the wedgwood benn case excited considerable attention when it was first heard, but now it is already being forgotten. For this fading, the Conservative Central Office can take the credit, for it has directed the whole operation, since the death of Wedgwood Benn’s father, last November. At first sight it seems a tactical error to have fought the campaign at all. Despite success in many of their moves, the Central Office have aroused public opinion against themselves and have created a situation where their representative can’t appear in the Commons without embarrassing the party. Since they must have foreseen this, it can be assumed that unseating Wedgwood Benn brought them some compensation. I suggest that the key is to be found in one vital passage in the court’s judgment:
So long as the hereditary principle is maintained as part of the fabric of the constitution—and we express no opinion whether it should be so maintained—it would seem to us to be wholly inconsistent with that principle that the successor to a hereditary peerage should have a free option as to which House he desires to sit in.
The case was fought to prevent further encroachment into the hereditary principle. Despite all the knocks that the principle has taken since its 18th century heyday, it was still thought worth fighting for. Why? Because even today it permeates the whole of our national life. Constitutionally we have a hereditary monarchy and a hereditary second chamber. Socially we have a hereditary upper class. There are “good” families and the results of being born into one of them are still tangible. There is still a substantial measure of nepotism in education, particularly at the private public schools and at the older universities. There is nepotism in many key professions, and in industry, whole directorates have often no other qualification. Maintenance of the hereditary principle also reinforces the most effective sort of Tory propaganda; that devoted to urging the electorate not to “let Labour ruin it” by allowing Labour to take control from the country’s hereditary rulers.
The Central Office was prepared to fight so hard only because the hereditary principle is as vital to it as Clause IV is to a socialist. Both are more than political dogmata; they express a basic attitude to society.
The battlefield for this campaign was provided by the circumstances of the Wedgwood Benn case. These are somewhat complicated and go back to 1942. There was then a shortage of Labour peers in the House of Lords. To help make good the deficiency a number of Labour members of the Commons were asked if they would agree to be made peers. Among those who accepted was William Wedgwood Benn, Anthony’s father. As there were then no political life peers, the peerage was hereditary. But William Wedgwood Benn had no second thoughts about disqualifying his sons from the Commons as Michael, the eldest son, was set on a clerical and not a political career. Unfortunately, Michael was killed in the war. Under the limitation in the patent, Anthony became entitled to succeed on his father’s death. The problem became acute, when Anthony was elected member of parliament for Bristol South-East in 1950. A number of ingenious attempts were made to avoid Anthony having to leave the Commons on his father’s death. But when his father died last November.
Wedgwood Benn’s first action was to check the validity of the Letters Patent. His next was to draw up an instrument purporting to renounce the peerage. He made no claim formal or informal to be the Second Lord Stansgate. A Committee of Privileges of the House of Commons was set up to decide whether in these circumstances he was entitled to remain a member of the House of Commons. This was a lay committee and it adopted an inquisitorial procedure; that is, it heard evidence but did not permit cross examination or even allow any witness to hear the evidence of another. In May 1961 the committee reported and held that Wedgwood Benn was disqualified. When the report was debated the government did not allow Wedgwood Benn to address the House and used the whips to secure the adoption of the report. The result was to vacate Wedgwood Benn’s seat and the issuing of a writ for a byelection in Bristol South-East. Wedgwood Benn was nominated and agreed to stand as Labour candidate. Under the House of Commons Disqualification Act, 1957, prospective candidates have to signify that they have read the Act and do not believe themselves disqualified as a result. As this Act does not disqualify peers Wedgwood Benn was legally able to sign.
Wedgwood Benn felt that a resounding victory at the polls would induce the government either to allow him to take his seat without further opposition or to introduce a change in the law. Although he won his resounding victory he was proved wrong. The government prevented him from taking his seat, even prevented him from speaking at the bar of the House, and made it clear that no immediate legislation was likely.