Photograph of House of Commons Chamber

The House of Commons as it looked in 1939. Report from the Select Committee on House of Commons-Rebuilding (1944)

We are live tweeting extracts from a Parliamentary debate on the Ministry of Information that was held on 28 July 1939. The following post by Dr Henry Irving explains why  the event was so important.

Neville Chamberlain’s announcement on 15 June 1939 that planning for a wartime Ministry of Information (MOI) had already begun allowed preparations to be formalised. Responsibility for funding was duly transferred from the secret service to the Home Office and a small ‘nucleus’ staff was appointed. This set the stage for an extraordinary debate in Parliament as MPs considered proposals for £40,000 of preparatory expenditure.

A committee session examining Home Office ‘supplementary estimates’ on 28 July 1939 was the first opportunity MPs had to discuss the proposals. In a break with usual practice, the committee was asked to consider plans for expenditure that would fall on the Home Office, Foreign Office and the Diplomatic Service (it was opened by the Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare but closed by the Foreign Undersecretary Rab Butler). The result was a wide-ranging discussion which came to centre upon the notion of ‘propaganda’.

This cross-party attempt to define a British propaganda policy makes the ‘supplementary estimates’ debate a point of obvious historical interest. Samuel Hoare opened proceedings by explaining that the Ministry would be ‘the centre of information both for home and overseas’ and that it would also be responsible for press censorship. He claimed to have consulted ‘with people in every walk of life and of every kind of opinion’. Hoare trod carefully around the term ‘propaganda’ and stressed that no such activity would ever take place in peace. He believed this would be ‘a danger to the expression of public opinion in this country’. 

Nevertheless other MPs were simply sceptical about the likely effect. Herbert Morrison, Labour’s spokesperson on Home Office affairs, believed that there was a British ‘aversion to government-inspired and government-organised propaganda’. He believed that the public were ‘best served by the truth rather than by unscrupulous stories which are not true’. The future Minister of Information Brendan Bracken passionately argued the same point with regard to foreign news. He maintained that the ‘the world is dazed and bored by propaganda’.

The committee also heard many practical concerns. The Liberal MP Richard Acland wondered what was meant by ‘wartime’ and pushed Hoare to define the exact point that the MOI would come into being. He also urged those involved in the Ministry’s planning to pay more attention to ‘the way in which journalists set about their task’. This was reiterated by the Labour backbencher Dr Leslie Haden-Guest. He urged Hoare to engage with ‘practising journalists’ and stressed that success in public relations depended upon the involvement of people who ‘had not been either to a public school or to a university’.

The shadow of Nazi propaganda loomed over much of the discussion. Sceptics like Brendan Bracken and Labour’s Reginald Fletcher warned against being ‘hypnotised by Dr. Goebbels’ and most argued for a much subtler approach. For example, the Conservative James Thomas suggested that ‘blatant, strident propaganda’ was unlikely to be as effective as ‘news, simply and soberly presented’. Yet there was a consensus that misleading Nazi-claims should be countered much more stridently. This was encapsulated by Herbert Morrison’s insistence that ‘We should not get nervous because Herr Hitler or Dr Goebbels get cross’.

The discussion was also notable for the blithe way Samuel Hoare explained the genesis of the ‘shadow Ministry of Information’. Describing the Home Office as the ‘residuary legatee of the rest of Government’, he claimed that Chamberlain had approached him about the issue ‘as it was nobody else’s business’ and alluded to the weight upon his ‘tottering shoulders’. This apparent lack of enthusiasm has been used by many historians to explain why the MOI’s early history was marred by confusion. In this sense the debate was prescient.

In fact almost all of the issues raised during the ‘supplementary estimates’ debate were to become recurrent points of conflict after 1939. Parliament had successfully identified the problems. It was the MOI’s misfortune that the solutions proved harder to find.

You can follow the debate by following @moidigital on Twitter.

Or you can read the full text here – navigate through to ‘Supply’.