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7 Apr 2019

Parliament’s ‘critical friend’: a short history of the Hansard Society

Seeing the Prime Minister, Mr Churchill, and his Deputy, Mr Attlee, sitting on a sofa in the Smoking Room of the House of Commons in August 1944, at the height of the War, an independent MP, Stephen King-Hall, summoned up the courage to approach them to see if he could interest them in his ‘Friends of Hansard’ idea.

King-Hall believed that the record of parliamentary debates was an excellent vehicle for proclaiming the principles and workings of parliamentary democracy at a time when they were under imminent threat. King-Hall, whose maiden speech had focused on the lack of interest shown by both the public and Parliament in Hansard, believed that the record could be not only an instrument of propaganda but also a teaching aid for the expansion of parliamentary democracy after the War.

Having listened to the idea, Churchill asked, ‘How much do you want to start this up?’ ‘One pound from each of you if you approve the idea, and you will be the first Friends’, replied King-Hall. Churchill and Attlee duly handed over the money. So began a venture that for 75 years has sought, through education and research, to promote the principles of parliamentary democracy at home and abroad.

King-Hall’s vision took off rapidly and the informal ‘Friends’ of Hansard soon had to be replaced by a more formal ‘Society’, with the support of prominent donors including Her Majesty the Queen. King-Hall’s promotional prowess was such that, by early 1947, weekly sales of Hansard had grown to over 12,000, and the daily editions to over 5,000, prompting the Ministry of Information to warn that it would run out of paper if sales continued at such a pace.

Research and education enquiries were soon being received from around the globe – 400 a day at their height – and an American and African section were established to cope with the response. Your Parliament, the first ever handbook guide to Westminster, sold 40,000 copies and was translated into five languages. Thousands of schoolchildren came to Westminster Central Hall to take part in meetings and debates with Members and staff from the House. And the first ever public exhibition in Parliament was organised as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, attracting thousands of visitors.

To the outside observer, the Hansard Society had become an independent public relations and education service for Westminster, and the advancement of Hansard was now just part of that work.

The presentation and promotion of Parliament to the public became core to the Society’s role. It is here that the Society has had the greatest influence on Westminster, pushing it to become a more outward-looking, public-facing institution.

Many of the Society’s early projects laid the groundwork for Parliament’s own information, visitor and education services. The Society was instrumental in the campaign to televise Parliament, and our 2005 Commission on the Communication of Parliamentary Democracy, chaired by Lord Puttnam, revolutionised Westminster’s approach to outward-facing communications, both on- and offline. We piloted the first online consultation forums for select committees, and hosted the first ever public hustings for the election of the Speaker of the House of Commons and subsequently the Lord Speaker.

Registered as a charity since December 1999, the Hansard Society remains dedicated to its founding principle of support for parliamentary democracy.