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The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, if it is in order I should like briefly to comment on what the Minister said.

Noble Lords: No.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I am sorry.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Dictionary of National Biography

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
 
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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".
 
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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:

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,

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
 
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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
 
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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.


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