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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
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

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links