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17 November 2014

How does Tony Benn’s son reclaiming his father’s rejected peerage affect modern politics?

Stephen Benn is perfectly entitled to take advantage of the present constitutional lay of the land, but Ed Miliband is right to kickstart a new debate on changing it.

By Richard Carr

Over 50 years after one of the most intriguing constitutional crises in modern times, we may be about to see a Benn sit once again in the House of Lords. As Tony’s son Stephen takes up the title of Viscount Stansgate, he will in future have the opportunity to be elected for one of the four Labour hereditary peerages that remain after the reforms of 1999.

This Viscountcy has an infamous long term significance. Created in 1942 for William Wedgwood Benn, the former Secretary of State for India and Liberal convert to the rising Labour Party, the title caused no end of trouble when, upon the death of the first Viscount, convention dictated Tony Benn had to forgo his Commons seat of Bristol South East and enter the Lords in 1960.

The following year a by-election was held which Benn contested and comfortably won, only to see his candidacy declared ineligible and his Conservative opponent Malcolm St Clair (ironically also an heir to a peerage) proclaimed the winner.

Honourably enough, when Harold Macmillan’s government passed legislation permitting Benn to renounce his peerage in 1963, St Clair promptly resigned the seat and did not contest the subsequent by-election where Benn was easily returned.

Fostered no doubt by the sheer interconnected nature of the then British political elite, there were many layers of irony in this tale.

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Malcolm St Clair had himself served as honorary secretary to Winston Churchill, who it was always said had refused a peerage on the grounds that he did not want to cause his son Randolph any future problems with his own political career. In the event, a combination of alcohol and affairs largely did that anyway.

Though neither St Clair nor Churchill would benefit, Tony Benn’s victory was still largely to the profit of a Conservative however. Only a few months after Benn’s campaign, Alec Douglas-Home – formerly Lord Dunglass – would be able to mount a successful bid for the premiership in late 1963. Rab Butler – who had supported Tony Benn in his previous battle – was once again made the nearly man of postwar Conservatism, as he had been in 1957.

In the modern 1960s, suffice to say, this was all very curious. The Beatles had recorded their debut album, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was in the White House, the Labour party was becoming awash with Mad Men style advertising agencies which Benn himself had helped procure, and here were the nation’s politicians debating the duties of hereditary power.

But so it drags on. Stephen Benn is of course perfectly entitled to take advantage of the present constitutional lay of the land. Others will doubtless throw their hat into the ring for a seat in the Lords as and when it opens up, so why not he?

But to live in a 21st-century democracy where one tenth of the upper house still takes its place due to birth rather than merit remains a quirk to put it mildly. Meanwhile, the remainder of the Lords (with the exception of the religious peers) constitutes a political sinecure, an opportunity to reward party apparatchiks for years of loyal service, and to persuade those unwilling to shuffle out of the Commons that at least they won’t have to leave SW1 altogether. Again, this is hardly a great advert for British democracy.

A chamber of the regions has been forwarded by Ed Miliband as one alternative to this. This seems an astute method to kill two birds with one stone. It will help rebalance our politics away from London and the southeast, and democratise our legislature. Building in an occupational element, encouraging genuine independents to be elected, and the electoral system for the newly constituted upper house can certainly all be debated – perhaps as part of the proposed “Constitutional Convention” on devolution – but it is quite clear that the present hereditary element hardly reeks of the One Nation politics Miliband wants to deliver. He is right to kickstart a new debate on changing it.

To adapt a phrase used by Hilary, Ed Miliband may not broadly want to be seen as a Bennite, but on the Lords there is good reason to be like Tony Benn. In six months time, Miliband may well get the chance to put his theory into practice. It is not the most important part of his offer to the electorate, but it is an astute part of the whole package.

Richard Carr is a Lecturer in History at the Labour History Research Unit, Anglia Ruskin University and the author of the book One Nation Britain (Ashgate, 2014)

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