say so, I think the particular point of the "h" is really a Committee point. I think I can satisfy your Lordships that it has been referred to in our Statute Books without the "h" from the early part of the 14th Century and therefore I am following a precise precedent. For the rest, I am asked whether I would make some statement about this not being taken as a precedent. I will make no such statement. Before anything is handed over, we, as Trustees, have to come to the House and obtain approval. That is a very wise thing. Each case will be decided on its own merits. I think that pictures are very different things from books. I must recall the great privilege we had in London in the last few years before the war of having some exhibitions of foreign pictures. Most certainly the Italians did not lend us their worst pictures. Some of those exhibitions gave me the greatest possible pleasure. However, we are not dealing with a picture. We are dealing with an historical document, which I should imagine has singularly little interest for the Balkan countries. It has, however, a most profound interest for the Americans and ourselves.

It is a fact that we already have two copies of the Magna Charta in the British Museum which we cannot lend and do not propose to lend by reason of the terms of the law. This is our third copy. Are we really to take such a "dog in the manger" line as to say that we will keep three here and not let them have one, even for two years? I rather regret the phrase which fell from the noble Viscount, Lord Esher, that we are sending this document into strange hands. When we send a document to our American colleagues and allies. I do not regard the document as falling into strange hands.

With regard to the statement of the noble Viscount, Lord Mersey, that there is some difficulty in getting documents back, if I may say so, I think that is in singularly bad taste just at a time when they have returned the Lincoln copy, about which they eared so much. Therefore, I very much hope that the proposal which has just been made will go through and receive from the House the same generous approbation which it received elsewhere.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.