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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,

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,

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,

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.
 
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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:

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,

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,

and then slow down, but that the rate of distinction had permanently speeded up in the 19th century, with the "multiplication of intellectual callings".

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.
 
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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,

Even,

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,

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.

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
 
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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,

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
 
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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
 
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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.


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