Democratic Heritage Rejected
The inability of the British to take democracy seriously and fully replace feudal with democratic institutions and practices has been brought to attention again by the revelation that the number of citizens eligible for an hereditary seat in the legislature has increased.
Stephen Benn, a sixty three year old Labour Party supporter who works as director of parliamentary affairs for the Society of Biology has reclaimed the peerage famously rejected by his father, Tony Benn.
Benn’s behaviour came to light when the Lord Chancellor reported to the unelected chamber of parliament that Benn had asked to be recognised as Viscount Stansgate and that his name had been added to the register of those “lords” eligible to become hereditary legislators.
This will allow the Benn family to make a bid for one of the 91 hereditary seats in the legislature that bring shame on the nation. There are forty six million registered voters in the UK. But a mere 91 of them are allowed to vote on who should fill vacancies for these seats.
The candidates are all hereditary “lords”. The voters are all hereditary legislators. And by taking the title of “Lord” Benn made himself eligible when one of the current crew dies. If he is elected the new legislator will be accountable not to the people but to himself and perhaps to his family.
In 1960 Tony Benn, Stephen Benn’s father, an elected member of parliament, was banned from the House of Commons because the British state deemed that he had become a “lord” on the death of his father. The Times newspaper refused to refer to him as “Mr. Benn” although he had rejected his father’s title. The next year he was formally expelled from the House.
And when the people of his constituency again elected him as their representative, what is often called the “mother of parliaments” would not let him take his seat. Not until 1963 was the law changed so that the state recognised the right of a citizen in a democracy to reject feudal titles that they carry by no fault of their own. That allowed Benn to take the seat he had been elected to. For once British feudalism gave way to the rights of the people.
Now Tony Benn’s eldest son has shamed himself and traded a democratic heritage for the dross of feudal privilege by reasserting a right his father so proudly rejected.