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Book (Departmental Letter)

Volume 640: debated on Wednesday 17 May 1961

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asked the Secretary of State for Air why a letter written by his Department to Mr. Richard Collier on 28th March, 1961, formally expressed disapproval of Mr. Collier's treatment of the subject in his book, "The Sands of Dunkirk", despite the fact that there was nothing in the book to which objection could be taken on security grounds.

Mr. Collier had enjoyed certain official facilities from the Air Ministry and submitted his text to us. In giving it clearance from a security point of view, my Department thought it right to dissociate themselves formally from a number of disparaging references to the conduct and discipline of the British Army at Dunkirk. I think it was fully justified in doing so.

Even if the Air Ministry regarded Mr. Collier's treatment of the subject as undesirable, which, having read the book, I would not accept for a moment, is it reasonable that the Air Ministry, in a formal letter, using the most portentous language, should express opinions about a matter which is not the concern of the right hon. Gentleman's Department? Does the Ministry think it proper to set itself up as an unofficial literary censor?

There is no question of censorship about this, but it was our duty, both to Mr. Collier and in loyalty to the War Office, to point out what we thought were disparaging and unbalanced remarks.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I am speaking of matters necessarily not of fact but of opinion and that his Department thought it right to censor in the most officious language those expressions of view? Will he give an assurance that this will not be done in future and that the mechanism of submitting manuscripts for security clearance will not be used for entirely different purposes?

No, Sir. It is our duty to express opinions, particularly in matters which engage our responsibility. As we gave clearance to the book, we were also quite right to point out that we thought that it contained inaccuracies and gave an unbalanced picture. In no way was this an attempt to censor the book or to stop Mr. Collier publishing it. It was our duty to point out to him that we thought that it was unbalanced.

Although hon. Members on both sides of the House appreciate the versatility and literary abilities of the Air Ministry personnel, is it not most improper for the Ministry to enter the field of literary criticism in this manner?

I do not think so at all. I think that this is an example of good co-operation with the War Office.