Pipe dream: a 1980 portrait of Benn by Ralph Steadman.
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Tony Benn: A fight for common sense

In a piece originally published in the New Statesman on 31 March 1961, Tony Benn explains the decision to renounce his peerage.

Despite all the legal, historical and constitutional complexities which envelop the struggle in which I am engaged, the issues involved are amazingly simple: does it make sense in 1961 to enforce an inescapable hereditary disqualification from service in the House of Commons and deny to a constituency the continued representation of its elected MP? What happens to me is of no great consequence. But the principles raised are worth fighting for.

The present law has never been embodied in statute. It has developed with uncertain authority from the customs and practices of past centuries. A peer by descent need never claim his peerage, nor go near the House of Lords. But, from the moment he inherits it, he is debarred for life from service in the Commons and can neither renounce nor surrender his title. There is therefore a direct conflict between common sense and the Common Law.

My personal battle against this nonsense is not, of course, by choice, but is dictated by necessity. From the moment of my election for Bristol in 1950, I knew that Father’s death would simultaneously remove us both from parliament. People sometimes ask why a transfer from the Commons to the Lords should be so intolerable. Both are Houses of Parliament so why the fuss? But what self-respecting paratrooper would agree to be seconded to the beefeaters? Both are armed forces in defence of the realm. Why the fuss? Try it and see.

The strength, vitality and attraction of the House of Commons lie in its representative character and not in the chances it offers for the premiership – as so many cynical leader writers assume. Indeed the prospects of office in a Labour government are far brighter for a peer than for an MP. Yet who would not rather serve for life as an elected backbench MP than occupy a cabinet post in a House in which he sat by virtue of an inherited privilege? It would be as fraudulent as wearing your grandfather’s VC on Armistice Day.

This is why I have been fighting this war – on and off – for nearly seven years. Any other House of Commons man would have done the same. Of course, in one sense it is all a terrible waste of time and effort – a diversion from serious political work. I am not remotely interested in the tribal customs of the feudal nobility but have been compelled to mug it all up in search of a reprieve.

It all began in 1954 when I petitioned a Lords committee for permission to promote a personal renunciation bill. They courteously rejected my petition on the grounds that a peerage concerned the whole nation and should be dealt with by a public bill. Two years later the government itself abandoned the hereditary principle in its long-awaited Life Peers Bill. But when someone tried to move an amendment to eliminate compulsory inheritance, the government said it was outside the scope of the bill, and it was ruled out of order. So it went on. It was like trying to wrestle with a fog.

Father and I tackled all these stages together and agreed that there was nothing to be done until he died. This was the most dismal part of it all. Yet, characteristically, he gathered fresh material for this posthumous project with infinite zest, humour and ingenuity, knowing he would not be there to see it used. What a help he would be at this lonely moment and how he would be enjoying it all.

So far everything has gone as we expected. The Committee of Privileges, by confining itself rigidly to a study of the law (some of it going back to the 13th century), has published a report that is of such monumental irrelevance to what is at stake that it will prove most helpful to my case.

Happily the privilege report will not be the only document before the House when the debate takes place. A petition from the electors of Bristol signed by many thousands of them (98 per cent approached have done so) will be presented the same day.

The House will, therefore, after Easter, have a perfectly simple decision to take. If there is a conflict of duty between willing elected membership of the Commons and unwilling inherited membership of the Lords, which should take precedence? Which is more important – the choice of the electors expressed through the ballot box or the notional will of the Crown embodied in an archaic writ of summons?

Knowing the pride the Commons takes in its independence and the sense of fair play of MPs, I have no doubt what its answer would be in a perfectly free vote. Nor evidently has Mr [R A] Butler, or he would not find it necessary to issue a whip. It is almost certain that a by-election will be forced on my constituency “to pick a new MP”.

If Bristol people want me to stand again, this campaign could mobilise all those who are getting impatient with the hidebound traditionalism of which this case is just one tiny example. This is part of a wider malaise of living in the past that is stifling our national vitality today. And when Bristol speaks on polling day, there will be no whips to keep it in line.

I shall accept that verdict as final, even if it goes against me. But will my opponent if it goes against him? Rumour has it that he might seek to win by an election petition the seat he had failed to win by popular choice. If he does I suspect that he, and the hereditary absurdities from which he would hope to profit, might be engulfed together in a gale of laughter which has so often in the past proved to be the most powerful weapon for reform. Because common sense will of course win in the end, as it almost always does – even in Britain.

Postscript: Benn won the by-election but was disqualified. His Conservative rival, Malcolm St Clair, took the seat but resigned it in 1963 after the passage of the Peerage Act allowed Benn to return to the Commons

Tony Benn retired from Parliament in 2001 after more than 50 years to ‘devote more time to politics’. The longest serving Labour MP in the history of the party he served as a cabinet minister under Wilson and Callaghan.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage