Friends of the Hereditary Peerage would like to offer their condolences to the family of Tony Benn, formerly the 2nd Viscount Stansgate, who died today.
As a staunch socialist on the far left of the Labour party, Benn was opposed to the hereditary peerage and the existence of the House of Lords itself but was nonetheless responsible for a milestone in the history of the peerage.
A man in love with the House of Commons, Benn campaigned tirelessly for the right to disclaim his peerage when he succeeded to the viscountcy on the death of his father in 1960, which suddenly barred him from the seat the electors of South Gloucestershire had conferred on him since 1950.
As a younger son of William Wedgwood Benn, 1st Viscount, Benn was never intended to hold the title but became heir on the tragic death of his brother in an accident in 1944, at a time when both were in active service with the Royal Air Force.
However, although he was disqualified from holding the seat upon his succession, he nonetheless stood in the resulting by-election in May 1961 and won. However he remained unable to take the seat, meaning the Conservative runner-up in the contest Malcolm St Clair, himself heir to his bachelor cousin the 17th Lord Sinclair, was returned to the Commons.
Campaigning outside Parliament, Benn eventually convinced Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government there needed to be a change in the law, leading to the passage of the Peerage Act shortly after 6pm on July 31, 1963.
Little more than 20 minutes later, Benn was the first to disclaim his title, which would be held in abeyance until his death.
The Act also ended the election of 16 representative Scottish peers, allowing all 87 the right to sit in the House, as well as peeresses in their right – leading to the addition of 12 women.
After Benn had disclaimed his title, St Clair fulfilled a promise he had made in the 1961 by-election and took the Stewardship of the Manor of Northstead, disqualifying himself from the House of Commons, thus allowing Benn to return in a by-election on August 20, 1963.
Benn would serve in a number of cabinet positions between 1964 and 1979 before his migration to the hard left of the Labour party – after which he would be a tireless servant of his constituents and a principled voice of protest from the backbenches until 2001, when he famously said he was leaving parliament “to spend more time on politics.”
Benn’s father was created Viscount Stansgate in 1942 when Winston Churchill needed more Labour peers to aid political work in the House of Lords. This was before the passage of the Life Peerages Act 1958, meaning all new members of the House had to be created hereditary peers.
The title is now held by Benn’s eldest son, Stephen Wedgewood Benn, 3rd Viscount Stansgate.