HL Deb 17 April 1978 vol 390 cc871-5

2.44 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take to avoid the damage to race relations which will be done if the book Discovering Africa's Past (edited by Basil Davidson) is used in our schools.

The MINISTER of STATE, DEPARTMENT of EDUCATION and SCIENCE (Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge)

My Lords, school curricula and the selection of teaching materials are the responsibility of the local education authorities and school governors, head teachers and their staff. I believe we can rely on their good sense to avoid damage to race relations from any particular book.


My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that Answer, may I press the Government to express a view on this matter? What good can come to the fostering of good relations in this country by the statements made in this book that Britain ran her colonies on racial principles and that Britain's interests always came before African interests? If this book got into our schools, what would be the position of an African boy sitting with a British boy studying that book when the African boy in his distress asked the British boy to refute those statements, and the British boy examined the book to see whether he could do so, but then found nothing but repugnance for our former British colonial policy?


My Lords, it is not my business to censor books which people write and I am not prepared to get into that position; but I will give something of an answer to the noble Lord. Basil Davidson has been attacking British imperialism since the early 'thirties, when I used to read him. Not a single book that he has ever published has been attacked by the police or banned, or anything else. I think the general view of the British public is that we are proud of our administration of the British Empire in the past, but that there were a number of features in it of which we are not proud. That seems to be an absolutely reasonable position to take up, and though I think Mr. Basil Davidson could be described as biased, he has never pretended not to be. I really feel that if the Conservative Party is going to suggest that defensive action should be taken in this way, it is as if they are suggesting that a former Tory Government should have suppressed Macaulay.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that on 24th March there was an absolutely devastating article in the New Statesman by Basil Davidson about Africa which showed all the mistakes that we and the Europeans made and all the mistakes that the African Nation States made on decolonisation? Is he aware that the African States simply compounded our mistakes by continuing with, and making more irrational, frontiers which have led to all the historical difficulties we have today? Is that not a good reason for teaching our children the proper history of decolonisation?—and in this article Basil Davidson was completely impartial.


I must confess that I am delighted to hear that, my Lords. I have not read that article, but I notice that, in the documents for further reading, some 59 in this book are by Basil Davidson, so we can all go into the matter in greater detail. I think the noble Lord's Question will have done some good in so far as governors and heads of schools read our Hansard; how far that is the case noble Lords can judge better than I can. When a book has, out of 220 pages, about 20 which are clearly biased—and I admit that—I think it is desirable that classes which are given it to read should be given other books in an opposite sense as well.


My Lords, is it not probably a matter of the greatest pride that in English education neither central nor local government interfere with the freedom of the teaching profession to select those books which are most appropriate for the education of our children? Would it not be very much more damaging to take any steps to ban a particular book than to leave it to the teaching profession?


I am grateful to the noble Lord for that comment, my Lords. I believe that to affect any restriction of the kind suggested would damage race relations.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that we are grateful as a House that he has alerted local education authorities, governors and the like, who try to see that a balanced and objective view is put forward in our schools, to the fact that this is one side, and a somewhat biased side, of the story? Is it not true that thousands of British colonial servants have helped educate, train and prepare African people for self-government, and that that side of the story should he better known to everyone in this country?


My Lords, I am in entire agreement, and if I were the headmaster I should make the class read the first volume of Leonard Woolf's marvellous autobiography which describes the work of a civil servant, the best kind of civil servant, better than anything I have ever read.


My Lords, before he comes to the Dispatch Box and charges Basil Davidson with bias, will the Minister hear in mind that Basil Davidson has spent not less than 40 years risking his health, taking grave risks, to understand and to write about the problem which he has brought to the attention of his fellow countrymen? Is it not an abuse of the procedure of this House to hold up a man to obloquy without making it perfectly plain that this is a writer of very great distinction? Never before has anyone who had a reputation to lose ever charged Basil Davidson with bias.


My Lords, the noble Lord is wrong in saying that nobody has ever charged Basil Davidson with bias. Of course I think he is a writer of great distinction. I think that he is a historian of Africa of great distinction, and I consider that the first 200 pages of his book are a very distinguished history of Africa. But I think that Basil Davidson would be astonished to be cleared of bias—I really do—and I mean no offence at all.


My Lords, may I ask one final question? As this book is written by a distinguished writer, why has he failed to give an account of the great part played by overseas Administrations in the collection of revenue from taxes and so on, and ploughed back for the development of overseas territories. and the handing over of viable territories to independent Governments when they come into office? He has made no mention of the great contribution made by scientists, engineers, educationalists, and so on. Would it not be better if this distinguished writer, to whom the noble Lord referred, had made mention of that?


My Lords, it is not my place to analyse the composition of his book, and I do not propose to do so.