Friday 8 May 2020 is the 75th anniversary of VE Day, which makes it a good day to look again at a fascinating example of parliamentary publishing in wartime, the Penguin Hansard.
The first volume of the Penguin Hansard was published in 1940. Covering the first few months of the second world war, it provided extracts of Commons debates, as “a record, true in substance and in spirit, of a great phase in the history of Parliament.” The five other volumes, produced by Penguin in a version of its classic paperback design, took the story up to 1942 and included “The Home Front” and “The Home Situation”—all of it “taken verbatim from the House of Commons Official Report of Parliamentary Debates”.
Commander Stephen King-Hall
The aim of the Penguin Hansard was to “report the House of Commons to the public”. This objective was close to the heart of Commander Stephen King-Hall (1893-1966), a former naval officer turned journalist and commentator, as well as a strong opponent of Nazi Germany, who was MP for Ormskirk, from 1939 to 1945. As his obituary in The Times put it, “he was an ideal educator: engaging, avuncular and opinionated”, and one of his ideas—he once admitted that Members must think he had a bee in his bonnet about it—was the need to promote Hansard to ordinary people. For the same reason, he established the Hansard Society in 1944, which provides independent advice and research on Parliament and parliamentary affairs.
The record of Parliament in action
King-Hall argued in early 1940 that Hansard “is the record of Parliament in action and therefore is the story of the practical expression of the democratic ideals for which we are fighting.” Although his suggestion of printing a cheap weekly edition of Hansard with extracts of speeches was rejected by the Select Committee on Publications and Debates Reports, he was probably behind a similar proposal from Penguin Books Ltd that was accepted by the Committee in September 1940 and soon led to the appearance of the Penguin Hansard. He also asked numerous parliamentary questions about the distribution of Hansard to public libraries, the armed forces and embassies overseas, and by December 1944 he could boast that its circulation had increased—rising threefold during the war—to about 8,000 copies.
Emphasising the nation’s determination
The Penguin Hansard was a contribution to the war effort: by reprinting parliamentary discussions of the daunting challenges facing the United Kingdom, it emphasised the nation’s determination to overcome them. The first volume ends with the rousing speech of the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, to the Commons on 13 May 1940:
I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering…
But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”
The production of Hansard was fraught with difficulties during the second world war, but its prompt appearance was integral to the cause of parliamentary democracy, and Hansard continues—however difficult the circumstances—to provide reports of all parliamentary proceedings for the public to read.
More images relating to Hansard and the second world war.
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