Tony Benn never delivered his finest speech.
When his father, Viscount Stansgate died in November 1960, Benn inherited his title. Under the law as it stood, Benn had to give up his seat as Labour MP for Bristol South-East. But Benn wanted to remain in the Commons and not go to the Lords. He argued people should have the right to renounce their peerage - a cause he had advocated for some years and for which he had enlisted the support of, among others, Sir Winston Churchill.
On April 13, 1961, following a report from the Committee of Privileges, which ruled against Benn, the writ was due to be moved in the House of Commons to hold a by-election in Bristol to elect Benn's successor. Benn asked the Speaker, Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, for permission to address MPs from the Bar of the Commons - a small area just inside the door to the chamber. The precedent of a peer addressing MPs from the Bar was established when the Duke of Wellington reported on the victory at Waterloo.
The Speaker refused to let Benn deliver his speech. The by-election went ahead. Benn stood - and more than doubled his majority. However, as his peerage disqualified him from serving in the Commons, Benn's Conservative opponent, Malcolm St Clair, became the new MP. Two years later, Parliament passed a bill to allow members of the House of Lords to renounce their peerage. Benn did so immediately, St Clair resigned as MP, and a further by-election was held. Benn duly won and took his seat once more in the Commons.
A few years ago, when I was compiling an anthology, modestly entitled Democracy (published by Mainstream and also available as an e-book, since you ask) I wanted to include something from Benn's battle to renounce his peerage. Ever generous, he gave me a copy of the speech he was not allowed to deliver, and which had never been published. This enabled me to make the improbable claim that I had compiled an anthology that included a scoop.
This is what Tony Benn wanted to say.
Tony Benn’s case for being allowed to remain an MP
I am most grateful to you, Sir, and to the House as a whole for permitting me to attend and speak before reaching a decision on my petition. I am very conscious that the issues to be raised today are of the highest constitutional importance as compared to which my own fate must be counted as of little importance. I shall not, therefore, weary Members with the special circumstances of my case but will address myself to the major questions now before the House. However I ask for indulgence to make three personal references.
First I make no apology for wishing to remain a Member of Parliament. Service in this House of Commons is the highest service to which any man can aspire and ought to be upheld as such. The fount of our honour is the ballot box and it would be a bad day for this House if its Members secretly cherished a preference for the other place.
Secondly I must express my thanks for the unfailing support of those who sent me to this place to represent them. Many years ago Edmund Burke, who also represented Bristol, made clear what loyalty as M.P. owes to his constituents. I have been sustained in these lonely months by the touching loyalty of constituents for their MP.
The Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of Bristol have petitioned both Houses and the Great Seal of the City. Yesterday a fresh petition was presented, signed by over 10,000 of my electors. If the House made it necessary to consult the more formally I have no doubt what their answer would be.
My third and final personal point is this. Whatever Parliament may ultimately decide about it I am asking that the Stansgate peerage which was created for a special purpose, having now served that purpose, should be allowed to lapse completely and for all time – preserving no privileges for the future. This is the united view of the whole family including my wife, my eldest son, my brother, my mother and was shared by my beloved father.
I now turn to the report of the Committee of Privileges. The Committee delved deeply into the customs of Parliaments going back to 1299. In its report it chose to rest upon two very ancient precedents.
The first was the opinion of Mr Justice Doddridge in 1626 that a peerage is “a personal dignity annexed to posterity and fixed in the blood”. The Second was Mr Speaker Onslow’s opinion in 1760 that “Attendance in both Houses is considered a service and the two services are incompatible with each other”. I should like to point out that neither of these rulings have ever been laid down in Statute nor judicially determined. From these precedents all subsequent decisions flow. The Committee did not feel called upon to “express any view as to whether a change in the law is desirable”.
In considering the report the House is not obliged to interpret its duties so narrowly. Indeed the main question today is what the law should be. Is it right to endorse decisions made in 1626 and 1760 in the totally different circumstances of 1961? In the intervening years there have been fundamental changes in the composition, powers and indeed the whole character of both Houses.
Today the Commons, strengthened by the Reform Acts, the Parliament Acts and the establishment of universal franchise, enjoys unquestioned supremacy: where there is a conflict of duty between willing elected membership of this House and unwilling hereditary membership of the House of Lords can there be any doubt which should take precedence?
The phraseology of the Writ of Summons to the Lords was described as being “archaic” by the present Attorney-General in evidence he submitted to a Committee of the House of Lords in 1955. The Lords endorsed this view in June 1958 when a Standing Order was passed providing that any peer who does not answer his Writ of Summons within 35 days shall be automatically given leave of absence for the remainder of the Parliament.
If therefore the Lords themselves attach so little importance to the Writ of Summons why should this House rank it above the duties we perform as servants of our constituents? This House has throughout its history always protected its Members against those who sought to interfere with them. And in the process it has never shrunk from conflict with the Lords and even the Crown.
Does it make sense now, when those battles have long since been won, to disqualify a Member who wants to serve here and to deliver him in response to an “archaic” Writ of Summons that the Lords do not enforce? There is here a simple contradiction between the common law and common sense. It should surely be resolved by legislation that will permit all who renounce the privileges of peerage to enjoy the rights of commoners.
What are the objections raised against this simple proposal? First it is said that constitutional changes should not be made to suit the convenience of one person. There is no argument about that. This case must stand or fall on its general merits. Parliament did not remove the disqualification on Catholics because it liked O’Connell or atheists because it sympathised with Bradlaugh. It did so because it was right. The man concerned was only the occasion for change.
Secondly it is said that this will breach the hereditary basis of the House of Lords. Yet four years ago the Life Peerages Bill provided for recruitment on an entirely non-hereditary basis which involves far more fundamental changes.
Thirdly it is said that this will cut off an important source of recruitment to the Lords as if young men ritually sacrificed could somehow revitalise the ageing peers. It is an argument more appropriate to Mau Mau than to the Mother of Parliaments.
Fourthly it is believed by some that this change would undermine the Throne itself. But such a proposition has only to be stated openly for its manifest absurdity to be apparent. It would indeed be a poor outlook for the monarchy if its maintenance were to depend on the insecure reputation and uncertain future of the House of Peers.
All these arguments and objections rest upon the assumption that our constitution is so precariously balanced on a pedestal of tradition that any change will threaten its stability. But to believe that is totally to misread the whole history of Parliament – rich with examples of brilliant innovations and studded with new precedents that have shaped our destiny.
If Mr Speaker Lenthall had been bound by tradition when Charles I forced an entry to arrest the five Members he would not have returned his famous answer to the King asserting the supremacy of the Commons.
Our ancient pageantry is but a cloak covering the most flexible and adaptable system of Government ever devised by man. It has been copied all over the world just because it is such a supreme instrument of peaceful change. In Parliament tradition has always served as a valued link, reminding us of our history, never as a chain binding us to the past. To misunderstand that would be to misunderstand everything that this House has achieved over the centuries.