HL Deb 17 April 1958 vol 208 cc801-12

4.12 p.m.

LORD MATHERS rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the international importance that is being given in many countries to the celebration of the bi-centenary of the birth of Robert Burns which falls on the 25th January, 1959, the question of issuing one or more commemorative postage stamps will now be favourably considered.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, before I put to your Lordships the case I want to put, there is some information which has come to my notice in the last day or two to which I should like to give prominence. In questions put by the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, with regard to pictorial and other stamps, and in the answers given, much stress has been laid on the fact that the Post Office must see that the Queen's head is in a prominent position on, if not completely dominating, every stamp that is issued. In that way, and in that way alone, we declare the country of origin of the stamp and show that it is a British stamp.

Within the last day or two I have received some information about stamps that have been issued in different parts of the Commonwealth, and it has been proved to me that certain parts of the Commonwealth have not felt themselves bound to adhere to what seemed to me, from the answers given to the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, an absolute rule. For example, the Royal Cipher has been used in Malta and in other British Crown Colonies, where the Queen's head was thought to be inconsistent with the design oil the stamp. I am, of course, talking about pictorial stamps, to which the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, has referred on a number of occasions. Canada and Australia, I understand, have issued small stamps commemorating great men. Any stamp could carry the inscription "United Kingdom Post Office and Revenue" if the Queen's head were not there. I am not arguing for any cutting of the use of the Queen's head on stamps: I am, I hope, sufficiently loyal to wish to see that practice carried into effect in the usual run of stamps. But I do put forward the fact that these variations have taken place in other parts of the Commonwealth, where I am sure they were not motivated by any disloyalty to Her Majesty or any desire to remove Her Majesty's picture from the stamps.

To come now to the Question I have put down, it may be looked upon as one of not much intrinsic value, but to me it is a matter of considerable symbolic value, and that is the atmosphere in which I put forward my case. I have been moved to put this Question down because of the intensity of feeling I have found in opposition to the attitude of the Postmaster General, who has summarily refused the request for a commemorative stamp or stamps on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns next January. I claim to speak for the majority of thinking Scots of adult age in Scotland, throughout our Commonwealth and, indeed, throughout the world. It is the claim of those who are associated with the request that it has been given inadequate consideration, and that the reasons put forward by past Postmasters General and the present Postmaster General for their refusal are also inadequate.

It is claimed by the Postmaster General that to honour Robert Burns in the manner proposed would create a precedent and justify other claims for prominent personalities to be commemorated in like manner. Scotland rejects this excuse, and points to the issue of the Boy Scout Jubilee stamps last year, which were linked with the name of the Scouts' founder, Baden Powell, and with the centenary of his birth. I must not be taken as objecting to that issue, but it is recalled that no such distinction has been given to the Boys' Brigade, equally deserving of honour, which was founded in Glasgow in 1883 and is now widespread. I claim that Robert Burns is much more than a famous personality. He is an institution, predominantly Scottish in origin and. spirit, around which a great movement has grown, especially since 1885 when the Burns Federation was formed. Branches of the Federation exist not only in Scotland but in many towns across Canada, from Ontario to British Columbia, and in the United States, from New York to San Francisco; also in Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria; in New Zealand, Calcutta and Karachi, and in Norway and Denmark. In Scotland there is hardly a town or village where there is not a link with the poet, and South of the Border branches exist at intervals from Berwick to Chelmsford and London on the east, and from Carlisle to Plymouth on the west.

The Burns Federation comprises not only Burns clubs, but also affiliated Caledonian societies, St. Andrew's societies and Scottish cultural bodies throughout the world, and many masonic lodges have Burns contacts. Some of the individual units of the Federation are themselves federated bodies, and the Royal Clan Order of Scottish Clans in the United States has 15,500 members and covers an estimated 20,000 families of Scots or of Scots descent. The Federated Clubs of South Africa have also a large total membership.

While Burns is the inspiration of this great Federation, it has wider activities—educational, literary and otherwise. Its benevolent activities include the provision of homes for old people and the Jean Armour Burns Memorial Homes at Mauchline, which are soon to be increased in number from ten to twenty, show the quality of the adherents of the organisation, who find their inspiration in the words and works of this great humanitarian figure, whose kindly social philosophy has evoked praise and emulation from great reformers since his day.

The appeal of Burns is world-wide in its scope. He sprang from the soil of Scotland, but he has made a unique place for himself as the greatest exponent of world brotherhood. In his address at the opening of the Burns Exhibition in Glasgow in 1896, the late Earl of Rosebery, the greatest orator of his day, spoke of Burns as "the universal friend", and that, in truth, is what he is recognised as being more and more as the years pass. His passionate regard for the dignity of the human personality and his hatred of injustice have placed him in the forefront of the world's democrats. He was no respecter of persons, except for real worth, and he did not allow wealth or social position to protect those whom he had occasion to criticise. His poem A Man's a Man for a' that comes most readily to mind in this connection with its attack upon a worthless lord.

But there is no mere class bias in his attitude. He would condemn a worthless poor person just as severely. He had high praise for noble Lords who were worthy of it, and I am sure it must be a matter of pride to the present First Lord of the Admiralty that when Burns visited Lord Daer, the son of the then Earl of Selkirk, he was able to write of him in very complimentary terms. I think the poet would pass the same verdict upon the noble Earl we know to-day. James, Earl of Glencairn, who was a friend of Burns, was another he found worthy of praise. In a lament which he wrote on the occasion of the Earl's death, he used the heartfelt words which many of your Lordships will know The bridegroom may forget the bride Was made his wedded wife yestreen; The monarch may forget the crown That on his head an hour has been; The mother may forget the child That smiles sae sweetly on her knee; But I'll remember thee, Glencairn, And a' that thou hast done for me! That, I think, is clear proof that there is no class bias about Robert Burns.

Robert Burns, it has been said, was born in poverty and died in poverty, but enriched the world. I warmly endorse those words. It is on record that at the age of fifteen years he was bent with toil through working so hard on his father's farm. Inevitably, this experience of hard living warmed his sympathy for the poor, and his protest on their behalf has come ringing down the years. In Man was made to Mourn he gives powerful expression to his feelings: See yonder poor, o'er-labour'd wight, So abject, mean, and vile, Who begs a brother of the earth To give him leave to toil; And see his lordly fellow-worm The poor petition spurn, Unmindful, tho' a weeping wife And helpless offspring mourn. If I'm design'd yon lordling's slave— By Nature's law design'd— Why was an independent wish E'er planted in my mind? If not, why am I subject to His cruelty, or scorn? Or why has man the will and pow'r To make his fellow mourn? We have ended that state of affairs. Burns did not protest in vain. I know how the trade union movement years ago, was inspired by what he wrote. The poet's social philosophy was a kindly one. He was brought up humbly in a God-fearing home. His father and mother were exceptionally well-doing people. The picture of their home which is given by the poet in The Cottar's Saturday Night is a tender and moving one. I dare not extend my quotations unduly, but I hope this debate will cause the poems and songs to be taken down from the bookshelves of those who are entrusted with the decision on this plea I am making. I believe that the poem I have just mentioned and the Epistle to a Young Friend would make rewarding reading to anyone. The latter poem was written by Burns to young Andrew Aiken, a son of the Robert Aiken to whom The Cottar's Saturday Night was dedicated, and it is one of the most sincere efforts the poet ever made. The great sympathetic heart of the poet extended to the lower animals, and the animal welfare societies for which this country is renowned have been greatly encouraged in their efforts by his warm-hearted writings.

The songs for which he is responsible have made a great contribution, and because of his genius in this respect Scotland has a wealth of song literature which is unsurpassed. Many of these are adaptations of old vulgar ditties collected by the poet from unsavoury sources. He used his talent upon them, melted out the dross, and made them worthy to be sung by the Heavenly Choir itself. The poet's showing up of hypocrisy and insincerity in public life, and even in the Church, it his own day, earned him much opposition, and he had many detractors. He was no worse than the average of his contemporaries, but he himself furnished material for criticism of his own conduct by his self-confessed follies. His regret for these lapses was real, and it should be remembered that at the time when he was most heavily assailed by criticism for his alleged excessive drinking he was working very long hours as an exciseman and at the same time pouring out the songs that have largely contributed to his fame. There simply was not time for him to be as bad as he has been painted.

I have had my life enriched by what I have received from him, and I am grateful to him as a Scotsman, as a citizen, as a trade unionist, as a politician and as a Christian, for the kindly outlook upon my fellow-men which he has fostered in me. I do not take his life as an example to follow—he warned against that—but I hail him as a very great man and in all humility, realising my own need for mercy, I am content to say in the words which conclude the epitaph at the end of Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard: No further seek his merits to disclose, Or draw his frailties from their dread abode, (There they alike in trembling hope repose) The bosom of his Father and his God. Robert Burns's death at the early age of thirty-seven years was a tragedy. What he might have given us if he had lived to a maturer age can only be a matter of speculation and keen regret that he was not given the chance. But what he has given us is a wonderful heritage, and his name and fame are firm and secure for all time. He is entitled to be honoured by the country he loved so dearly, and it is with such patriotic feelings in mind that I make bold to claim that Scotland, as a partner in this United Kingdom, is entitled to have the refusal by the Postmaster General reversed. It is an affront to Scotland that her wishes in this regard have been treated with such contempt. The idea of issuing special stamps for Scotland, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland is; not acceptable to Scotland, and should be dropped in favour of the issue for which I am contending.

It is obvious there is no policy regarding the issue of commemorative stamps, unless it is a policy of stubborn refusal., otherwise we should not have had the spectacle of an issue for the Boy Scouts' half-century and none for the world Y.M.C.A. centenary which was celebrated in 1955. Do not let us be put to shame by the Soviet Union, whose Burns bicentenary stamps are now on sale in Britain. Perhaps an appeal in the name of America may be more acceptable to your Lordships and to Her Majesty's Government.

I wish I could take everyone here to that poor thatched dwelling at Alloway, near Ayr, where Burns was born over 199 years ago. There can be seen many of his original manuscripts and other things he used and handled in his lifetime. Let us, in imagination, join the 95,008 pilgrims from every part of the world who visited the cottage last year, and read, as they were able to do, the tribute written there by Robert Ingersoll from the United States, a tribute that can be seen there by anyone: Tho Scotland boasts a thousand names Of patriot, king and peer, The noblest, grandest of them all Was loved and cradled here. Here lived the gentle peasant prince, The loving Cottar's King, Compared with whom the greatest lord Is but a titled thing. 'Tis but a cot roofed in with straw, A hovel made of clay; One door shuts out the snow and storm One window greets the day. And yet I stand within this room And hold all thrones in scorn, For here beneath this lowly thatch Love's sweetest bard was born. Within, this hallowed hut I feel Like one who clasps a shrine, When the glad lips at last have touched The something deemed Divine, And here the world thro' all the years, As long as day returns, The tribute of its love and tears Will pay to Robert Burns. I ask that Robert Burns be given recognition by his country in the way that we are asking for in this Question.

4.33 p.m.


My Lords, I think it might be well if I started my reply at the same point as the noble Lord, Lord Mathers began his speech, with reference to the dominance of the Queen's Head on our stamps. I was not quite clear why he brought up that matter at that stage; in the normal way I should be pleased to debate that with him, but it hardly seems to me to appertain to the Question he has on the Order Paper?


My Lords, may I say a word in explanation? It seemed to me necessary to say a word on that point. I had not included it in what I had prepared to say to the House, but I felt, in view of the firm adherence to that policy there was with regard to previous Questions, that it was desirable to mention it.


I naturally accept what the noble Lord says; and I shall say no more about it, except that, of course, he must remember that the stamp policy of other countries, whether inside or outside the Commonwealth, is not a matter for us.

To-day I feel rather at a disadvantage, because I am fully aware of the weight and importance of this matter, particularly in Scotland, as the noble Lord has been at great Pains to point out to us. Perhaps it may be said that as I am not a Scot myself it is difficult for me to appreciate that. I should like to emphasise that that is not so, and whatever I may say after this, I certainly thoroughly respect the depth of feeling and sincerity which the noble Lord showed in his speech. Before I run any further risk, I think I should say this. On a recent occasion, when I was trying to be sympathetic and polite when opposing something, I was misunderstood; and the noble Lord who had moved the Second Reading of that particular Bill was under the impression that I was agreeing with him. The fact that I say I can understand the depth of sincerity in the very moving speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Mathers, must not be taken to indicate that I am agreeing with it in advance. I hope, nevertheless, that I shall remain polite, even if I have to be negative from the point of view of what the noble Lord wants.

The first point I want to emphasise—indeed I want to make it abundantly clear—is that my right honourable friend does not presume in any way to pronounce on the importance or otherwise of the poet Burns. The Burns Federation used the word "unique". My right honourable friend would not dream of querying the use of that word. He would not, if he were here to-day, I feel, query anything the noble Lord, Lord Mathers, said in his long and moving panegyric. I would take slight exception to the use of the words "summarily dismissed this request". I do not think for a moment the action taken was summary; I think the matter was well considered and carefully considered. I stress that what I am about to say on the general position is a matter of firmly based policy and is not affected by whether the request is on behalf of Burns or any other private individual.

My Lords, it might be convenient if I state once more what that policy is. It is to have a basic issue of stamps for each reign, commonly remaining unchanged throughout the reign, and supplemented from time to time by special stamps to mark outstanding events in the national life and royal and notable postal anniversaries. Special stamps are not issued to commemorate people; nor, apart from the royal and postal anniversaries, to mark past events. If one looks at all the special stamps issued in the last twenty-five years or so, I think it will be quite clear that this policy has been maintained. The reason why, as a matter of policy, we avoid commemorating anniversaries of great men is mainly because, in a country with a history like ours, the number of people with a claim to be commemorated is very large and even if we had frequent issues, the Post Office would be in a very invidious position and would undoubtedly have to reject many strongly supported claims. It is fairly easy to run off at short notice a list of about one hundred people—and no doubt there will be more—worthy of consideration of such commemoration, even leaving out the question of events.

I know that it has been argued—the noble Lord argued it to-day—that a precedent was created, that the policy was not maintained by the issue of the Scouts stamp last year. It has been maintained—as the noble Lord maintained to-day—that it was issued to mark the anniversary of the birth of the first Lord Baden-Powell. I regret to say, however, that that is not true. I admit that last year was the anniversary of Lord Baden-Powell, but the stamp was issued to mark the Jubilee Jamboree of the World Scout Movement. Had that Jamboree, which was assessed as an outstanding event in the national life, not been held, the stamp would not have been issued. I was a little surprised, shall I say, to hear the noble Lord say that the forthcoming stamps for Scotland were unpopular. Naturally, if he says so I must accept that, but so far as I am aware that is the first indication that it is so. At the time they were announced, their issue, I had thought, was hailed with some approbation.

Another argument has been put forward, though not to-day, that a change of policy to mark centenaries and bicentenaries would not cause much bother because there are not many of them. But that is not quite true either, because, according to my reckoning, in 1959 there are at least thirteen centenaries and six bi-centenaries of great men who might well, I think, furnish a strong claim to similar commemoration. I should like to repeat what I said earlier: I make no attempt to compare these men with Burns or Burns with them; I give these figures merely to show how complicated it would be, and in what difficult waters it would be possible to get, if there were a change of policy.

The noble Lord was good enough to pass me over a small envelope full of Russian stamps with which I was already familiar. But I have to query whether they were issued as Burns bi-centenary stamps. So far as I know, the stamp was issued in 1956, which I do not think indicates that it can really have been a bi-centenary stamp. Then again, so far as I can make out, it was one of a series which they issued that year and which included eight other names of men whom they, no doubt, considered to be of world-wide standing. I do not want to take up too much of your Lordships' time, and I think I have now said enough for your Lordships to appreciate that it is not possible to issue the, stamp for which the noble Lord has asked, and that to do so would mean a fundamental departure from the well-founded stamp policy we have in this country. This departure my right honourable friend the Postmaster-General is not prepared to make.

4.43 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene in this debate for a few moments because this has been a subject with which I have been associated in your Lordships' House for the last four or five years. The first thing I have to say is that I desire to support as strongly as I can the plea put forward in the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Mathers. The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, in reply, said that the acceptance of the noble Lord's proposal would be a departure from the fundamental policy which has been in operation in this country for some time. I do not think that necessarily that is an objection. If good reason can be put forward for a change of policy, then I think it ought to be considered with a view to its acceptance.

The second argument used by the noble Lord, Lord Chesham—I think it was the main argument—was stated also by the Assistant Postmaster General, Mr. Thompson, in another place on February 6 of last year when he said [OFFICIAL REPORT (Commons), Vol. 564, col. 414]: One of the complications of doing what the honourable and learned gentleman suggests"— he was referring to Mr. Hector Hughes who had put down a Question on this subject— is that we have so many great men to pay tribute to that it would be difficult to choose one against another. I think there must be some confusion in the thoughts of Her Majesty's Government as to how many centenaries it would be proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Mathers, or anyone else, such as myself, to nominate for the honour of commemoration. I do not think there is that great number of persons. If you rule out all persons who might be said to be of a controversial nature, I do not think that there are so many to whom you would need to pay this tribute.

I do not necessarily say that because something is done in other countries it ought to be done in this country. Therefore, when I cite what has been done in other countries I merely make my point that there are not so many of these gentlemen as is suggested by the noble noble Lord, Lord Chesham, who said that a few years ago there were twenty-five or fifteen centenaries, and a few years before that some twenty centenaries.

Let us see, for instance, what the Belgian Congo does. In 1928 they published a set of stamps to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley's exploration to the Congo—Sir Henry Morton Stanley, G.C.B., who was an Anglo-American and who had his name linked with Livingstone in the opening up of the African Continent. I think he was a most worthy person to commemorate in this fashion. Then we come to Belgium, and we find that Florence Nightingale was honoured on a Belgian stamp. I should have thought that she was eminently a woman for such distinction, and that she might be commemorated on a British stamp as well. Then, in France, Pasteur, who gave so much to the world, was commemorated. Next we come to Hungary. In 1948 we find that Hungary honoured and commemorated in this way Robert Fulton, George Stephenson, Thomas Edison, Louis Bleriot, Roald Amundson, Byron, Hugo, Poe, Twain and Shakespeare. Italy commemorated Marconi, and only last month Spain commemorated Goya by a special stamp.

Apart from the specific demand that we have made to-day, all we ask is that Her Majesty's Government should review their general policy in this matter and should consider such a change of policy. It can be done without any expense; any expense would be recouped by the revenue produced. We suggest that the Government should in this case follow the very good example that has been pursued in other countries. By the names that I have indicated I suggest the kind of individuals who should be commemorated. In the long run they would not amount to the number which the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, suggested. If we change our policy in that respect, and if, further, the time comes when we in this country introduce small low-value pictorial stamps, then, indeed, we shall abandon the idea that a stamp is merely a label to pay for the postage and we shall go forward into more imaginative spheres so far as our postal stamps are concerned.