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“The glory of this country”: parliamentary reporting in the two World Wars

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: History of Hansard, History of parliamentary reporting, Wartime

Let’s begin with an improbable pub quiz question. The quote in the title of this post comes from a Commons speech in 1945 concerning the publication of wartime parliamentary debates. What was being described as “the glory of this country”?  

a) the official reports of parliamentary debates as published in Hansard, or

b) the only occasions since the dawn of official reporting when the official reporters have not been permitted to report Parliament.  

The answer is b), which is disappointing – at least for official reporters (it might also be considered an exaggeration: in the last 200 years, this description has generally been reserved for such grave matters as our constitution and our liberties and freedoms, although, to be fair, it has also been applied to pubs, business people, magnanimity after victory, Admiral Nelson and, um, the Charge of the Light Brigade). 

Secret Sessions 

The speaker was celebrating a procedural innovation, accomplished during the first world war but used more often during the second, that criminalised the reporting of debates in which sensitive information about the war effort might be revealed or discussed. Such debates were known as Secret Sessions. 

To sit in “secret”, the House first had to sit in “private”. In other words, the public Galleries had to be emptied. An MP would rise and draw the Speaker’s attention to the scandalous presence of “strangers”, and the Speaker, if he wished, could order their removal (incidentally, this can still happen today, although it’s harder to do, and when it does happen, it’s usually by mistake and results in so much confusion that the House has to suspend and go and lie down).  

Once the House was sitting in private, it could then agree an order, provided for under emergency wartime legislation, to make it unlawful for anyone, including Members present, to report on the debate or discuss its content in public. 

There was just one problem: technically, “strangers” didn’t include the occupants of the Ladies’ Gallery – which is to say women. Arguably, this caused more concern than it should have. Some possibly imagined that once admitted the occupants of that Gallery might try to exploit this loophole. Whatever the reason, the best parliamentary minds soon saw that the problem could be easily met: they didn’t let them in, so the problem of their removal never arose.

House of Commons General View, showing the Ladies' Gallery above the Speaker's Chair; 1905; Copyright Parliamentary Archives, FAR/1/7.

Reporting restrictions 

Even less time was wasted on the official reporters, as it was quickly resolved that they should be removed along with the rest of the Press Gallery. It wasn’t until the second world war that anyone seriously suggested otherwise, when Reginald William Sorensen, MP for Leyton West, argued that it would be “in the national interest” to allow them to remain in order to produce reports that could be published later and with the sensitive parts left out. Churchill rejected the idea (it was okay for him: all the speeches he gave in Secret Sessions were pre-prepared and later published). 

On the wisdom of excluding the official reporters, history sided with Reginald William Sorensen – though arguably and only for an afternoon – when in 1945 the Labour Government announced their intention to lift the reporting restriction on Secret Sessions. It was controversial. Many worried about being accused of saying things they hadn’t said, others about it being known what they really had said. In fact, the debate became something of an exploration of the whole point of having an official report in the first place.

Hansard search results for the phrase "secret session", showing higher frequencies around the two world wars.

A reliable report 

The case for Hansard was summed up in Harold Macmillan’s objection to publishing reports without the aid of official reporters: “What we shall get will be the kind of report which was published in the 18th century of what was said to be the Proceedings and speeches of the House of Commons”. Parliamentary reports in the 18th century were notoriously unreliable. Samuel Johnson (famous for writing his “Dictionary of the English Language”) was an occasional parliamentary reporter for the Gentleman’s Magazine, and is said to have attended a dinner towards the end of his life at which someone praised a parliamentary speech by Pitt the Elder, delivered years before, which he thought the best he’d ever read. After others had also praised it, Johnson offered the following observation: “Sirs, that speech I wrote in a garret in Exeter Street”. 

So perhaps the moral of the story is this: whilst we don’t write very good dictionaries, we do produce a mean official report.  

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