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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.

Pipe dream: a 1980 portrait of Benn by Ralph Steadman.
Pipe dream: a 1980 portrait of Benn by Ralph Steadman.

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