HL Deb 10 September 2004 vol 664 cc867-90

2.32 p.m.

Lord Baker of Dorking rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to mark the publication of the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as a record of those men and women who have shaped Britain's past.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am very grateful that we have this opportunity to recognise in this House a remarkable publishing event; that is, the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which has 60 volumes and will be published on 23 September. Perhaps I may say that this is the only occasion when Parliament can recognise this remarkable event.

The original Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was a product of late Victorian England. Leslie Stephen, the father of Virginia Woolf, was its editor. Over 30 years, several volumes were published, all completed by 1900. Thereafter, supplements were printed covering those who died subsequently and people who had been left out.

In 1990, it was decided to revise the dictionary fundamentally, which was an enormous task taking more than 20 years. It was later reduced to 12 years. I should like to pay tribute to Professor Matthew for being the driving force. Unfortunately, he died prematurely in 1999. His successor, Professor Harrison, is the professor of modern history at Oxford. I am pleased that he is in the Gallery today. Without his determination, organisation, pertinacity and sheer commitment, the dictionary would never have appeared on time.

It is an enormous exercise: 50,000 lives are covered, 36,000 of them are newly written for the first time. The dictionary required 50 editors, 400 advisers and 10,000 contributors. Many of your Lordships are contributors. One who cannot be here today is Conrad Russell, who is not very well. He wrote four of the contributions.

As I cannot speak at the end of the debate, I should like to thank noble Lords for their contributions before they speak. No other second Chamber could rally such a group of distinguished historians as those who are to follow me. That is indeed something to be proud of in this House. Moreover, I was very proud to be invited to write just one of the biographies.

What is interesting about this new publication is the sheer diversity of the people covered. When it was set up in late Victorian England, Sir Leslie Stephen had been the editor of Cornhill, so it was rather literary. Those who got in were the very great and the very good: leading politicians, jurists, the ecclesiasticals, constitutional experts and great writers. When someone's name was suggested for inclusion, the second editor, Sidney Lee, always asked, "What did he write?". It was rather staid, to say the least. Only in the 1930s did a clutch of engineers come in. In 1941, one in seven of the entrants in the dictionary had been the child of either a vicarage or a manse.

Of course there has been a huge social change since then, and that is recognised in this dictionary. A wonderful 100-page sample booklet has been produced which includes different biographies. Flipping through it, I came across the biography of the fashion designer Ossie Clark. No Victorian fashion designers were included, that is for sure. Also included is the wonderful Hockney double portrait of Ossie Clark. There are biographies of Billy Fury, Sid Vicious, Linda McCartney, Max Miller—one of my favourites as a boy, so I am glad that he is included—and of Freddie Mercury, whom I discover was an alumni of Isleworth polytechnic and had left £8 million in his will. The biographies detail how much people leave in their wills, so noble Lords should be aware of that.

Another interesting development is the enormous increase in the number of women who have been included—some 50 per cent more. They are not just the great writers and philanthropists. Businesswomen are represented, such as Catherine Cranston, a wonderful Glaswegian who opened tea shops in the 1890s and commissioned Charles Rennie Mackintosh to design them. They still exist in Glasgow, including the great example in Sauchiehall Street. I came across an entry for Elizabeth Beecroft from Yorkshire in the 1790s, whose description is marvellous: "Iron manufacturer and butter seller".

Also included are people who were previously unrecognised. There is a biography of William Hall, the first black man to be awarded the Victoria Cross, which he won during the Indian Mutiny. I am sure that no one in the House could have told me who was the inventor of cat's eyes, and I certainly did not know: it was Percy Shaw. Then we have Angus Mackay, piper to Queen Victoria. He died a certified lunatic, whether as a result of piping or being close to Queen Victoria is not made clear. Entries are included for people like the Reverend Awdry, author of the Thomas the Tank Engine series, as well as sports personalities such as Colin Cowdrey, recently appointed to this House, and Dorothea Chambers, seven times Wimbledon champion. Those were the days.

However, alongside the great and the good are entries for the louche and the bad. Kim Philby has an entry, as does Mary Frith, the original 17th century version of Moll's cutpurse. Then there is Pamela Harriman. Born in Kent, she eventually took American citizenship and ended up as the American Ambassador in Paris. She had a string of lovers, including Jock Whitney, Averell Harriman, Agnelli, Niarchos and Randolph Churchill. She gave her best for Britain, and is certainly due her entry in that particular category.

It is interesting to consider the criteria for inclusion. The first criterion is that you have to be dead. But how are you chosen thereafter? Brian Harrison remarked that: Personally, I would rather include a first rate circus proprietor than a second rate civil servant". We all say, "Hear, hear!" to that, but I would include a first class clown. Several clowns are included, one of the earliest being William Kemp, the Elizabethan clown known for his "jigs and merriments". He was famous for having morris danced all the way from London to Norwich.

The real criteria are: what degree of influence did the person have, and what impact did he or she have on the society of the time and on our society? Their acts, activities, characters and personalities are all taken into account. Also interesting is to consider who should not be included. In 1939, writing on biography, Virginia Woolf asked, whether the lives of great men only should be recorded? Is not anyone who has lived a life, and left a record of that life, worth a biography—the failures as well as the successes, the humble as well as the illustrious? And what is greatness? And what is smallness? I think that the dictionary responds to those questions. It is much more inclusive than it has ever been before, as well as being more inclusive of our regions and the different countries that make up the United Kingdom, as well as including those people who have made a great impact on us, but who were not born here.

What is the importance of this publication? Gibbon said of all the people who have died in the past that they are the authors of our existence. So all of these people in this dictionary—the 50,000—in one way or another have had some small impact, not only upon the society in which they lived but upon the society in which we live today. That is the historical concept behind this great dictionary.

It emphasises the importance of history. When I was the Education Secretary, I insisted that all of our children should take history up until the age of 16. Unfortunately, one of my successors reduced that to 14—and so many of our children now give up history at the age of 14. The only other country in Europe that allows that to happen is Albania. This is a grave disappointment because, at the television level, there is no doubt that history is very popular and very well liked.

This great dictionary will have three particular impacts. First, it will alert people in this country—and indeed people outside—to the sheer impact that this country has had upon the world. Not only the constitutional impact, the business impact, the cultural impact and the linguistic impact, but also an impact in the style of life which, over generations, we have tended and successfully created; the tendency in our society to prefer tolerance, to prefer fairness and to accept the rule of law. All these elements are totally alien in the mind of a terrorist. Again, it is a contribution that we have made to the world.

The dictionary also represents a diversity of culture. Antoninus, the Roman emperor, is in the dictionary for the very simple reason that he built the Antonine Wall, a peat wall across the north of Scotland. Also in the dictionary is the first Aborigine to be brought to this country in the 18th century, as is one of the most important Maori leaders. Again, that is very important.

Earlier this week I wrote to the Secretary of State for Education, Mr Clarke, and asked him what he could do to help in this great matter. I asked whether the Government would fund the printing of 6,000 or 7,000 copies of this sample booklet and send it to every secondary school, college and university in the country. I hope the Minister will reply that it is easy to accept that proposal. It is petty cash in government terms; it is what the Minister spends before breakfast every day of the week—even before early breakfast.

I also asked the Secretary of State for Education to make the on-line version of the dictionary available to all schools. It will cost less than £200 a school. Again, that is petty cash in government terms. This would indicate that the Government are committed to history; that they like history and want the youngsters in our schools to study history and learn about the past.

I hope that the Government will take this matter seriously. They have not put any real money into it and they have a reputation that they are not very interested in history, but the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a very important national event.

Before I sit down, perhaps I should declare an interest. When I was the Minister for Information Technology back in the 1980s, I gave a grant to the Oxford University Press of half-a-million pounds for it to start on the digitisation of the Oxford English Dictionary. I suspect that this dictionary is its great great-grandson. For that, I was given a tie of the Oxford University Press. Unfortunately, I left it in some hotel bedroom—my own hotel bedroom, I hasten to add—and the Oxford University Press has given me another tie, which I am wearing today. I want to record that that is the limit of my financial involvement with the Oxford University Press—but it does not mark the limit of my interest in the Oxford University Press and this great dictionary, which is limitless.

2.44 p.m.

Lord Skidelsky

My Lords, I am the first of the noble Lords taking part in the debate who wishes to thank the noble Lord, Lord Baker, for giving the House the opportunity to recognise the publication of the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and also to express appreciation for the typically enthusiastic and felicitous way in which he introduced his Question.

Like the noble Lord, I am not aware of any other public event to mark the publication of this massive undertaking, and I wonder whether it is too late for our two premier academies—the Royal Society and the British Academy—to welcome the new arrival in an appropriate manner.

Perhaps, as an historian Peer, I could talk a bit about the historical DNB, particularly as I have not seen the new one. It is not published for another fortnight, and I have only just managed to glance at the sample booklet, without taking much of it in.

The original DNB was conceived by George Smith of the publishers Smith, Elder & Co, and started to appear under the general editorship of Leslie Stephen in 1885, its quarterly instalments of unfailing punctuality continuing until its completion in 1900. George Smith's conception was a remarkable blend of private enterprise and philanthropy, since he, ignored consideration of profit and loss in providing for its conduct to a successful conclusion", a tradition which, not surprisingly, his successors were unable to maintain, handing the enterprise over to Oxford University in 1917.

The first edition of 60 volumes aimed to, supply full, accurate and concise biographies of all noteworthy inhabitants of the British Islands and its Colonies from the earliest historical period to the present time". This included what it called the "early settlers in America", but not, of course, those who were born or died after 1776.

The editorial injunction that memoirs should be confined, mainly to a record of fact, should preserve a strictly judicial tone, and should eschew sentiment", might suggest an austerity incompatible with pleasure. But the biographical tone was, in fact, enlivened by the invaluable encouragement to use "private information" in writing a memoir which allowed a certain amount of gossip and insight into character and events apart from the public record.

Everyone will have his own favourite passage from one of these capsule biographies. One of mine is the memoir of Lord Quickswood, previously Lord Hugh Cecil, contributed by Kenneth Rose. On his resignation as provost of Eton in 1944, having reached the statutory retiring age of 75, he took his leave from the boys with the memorable remark: I leave for Bournemouth in lieu of Paradise At first reading, I thought that this would have sounded better had he simply said, "I leave Paradise for Bournemouth" but no doubt, being a strong High Churchman of exact and subtle wit, he wanted to convey a double, if ambiguous, regret.

The patriotic motive was much to the fore in the first edition, I dare say more than it is now, although the, due requirements of historical knowledge were not neglected. This was the age of Great Power rivalry, and there was a strong international competition in DNBs which took its place alongside competition in trade and empire-building. Particularly satisfying to the editors was the fact that our DNB exceeded the rate of publication of its German equivalent, which took 25 years to produce only 45 volumes, and had only 23,273 articles, as compared with our DNB's 29,120 articles in 60 volumes, which took only 15 years to come out. In terms of volumes, our firepower was greater than that of Germany.

A Noble Lord

Dreadnoughts, my Lords?

Lord Skidelsky

My Lords, dreadnoughts came later.

There are other fascinating statistics. The editors calculated that one in every 5,000 adults since earliest times had gained enough distinction to be included in the DNB. They worked out that the rate of gaining distinction tended to speed up with, stupendous crises in our history", and then slow down, but that the rate of distinction had permanently speeded up in the 19th century, with the "multiplication of intellectual callings". Improvements in the educational machinery may, too, have enlarged the volume of the nation's intellectual capacity", wrote the first editors, with understandable caution.

Shakespeare merited the longest entry with 49 pages, which was just. I do not know the longest entry today because it is a state secret and nobody is allowed to know. However, I imagine that it is still Shakespeare, although I would suppose that the Duke of Wellington, who had the second-longest entry in the 1885 edition, may have slipped a little.

I was surprised that literature, art, science and religion had the most entries—although that is not surprising in the light of what the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said about Leslie Stephen's own preferences—with administration and the Army and Navy some way behind. I wonder how those rankings have changed. Commerce was very low, just above sport. I expect that that would come a lot higher today. Women comprised less than 4 per cent of entries. Today that is up to 10 per cent with a quarter of the new entries being women.

However, taking into account all the prejudices of the time, the criteria for selection were amazingly inclusive. "Every endeavour" was made to include anyone who had gained distinction in any walk of life, whose career presents any feature which justifies its preservation from oblivion Even, malefactors whose crimes excite a permanent interest have received hardly less attention than benefactors". The bad and the louche were there even in the 19th century version.

The new edition of the DNB will not be published for another fortnight. Although I am a contributor, I have not seen any of it, so I cannot judge how it measures up to its distinguished predecessor. Its two editors—Colin Matthew, who died in 1988, and Brian Harrison, who took it over—give one the utmost confidence. No doubt it will have flaws and those will require correction over time, but I am sure that it is as good as it can possibly be. In other words, it sums up the intellectual capacity of our own civilisation. It will be a way of judging that as well as judging the individual entries. That is important because it is both a celebration and a reminder of our past.

We live in an unhistorical age. I do not mean that history is not read, but I do not think that we any longer think historically in the way that we used to. The DNB will give us a new map of the past and a new connection with it. Of course, it reflects a view of the past that not everyone shares. It will be criticised for being too national, for ignoring world history, for ignoring history from below, from ignoring feminist history and so forth. All those approaches are valid, but national history remains the royal road to the past and these new volumes are a celebration of that.

I end by quoting the famous lines from Ecclesiasticus which start, Let us now praise famous men". They were read at Keynes's funeral in 1946 and they encapsulate the belief that individuals make a difference. No doubt all the separate influences are absorbed in the long course of history, but no serious historian doubts that great men and women are one of those "separate influences". That is the justification for writing about them, for reading about them and for the new Dictionary of National Biography, to which I wish the greatest success.

2.53 p.m.

Lord Morgan

My Lords, like all other speakers, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Baker, very much for inaugurating this discussion. Like, I suspect, a number of other speakers, I declare an interest as a contributor of 20-odd people including one former Prime Minister on whom I wrote 23,000 words. I gather that anonymity is to be preserved, but I can give noble Lords a clue by saying that the Prime Minister was Welsh.

It is right that we celebrate a remarkable 12-year enterprise—60 volumes—comparable to Leslie Stephen's 63 in the late Victorian era. One of its great achievements is to appear on time. That is most certainly not the norm in academic life. It has appeared exactly on time in contrast with the Welsh dictionary, which was scheduled to appear in 1980 and was still going strong in 1998. It was not all bad news because it qualified for a grant from the Millennium Fund as a result. The DNB has been far more successful. It is a great tribute to the team and to the editors. Colin Matthew, has been my dear friend over 30 years. He was a great towering figure and it is difficult to follow in the footsteps of a giant but Professor Brian Harrison has absolutely achieved that. It is his extraordinary achievement, too. Leslie Stephen called himself "a considerate autocrat", but I think of both Colin and Brian as much more collegial than that, and much nicer to work with.

The original DNB, as the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, stated, was an astonishing achievement by Stephen and Sidney Lee. We should not inflict on late Victorian biography the condescension of posterity. Of course, Leslie Stephen, a man of letters, had his own ideas on who should be included. As the noble Lord said, that included particularly people who wrote, which meant that large numbers of minor clergymen got in, because their sermons were published with great regularity. But he took a broad, catholic view of which people should appear, including people in the Empire.

One of the very good things about the dictionary is that it includes all Leslie Stephen's entries. When I was much younger I used to criticise the entries for including all sort of marginal people such as Oxford dons; in the light of the past 50 years, I have somewhat revised my views on that front.

Having said all that about Leslie Stephen, I am sure that the new Oxford DNB is better—better in quality, and more truly national. It reflects the pluralism of our country more completely than did its predecessor. It is enormously valuable that it is linked to information technology, which will enable people to build up a sociology or perhaps a social anthropology of the various entries, and see how broader conclusions may be reached. Incidentally, Leslie Stephen himself would very strongly have approved of that.

The new dictionary includes, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, observed, a richer variety of people from these islands: from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. It has recognised people whose contribution to our culture was primarily through the Welsh language, which is very important. It includes manifestly more working class figures than entered the initial conception. Of those included in the early DNB, as Joseph Chamberlain might have observed, as he observed of your Lordships' House, they toil not neither do they spin". The new DNB includes far more women. It is absurd to say that that is a result of political correctness; even now, women number only a tenth of the entries in the DNB. But it is not political correctness that they should be included. Many of the women included are immensely important. I shall mention, if your Lordships will allow me, one person for whose inclusion I am responsible, although I did not write the entry. I refer to Emily Hobhouse, who was not, astonishingly, in the initial DNB, nor in the initial plans for the present one. Emily Hobhouse was a very idealistic critic of what happened in the Boer war, with the deaths of thousands and thousands of British women and children. It was she who coined the phrase, "methods of barbarism", which she passed on to Campbell-Bannerman. Those three words changed the course of British party politics for a generation. It is very good that she is in.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography will be a cornerstone of our culture for centuries to come. We should welcome it immensely, and 23 September will be a day of national celebration. If the noble Lord, Lord Baker, will allow me, I would observe: "Rejoice, rejoice". That is how we should feel about this dictionary, which brings together some of the great institutions in our land, which give us all great pride. They include the Oxford University Press, which is the largest publishing house in the world and our greatest publishing house; the British Academy, which handled the funding; the National Portrait Gallery; and the Royal Society. The Institute of Historical Research also played a very important role.

The purpose of this Motion is not only to celebrate the dictionary, but to express the belief, which is confidently held on these not over-crowded Benches, that the Government will respond. After all, the Government provided £3 million, channelled through the academy, to promote the dictionary. As the noble Lord, Lord Baker, suggested, it is apposite that the Government should promote the use of the dictionary, particularly in schools and through developing online facilities. In so doing the Government will reaffirm, I trust, their belief in the value of history, including medieval history which Mr Charles Clarke has assured us he is perfectly in favour of. So often history, the past, is dismissed or relegated in favour of a meretricious cult of the new. I trust that this dictionary and the Government's response to it will help ensure that future generations will think about their world in a way that is shaped by the understanding of history and, indeed, particularly by the understanding of history in these islands.

We have the formidable endorsement from these Benches of one of our heroes, Aneurin Bevan, who liked to comment on the extreme value of history. He had his famous story about how when he was lost in the mist of the hills above Tredegar and he did not know how to go forward he would step back; he would see where he had come from. The moral that Aneurin Bevan drew was that you can plan the way ahead only if you know where you have come from. That is true of him and is true of our society as a whole.

Biography has moved on. The craft of biography has had sophisticated practitioners (we have lost one or two like my friend Ben Pimlott in the recent past) but it is developing all the time. It has moved beyond the biblical injunction that the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, rightly mentioned. Let us now praise famous men, but by all means let us praise the OUP, DNB and let us encourage the Government also to do so.

3.1 p.m.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to join the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and others in celebrating the new DNB. But let this be a time also to celebrate the old DNB; that magnificent achievement of two phenomenal scholars, Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. Both, I am proud to say as ex-Vice Chancellor, had a close association with the University of London, Stephen having studied at King's College in the Strand before going up to Cambridge, and Lee, long after coming down from Oxford, became the first professor of English at what is now Queen Mary College.

Both were prominent among the "Eminent Victorians", as Lytton Strachey dubbed the two or three generations of people who changed our world: engineers, scientists, historians, thinkers, artists, philologists. Typically, they made their achievements in their own time and on their own resources, long before the days of publicly funded well-found laboratories or university-supplied secretarial help and the like. Often these resources were slim. Think of James Murray working on the mighty multi-volumed OED in what his granddaughter called a, "damp and unwholesome den" with his feet in a wooden box to mitigate the "chill unwarmed air".

Stephen and Lee were more fortunate as regards such creature comforts, but the work on which they embarked was even more challenging than Murray's, with far less by way of precedent to guide them. In his superb biography of 1984, Noel Annan (and how he would have relished and enriched this debate today) records how Stephen was besieged, by families with requests to include obscure kinsmen". and by clergymen who sent the names of, 1,400 hymn writers each entitled to a place". And when publication began, it was even worse with, the explosions of grief from those whose kinsmen had been inadequately treated or [worse] excluded. My dear husband", sobbed an Army widow, slew with his own sword fourteen sepoys … and there is not a word of it in his biography". Yet by the end of the 19th century, the job was done, and the 60-odd stately volumes became a model for such work worldwide, recording as they do the lives of nearly 40,000 people who were significant in the British Isles during a period of no less than two millennia. Seldom have the words of Horace been quoted with less hyperbole: "Monumentum aere perennius".

It was only after the DNB was published that the British Academy was established, but it will come as no surprise that both Lee and Stephen were early fellows. It is therefore singularly appropriate that, when almost a century later plans were afoot for a new DNB, my immediate successor as president, Sir Anthony Kenny, obtained additional funds from government and proceeded to plan with OUP a joint programme to produce what is now appropriately called the Oxford DNB. Although envisaged as a 50:50 funding partnership, it certainly did not work out like that. In total, the academy paid out just under £4 million (a huge sum of course by academic and academy standards) but the OUP's contribution came to no less than £22 million.

The goal was not just to perform the obvious, incorporating the decennial supplements of 20th-century VIP mortality into the original DNB lives at their appropriate alphabetical slots. There was also the need to correct the old lives as a result of a century's historical research. There was the opportunity, as the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, has reminded us, with the help of the National Portrait Gallery, to provide actual images of biographical subjects. That has been achieved on a most generous scale, and roughly one in five of the 55,000 biographies is thus enhanced.

Moreover, the marvels of IT provided tools that Stephen and Lee would not have dreamt about. Although IT made the editorial work easier than theirs and far quicker (only 12 years to completion, on target) it also presented challenges to do things that would never have occurred to Stephen and Lee, not least continuous updating and multimedia publication.

As we have been reminded, however, there were judgmental, social and intellectual challenges, too. From the time of its publication, and increasingly throughout the 20th century, the DNB was criticised on the grounds of what we now call inclusiveness. One had a better chance of getting into the old DNB if one were a politician, general or poet than if one were an inventor, industrialist, wealth-creator, entertainer, athlete or clown.

Lord Baker of Dorking

Or all of them, my Lords.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, above all, one had a better chance if one were male rather than female. Indeed, one of the supplementary volumes sought to address such issues by looking back through the entire run of the DNB and producing, in 1993, the wittily entitled Missing Persons. It is worth noting that, whereas in the old DNB only 3 per cent of the 40,000 lives recorded are women, among the 1,000 "missing persons", the percentage shoots up to 12 per cent.

By then, of course, work on the new DNB was already in progress, with a joint OUP and British Academy supervisory committee chaired by the eminent historian, Sir Keith Thomas. An early, inspired move in February 1992 was to appoint Colin Matthew as editor, fresh from his work on Gladstone's diaries. The story of his quite awesome achievement in scholarship, management and leadership is splendidly told by Brian Harrison in that authoritative and wide-ranging introduction to the new Oxford DNB that I have been privileged to see. Doubtless Harrison is right in saying, such was the momentum already built up by October 1999, that the project could remain exactly on course even after Matthew's sudden and shocking death that month. But everyone working on the DNB over the past four years well knows how much the final success is due to the excellence of Matthew's successor, on which Brian Harrison is of course silent.

That success rests in great part on the sheer quality of the writing and I am glad that some of the authors are here to hear me say that. Under the expert but kindly editorial guidance given to the astonishing roll of 10,000 authors from all over the world—12 from Japan—compared with the mere 653 authors that were enrolled by Stephen and Lee. There are now nearly 55,000 lives compared with under 40,000 in Stephen and Lee. The entire text of over 62 million words was keyed into the electronic form which will lie behind the printed volumes by computer engineers in Pondicherry.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but the nine minutes allocated to each speaker has now expired.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I have nearly finished. Amid those immense changes Matthew and Harrison have stuck steadfastly to the tone set by Stephen and Lee. The life stories are verbal portraits where the warts are allowed to show. Eulogy is frowned on and, as Alfred Ainger put it long ago, the policy was and has remained, "no flowers by request". I apologise for over-running.

3.12 p.m.

Lord Briggs

My Lords, I am happy to take part in this debate and I should like to begin, as other have done, by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Baker, for having taken the initiative in raising not only the issue of celebrating the new great work of scholarship, but of what we would like the Government to do in universities, schools and other places to follow it through.

Like others present, I have been a regular contributor to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography under successive editors in the supplement series. I pay my own sense of gratitude to the supplements and to one editor in particular, Lord Blake, who was an esteemed figure in this House, and whose views, not only on constitutional history, but on many other questions, were always listened to with great respect.

In writing my pieces I was aware that I was engaging in hard work for which I was paid very little. There has never been a great deal of money for contributors in relation to the DNB. I also had the more interesting and difficult tasks of helping successive editors of the supplements in selecting which characters from the 20th century they would include in the next decennial volume. That was a somewhat daunting and dangerous privilege. It was a much greater privilege that carried with it a sense of responsibility when I was also asked to give advice about which names should be excluded from the old DNBs and included in the new one. I was involved in an act of "retributive justice", as it would now be called.

The work of Leslie Stephen has rightly been admired today. It is just 100 years since he died. He was a remarkable man. It would be a mistake to think that he was interested only in literature as he was a good athlete and mountaineer. He once performed the prodigious feat of walking from Cambridge to London in 12 hours to go to a dinner party. There were no expenses on that occasion for him, either.

I think that the new effort—this great new contribution to learning—is very different from the old one in that, from the beginning, it has been a triumph of team work, and not just of individual effort. The team work has been tremendous and I pay a tribute, too, briefly to Colin Matthew, whom I knew well and on whom, for example, the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead depended very heavily in his work on Gladstone. I also pay a tribute to Brian Harrison, whose approach to history has always been refreshingly new.

Most importantly, the DNB reflects new attitudes towards history and the methods of history. It includes far more family history, which is a subject of great interest in the country; it includes far more work on women's history than perhaps has been appreciated in this brief discussion today; and it brings in every kind of person—not only benefactors and malefactors, as has been pointed out, but also one special category, which is picked out by Brian Harrison in one of his pieces about the new volume. He picks out what he calls "quirky" people. I am sure that quirky people are not named after my noble friend Lord Quirk. I do not know quite why they are called "quirky" but he will tell me because he is just as interested in words as he is in people.

Because the biography is so comprehensive, it is more than a great achievement in the humanities; it is probably the biggest contribution to the history of scholarship in the humanities—certainly in my own lifetime. More than that, it covers all aspects of life, and the technology is there just as much as the history.

It is also a great triumph of national production. When I read of the contributions to the production of the new volumes, I see that they include, for example, places as different and as distant from each other as Frome and Boston. We even have a picture of Brian Harrison looking at the printing works where the volumes appear. In other words, it is not only an Oxford venture; it is a national one.

I conclude by saying that perhaps one should focus on the on-line edition of the biography because, in relation to this kind of scholarship, that is generally new. Access to it will enable all kinds of detailed research to be carried out on every kind of subject. Access to it in schools will help pupils who are asked to carry out a piece of research to do so on the basis of some authoritative information. Lastly, it enables the volumes to he kept up to date. That is terribly important, not only in bringing new entries into the new dictionary but also in revising old ones, and revising is terribly important.

In the great celebrations held in 1900 on the appearance of the first volumes of the DNB, the Bishop of London, Mandell Creighton, the famous historian, confessed at a great lunch which was held that he had made many mistakes in his own contributions to the DNB and he would seek in future to correct them. Perhaps I may hope that all contributors will follow in that admirable line of action. I also hope that the Government will have the vision to recognise this as something of which we can be really proud internationally. It is a great achievement, and anyone who has been involved in it deserves the highest praise.

3.19 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Swynnerton

My Lords, a lifetime ago, it seems, came up to London in the company of a distinguished Cambridge graduate, Percy Cradock—later Ambassador in China and, later still, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and adviser to the Prime Minister. He was just about to launch his publication on the history of the Cambridge Union. That admirable volume had as an appendix a list of ex-presidents of the Cambridge Union and against some of them Percy Cradock had put an asterisk. I asked him the meaning of the asterisk, particularly as I was in the list as a president, but I did not have an asterisk. He said, "Ah, you must realise, those who have asterisks are those who can be found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". We all aim for that. More important than the K, the G or the OBE, the asterisk for Percy Cradock was the centre of our ambitions.

Like other noble Lords, I welcome the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, in introducing the debate on this magnificent publication. I am particularly pleased to hear—only today—that there are so many illustrations and portraits of the subjects in the dictionary. Perhaps we should bear in mind that an earlier version, like this version, has inspired many other countries to do the same thing. The Spanish Royal Academy of History, for example, has embarked on a similar publication to be published in a few years. There will be fewer names—perhaps 25,000 names—and fewer volumes, but nevertheless it will be an admirable act of recognition of the importance of Britain in initiating such a publication.

I have three points to make. First, I hope that there will be more businessmen and entrepreneurs included than in the earlier volumes. There was quite a remarkable neglect of such individuals, particularly those who were active in the 18th century. One sticks in my mind: the absence of a gentleman called John Kennion, a great entrepreneur in Lancashire, who played a part in the conquest of Cuba against the Spaniards. He introduced a great many slaves into the then Spanish colony. He is not to be found, but his nephew—a minor water colourist—who accompanied him on his journey to Havanna in 1762 in Lord Albemarle's expedition, is included. I hope that kind of imbalance will not be seen in this new edition.

Secondly, although I welcome the number of women and provincially distinguished people whom we expect to be included, I hope that that is not at the cost of generals, admirals, colonels, governors and proconsuls who, after all, have been the bones of English national history.

Thirdly, I hope that we shall find some of the more distinguished essays of the past still there; for example, the essays of the one-time librarian of this House, Sir Edmund Gosse, who wrote many essays, or the famous essay of the historian EA Freeman on King Alfred, not to forget the essay by Sir Theodore Martin on Prince Albert.

I suppose it is right to say that the British contribution to world history has four aspects: first, our contribution in creating a political democracy of which we are so proud; secondly, our Empire; thirdly, our contribution to the beginning of the industrial revolution; and, fourthly—what I believe will be recognised in the long run, as more important than anything our role in literature and particularly in poetry. Those are the pillars of our heritage. The publication of the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography shows that we are still proud of our heritage. I hope and I am sure that we shall be very proud of the publication of this dictionary.

3.24 p.m.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, I, and I think others, have looked forward to this debate for some days. I do not think that any of us have been disappointed. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, who admirably introduced the debate, paid tribute to those speakers who put their names down. I do not think he will be disappointed either because the display of erudition and wit has been a real treat, certainly for me and I imagine for those who have been fortunate enough to be in other parts of the House this afternoon.

I have to remind your Lordships that I am only standing here because were Lord Jenkins of Hillhead to be alive he would almost certainly have been standing where I am today. The noble Lord, Lord Briggs, mentioned my late noble friend in relation to his work on Gladstone and the use he made of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. But of course he did much more than that when he was Chancellor of Oxford University. He had other input as well.

It would be remiss of me not to say today that my noble friend Lord Russell would also be here were he not indisposed and ill. He has also contributed largely to the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I am sure that we all wish him a speedy return to your Lordships' House.

I share with the noble Lord, Lord Baker, that in my formative years the first stage performance that I ever saw was the first stand-up comic Max Miller, cheeky chappy. To my mind, he has never been surpassed. I did not know, but I am delighted, that he is now included in the dictionary. It is only to the good that we are including comics, clowns and others.

I have for many years, and particularly since I have been in your Lordships' House, which is longer than I dare admit, constantly been to the excellent dictionary in your Lordship's House, not least because my family—not recently I have to say—is not short of what were described colourfully by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, as "the bad and the louche". I do, however, have a couple of 17th century ancestors who are included. One of whom is a woman. I was interested to hear that originally only 4 per cent of those included in the dictionary were women. Even she is added on as an adjunct to the contribution about her husband, the first holder of my title, whose career in public life was not an unqualified success. Nevertheless, he was a colourful and impecunious figure—nothing changes in my family.

My ancestor was remarkable. So the standard was high. She had parents with whom she did not get on at all. She was an heiress that my ancestor married in the hope of expectations which never arrived. According to history, she locked herself in her room because her parents were so disagreeable. That is not in the dictionary, but I found it elsewhere. She set herself to her studies so that she was actually in complete command of six languages, which included Latin. Hebrew and Transylvanian as well as Italian, Spanish and French. Her services were often sought for translations.

She was also a playwright in her own right. In fact, I believe she is recorded as being the first woman to write a play and have it publicly performed. She is very much valued by feminist historians in the United States, with whom, I might say, I have a lively correspondence from time to time.

So there have been women. That is a high standard to set for women and it will be met because public life now is not the same as it was in the 19th century, as other speakers have said. Women now play a much more prominent and admirable part in our lives. They will find their place, and have done I imagine—I have not yet seen the foretaste of the new edition, which runs, as noble Lords have said, to 60 volumes. The price I believe is £7,500, which makes it limited to institutions. I cannot see many individuals being able to spend that money.

The dictionary is online, which is only to be expected in this modern age. One has to pay tribute to its preparation because online we have the entire contents of the 19th century edition. Much tribute has quite rightly been paid to its authors, Sydney Lee and Leslie Stephen. I believe that the National Portrait Gallery has also contributed portraits which are to be published both in the volume and online. I did not ask the Librarian of the House, who told me that today, whether that included photographic portraits. If it is only painted portraits, they will be much more prolific in earlier volumes.

This is a gigantic undertaking and it is unique—I believe that the French tried it but could not maintain the effort—I think because of the extraordinary relationship between publishing and universities. I was interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, said about the Spanish attempt and I hope that it will be successful.

Lord Thomas of Swynnerton

My Lords, on a matter of information, France has embarked on a dictionary of national biography, but it has not yet got further than "M".

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that enlightenment.

Celebration is certainly in order, whether the Minister can tell us that the Government will give it their support or not. I know that he has enjoyed this debate as much as I have because I have watched the expression on his face from time to time—one could hardly fail to do so. It is an unparalleled undertaking. I hope that those who go online and only dip into it will not fail to go back to the original publication, because it is quite eccentric. Peers who have spoken have mentioned the number of clergymen who wrote books and who seemed to be favoured in their original inclusion. They will probably have been weeded out, but I do not know. The articles on members of my family are absolutely wonderful and I treasure them greatly because they were both extraordinary characters. TFH, whoever that was—I think that his name was Henderson—whose initials come underneath, did a wonderful job.

There is not much more for me to say about the dictionary. A good job has been done. Librarians have exerted a lot of pressure to ensure that everything is consolidated in one publication rather than having to have two sets and two sets of expense. I am sure that noble. Lords with interest in these things will dip into them. I have always been fanatical about reference books. In fact, I worked for a while as a very junior editorial assistant for a publication called the Authors and International Writers Who's Who, but a tension grew up—I am sure that it will not in this case—between the managing editor and one of the senior editors. His way of revenge against what was the man's unparalleled pomposity, I must agree, was to include an entirely fictitious entry. Being a man of published work, he did so with some delicacy. I recall one completely fictitious entry about a man who purported to be a travel writer. One of the books that he was supposed to have published, which was very cleverly thought-out and subtle, was entitled 1936: Across Ethiopia with Pan and Pen. I dare say that no frivolities of such kind will occur in this volume, to which we all look forward when it is published in two weeks' time.

3.33 p.m.

Lord Luke

My Lords, we are all most grateful to my noble friend for initiating this debate. It has been absolutely fascinating and also a very educational experience, at least for me and I expect for all your Lordships. These stories of tremendous achievement will be of immense value to everyone in Great Britain and Ireland and those who live in the old empire.

We have heard contributions from a very distinguished band of colleagues, and I must say that the debate has been a typical example of what this House does so well. We on these Benches strongly support my noble friend's suggestion to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills that booklets concerning this project should be sent to all schools, teacher training colleges and universities in our country. It would also be an excellent idea if the department would consider financing the first year's connection to the Internet for all secondary schools. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about that. As my noble friend said, such action would go some way towards refuting the Government's rather dubious reputation for being indifferent to history and its teaching.

One must applaud the editorial team most strongly for continuing the theme of the original Oxford Dictionary of National Biography—we have heard much today about how very interesting it is—and initially deciding that it was too valuable to discard completely. The new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography will stand as a testament both to their hard work and to the achievement of those who worked on the original dictionary. It will be a roll-call of not just the great and the good but an inclusive range of personalities, male and female, from the United Kingdom, Ireland, the British Empire and of the various races who have helped to shape our nations into what they are today.

When reading the criteria for inclusion—"residents in our countries or colonies"—I suddenly wondered whether Napoleon would be included. He was one of our greatest enemies but he certainly qualified as a resident in one of our colonies for the last six years of his life. So no doubt John Peel and John Crippen were included.

The trouble with history is that historians often do not agree concerning events, let alone individuals. Was King Alfred a good cook? Did Robert the Bruce really watch a spider walking up the wall? Was Richard II indeed responsible for the murder of King Edward V and Prince Richard of Warwick?

Lord Morgan

My Lords, on a point of information, it was Richard III.

Lord Luke

My Lords, I have made the most frightful mistake; of course I meant Richard III. I thank the noble Lord for the correction.

Debunking famous lives is a very active industry; indeed, the more famous the individual, the more diverse and divergent are the views concerning that person's life. So I hope that at least some of the articles will solve some of the contentious views concerning our ancestors. The 23,000 words concerning a certain Welsh Prime Minister will possibly not solve all the contentious views about him, but I look forward to reading the entry at some stage.

We all use the phrase that so and so must be "turning in his or her grave" at the state of affairs of such and such a situation. As generation succeeds generation, the older ones always think that the young entry have gone to pot. So it would be fascinating if one could somehow consult our illustrious forebears on contentious issues. Unfortunately, or fortunately, that is not possible, so we have the next best thing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

One of the aspects of the project that particularly interests me—as well as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, and the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland—is the obviously great effort made to find likenesses of subjects and the extraordinary success, considering the breadth of the years covered by the dictionary, of including the likeness of no fewer than one in five. One must congratulate the National Portrait Gallery in particular on successfully finding such likenesses, not only within its own portals, but from other museums, galleries and, probably, private collections.

I am surprised that my noble friend did not mention the new All-Party Group on Political Art, which he so authoritatively addressed when he showed us a wonderful collection of caricatures of sovereigns of the past 250-odd years. I hope that some caricatures have been included in the likenesses, where appropriate, because, however unkind they may often be, they have a strong tendency to give a very true representation of someone's personality.

This dictionary is an ideal subject for electrical incorporation, and I am delighted that it will be available online. I shall also be strongly in favour of the purchase of a copy by our Library, and the House of Commons Library should certainly buy it.

It is right that no live person is included. Otherwise there would be endless bickering about who was included, who was not and who should have been. No doubt, an extra volume at least would have been needed to cover so many of your Lordships.

I can do no better than wind up by quoting Phillip Guedalla, who said: Biography is a very definite region, bounded on the North by history, on the South by fiction, on the East by obituary and on the West by tedium. I would love to be able to afford to buy the dictionary and to have the time to read it. To be present and to take part in this debate has been a salutary experience. I look forward, as always, to hearing what the Minister has to say.

3.40 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey)

My Lords, I join all those who have congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Baker, on introducing the debate. I am not someone who tends to introduce my speeches by saying how wonderful the standard of debate is in your Lordships' House. But, as the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, rightly observed, I have been kept enthralled by today's debate.

I started by wondering about what a collective noun for biographers might be since we have so many distinguished biographers with us. I first thought about a "bench" or a "shelf" of biographers. But I realised that in the present company the proper collective noun is a "treasury" of biographers. We treasure them and we hope that they will continue to provide us with intellectual and aesthetic pleasure.

Of course it is correct for the noble Lord, Lord Baker, to challenge the Government to welcome the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I do so with all my heart. It has already been pointed out that there has been funding from the Department for Education and Science through the British Academy. There seems to be some disagreement between my noble friend Lord Morgan who thinks that it was £3 million and the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, who thinks that it was £4 million; but there may be some explanation of that.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, it was £3.7 million.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that would be a rounding error, as we say in the market research trade.

Lord Morgan

My Lords, just to clear that up. I think that I am correct in saying that the Government provided £3 million and the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, said that the British Academy supplied the extra £1 million from other sources.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the record will no doubt determine that without further intervention from me. Of course, the most substantial contribution has been from the Oxford University Press, which is to be congratulated both for its investment and, of course, for the almost incredible speed and efficiency with which the two editors have pursued the task over a remarkably short period to a successful and on-time outcome.

It is clearly important that the range of entries into the dictionary should have been extended. The old dictionary was not just, as has been said, short on women; it was also, as has been said, short on business. It was short on labour and trade union people; it was short on non-metropolitan and provincial people; it was short on people from the colonies; and it has also been short on people from the 20th century, although that has been corrected by supplementary volumes during the past century.

We now have something that is a credit to the Oxford University Press, a credit to all of the people who have taken part and a credit to those of us, collectively, who will enjoy it and will make use of it as the years go by. I confess that I am a regular user of the Concise Dictionary of National Biography, which has three volumes. I do not have the full volume at home, but I am led time after time from the very short entries in the concise dictionary to come into the House Library, the London Library or wherever I can get hold of it to consult the full volume. I hope that there will be a new concise edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography which will serve that purpose in the future. It certainly whets the appetite and would be appropriate for libraries and schools as well as for the rest of us.

I have said that the Department for Education and Skills made a financial contribution to the new dictionary, but I should say that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which I represent here, has had a substantial involvement. Reference has also been to the National Portrait Gallery. Since 1996 it has been involved in what is known as the Likenesses Project. The gallery has produced some 10,000 images for the 50,000 entries included in the dictionary. Half of those were taken from the gallery's own collection, while the other half have been gathered from no fewer than 1,500 other collections both here and in other countries. The contribution made by the National Portrait Gallery is very significant.

As regards libraries, what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, about access to the dictionary in schools—a point I shall turn to shortly—applies equally to libraries. A number of launch events have been arranged for the coming months, and at least two of those occasions will be held in libraries—one in Norwich and one in Birmingham. I am glad that the publishers and editors at the Oxford University Press have been in contact with the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, which is our agent in these matters. I understand that there is good co-operation between them.

Turning to the field of the arts, the Arts Council is concerned not only with the visual, plastic arts, but also concerned very much with the written word. I am thinking, for example, about the work undertaken by the council in support of the Wordsworth Trust in the Lake District. That is evidence of the fact that biography and the written word are both close to the heart of that part of my department.

In the broader sense, the history of the people included in the national dictionary forms part of our heritage. I look upon the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as a community resource, just as I do our libraries, and note the link between the two. While it must be remembered that my department does not run or pay for libraries, I hope very much that it will be possible for many libraries to gain access to the dictionary.

Let me say a word about sales and online access. First, a discount of £1,000 is available from the publishers for early purchases made before the end of November this year. However, that is not relevant to libraries in this country. All of our libraries buy through purchasing arrangements. Deals struck with their own suppliers provide substantially higher discounts than would be available from any individual publisher. For example, Sunderland public libraries will be able to buy the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for £5,500, which is a discount of £2,000, from their ordinary suppliers. I understand that comparable arrangements are in place for schools.

I am also interested in the issue of online access, a point referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Briggs, and the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. Here I am glad to say that the Oxford University Press has been very co-operative. It is saying that, for libraries, a single subscription for a library authority will allow access from all the branch libraries in that authority. I cannot say what the subscription will be because it is on a graduated scale according to population, but clearly that is a very substantial encouragement for library authorities to pay for on-line access and to make it accessible in all branch libraries.

Indeed, in Wales they have gone a lot further. There is a deal which allows a whole range of Oxford University Press products to be available in Wales for a single subscription fee. Again, I do not know what the details are but I would hope that a deal of that kind could be extended to England and Scotland.

For schools, the situation is not quite as clear. The basic subscription would be £250 per year per school, but clearly there will be discounts for local education authorities which subscribe on behalf of a number of schools. That might get us into the position of individual schools being able to subscribe for substantially less than £200. Of course, if a future Conservative government were to abolish local education authorities, as they claim they will do, that discount would no longer be available.

I am not sure whether I am being asked for anything other than the moral support and practical support I have already described. I am not sure that I am being asked for a large launch party. The suggestion has been made that there should be a launch party run by the Royal Society and the British Academy. I am sure the Government would welcome that. I am not committing myself to any public expenditure on such an occasion, but I am certainly giving the moral support that is required.

Lord Baker of Dorking

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the welcome that he has given to the publication. He referred to it as a community resource. It is certainly that, as well as being a scholastic resource.

I put specific proposals to Mr Clarke—I appreciate that the Minister does not come from that department, but there is supposed to be joined up government, as it were—and if he were enthusiastic he would no doubt have indicated his enthusiasm to the Minister replying this afternoon.

I still believe there is a need for the dictionary to be online in schools. Children can tap in the name of their community, wherever they live. I know that time is passing, but that is what history is all about. It is all very well for the Minister to look at his wristwatch, but we have until four o'clock. Schoolchildren can tap into the online record the name of the town in which they live and find out an enormous amount about it.

The Government should take some steps to make this more available. They are not recognising the publication in any other way. As everyone on all sides of the House has said today, this is one of the most significant publishing events of the past 20 or 30 years. If the Government are not going to be more forthcoming, that will reinforce the view that this Government are not really interested in history.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not deny the fact that I answer for the Government and not for an individual department. That has always been the position in this House. But the noble Lord, Lord Baker, wrote to Charles Clarke on 7 September; he will get an answer with all deliberate speed, but it is not one that I am in a position to give today.

The contributions which have been made and the support that has been given to the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography show the seriousness with which this House, at any rate, takes this outstanding publishing event. I hope that I have made clear that the Government share in the congratulations and share in the admiration of all those who have taken part.

House adjourned at six minutes before four o'clock.