Benjamin Whitaker: Hampstead's first Labour MP who went on to become a champion of civil and human rights at home and abroad

 

Benjamin Whitaker, an Eton-educated lawyer and lifelong admirer of George Orwell, made a significant contribution to civil and human rights at home and abroad, but not before becoming the first Labour MP to win the safe Tory seat of Hampstead, in the 1966 General Election, helping to give Harold Wilson's incumbent government a 97-seat majority.

Whitaker's victory, by 2,253 votes, was remarkable: Hampstead had been a Conservative stronghold for 81 years. Whitaker was a champion of a number of Wilson's progressive social reforms and held a number of key positions, including PPS to Anthony Greenwood, Minister of Overseas Development; Greenwood was later appointed Minister of Housing and Local Government, and Whitaker continued as PPS in the new department.

In 1969 he became Parliamentary Secretary in the Department of Overseas Development. Over this period he also garnered support for the abolition of theatre censorship, decriminalising homosexuality and abortion and ending the death penalty, and was a passionate supporter of Amnesty International.

With governmental positions came responsibilities; he was unable to voice his pre-election anti-American stance on their involvement in Vietnam, for example, a hot topic in Hampstead. At the 1970 election Hampstead reverted to type and he was defeated by Geoffrey Finsberg. It would take another 22 years before Labour, and Glenda Jackson, reigned again.

Born in Nottinghamshire in 1934, Whitaker was the third son of Major General Sir John Whitaker and his wife Pamela. After Eton he graduated in history from New College, Oxford then did National Service with the Coldstream Guards. After studying law he was called to the Bar in 1959 and lectured in law at London University. He also worked for the Italian Mafia-fighting social activist and poet Danilo Dolci, long before he made his own distinguished contributions to civil liberties in Britain.

As a member of Amnesty International Whitaker undertook dangerous assignments to uncover human rights abuses. One such was to Rhodesia, following UDI. With his pregnant wife he took anti-UDI literature and entered a secret detention camp; a live interview had been arranged with the Rhodesian TV service, and Whitaker condemned the regime as "an illegal police state afraid of the truth". Within 10 minutes the police raided the studio; the couple evaded them and returned to the UK.

Following his election defeat, Whitaker indicated that he was unlikely to stand for parliament again as was hoping to gain a research post. "It's a bit like being a policeman," he said, "a miserable job that someone has to do."

With his natural charm and sense of propriety, Whitaker's move into fighting for social welfare, minority rights, the arts and education, against genocide, poverty and slavery and censorship, seemed natural. A year later he became Director of the Minority Rights Group, an international human rights organisation. Over the next two decades he championed global poverty charities, writing and publishing well-researched reports.

By 1975, he was the British representative on a UN sub-committee on minorities' rights and in 1985 headed an investigation into whether Ottoman atrocities against Armenians during the Great War amounted to genocide. His report concluded that they had, and he refused to withdraw it despite Turkish outrage.

After a stint as Chair of the Defence of Literature and the Arts Society, the anti-censorship group, fighting off attacks on the BBC and National Theatre by the likes of Mary Whitehouse, Whitaker became the executive director of the UK branch of the Lisbon-based Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (1988-99).

An ardent admirer of George Orwell, and in particular Animal Farm, which he viewed as "a classic that is there to be read for all time," Whitaker was a leading member of a memorial trust which erected a plaque to the writer in Pond Street, Hampstead and sought to have a statue installed at Broadcasting House. "I wish Orwell was here with us now, to hear his views on the mess that we are in, the media and the evidence of the Leveson inquiry," Whitaker said. "We need heroes like Orwell but there aren't any with his vision in the world today."

Whitaker was also a prolific author, his books including The Police (1964), which won critical acclaim from all sides, and Crime & Society (1967). In 1964 he married Janet Stewart, who was created a life peer in 1999. In retirement he enjoyed listening to his wife in the Lords, painting, writing, photography, theatre, music and opera, and walking, especially in the hills and on the coast. He died after developing MRSA in hospital following an operation on a broken ankle.

I knew Ben Whitaker well at school, and we became the only two old Etonians in the Parliamentary Labour Party, writes Tam Dalyell. Thirty years after he lost his seat we bumped into each other. "My life has been more productive," he said, "and certainly happier, than had I remained in the House of Commons."

Benjamin Charles George Whitaker, author, campaigner, lawyer and politician: born Nottinghamshire 15 September 1934; CBE 2000; married 1964 Janet Alison Stewart (one daughter, two sons); died Piddinghoe, Sussex 8 June 2014.

News
people
News
people And here is why...
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsWelsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'