David Maddox: Tony Benn changed face of UK politics

Tony Benn. Picture: David Moir
Tony Benn. Picture: David Moir
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HALF a century has passed since Tony Benn managed a significant piece of constitutional history. It is 50 years since the Peerage Act came into law allowing Tony Benn, or Viscount Stansgate as he was then, to give up his hereditary peerage, letting him sit as an MP in the Commons.

The tale has become an object lesson in the lengths that politicians have to go to in order to bring about constitutional change. It gives us a clue as to why it has been so difficult to replace the House of Lords with an elected chamber.

The title of Viscount Stansgate – bestowed on Benn’s father by Winston Churchill in 1942 to bolster Labour numbers in the Lords to help the wartime coalition – was created before there was such a thing as Life (non-hereditary) Peers.

It was a title that Benn was not supposed to inherit, but a car accident took the life of his older brother, Michael, which meant he became the heir. Then in 1960 his father died and, despite attempts to renounce his inheritance, Benn automatically became Viscount Stansgate and was disqualified from the Commons.

He then stood for his old Bristol South west seat in a by-election and won, but a court decided that he should not be allowed to sit in the Commons and declared the Conservative candidate, Malcolm St Clair, the winner.

Fortunately the Tory government saw sense and changed the law, allowing peers to renounce their titles and inheritance. St Clair did the honourable thing and immediately resigned as an MP and Benn was returned to his old seat unopposed by the main parties.

Looking back five decades it seems remarkable that such a small change took so much effort by an individual to show how the old system was preposterous.

And in those intervening years very little has changed in the Upper House, except almost all the hereditary peers have gone thanks to reforms by Tony Blair’s government and the majority are life peers, a status brought in by Harold Macmillan in 1958 just before the Tony Benn fiasco.

The fallout last year over attempts to bring elections to the Upper House and how both Labour MPs and Tories effectively connived to block Nick Clegg’s reform shows that there is a surprising shared interest among the two big parties to prevent change.

Some may think it is a love for the traditions of parliament, but the reality is that the Lords underpin the status quo and are a means for control by whoever is in government at the time.

Another round of peerages is expected very soon and you can bet there will be a lot of Tories and some Lib Dems as the coalition aims to make the passage of its bills through parliament a little easier.

Tony Benn did not want to inherit or be given a seat in parliament, he wanted to earn it through an election, but the privilege he opposed for himself is still firmly in place for many others.