Obituary: Cyril Bence
I LAST saw Cyril Bence in his 87th year when I was asked by Taunton Labour Party to make a presentation to him, for being 'a good friend and comrade' since he had gone to live in the village of Staplehay, near Taunton, after he retired from the House of Commons as MP for Dunbartonshire East in 1970. The citation could not have been more appropriate. Bence was indeed the good friend and comrade to many in the Parliamentary Labour Party and in the broader labour and trade- union movement - a man, selfless to the point that is rare among politicians, who had a genuine interest in the progress of other, younger MPs and, if asked, was a source of constructive and candid advice, which usually turned out to be extremely perceptive.
I speak for all Scottish Labour MPs who were youngish in the 1960s when I assert that we all had good reason to be grateful for Bence's encouragement at a time when some of his Scottish contemporaries were severe on the new generation. Kindness and modesty were his trademark. His only boast, nicely put, was his bubbling pride in his daughter Valerie Pearl's glittering academic success, which was to propel her to become president of New Hall, Cambridge. Like many of his generation in the Labour Party, Bence had a passionate belief in the educational opportunity for all in Britain for which his generation had to struggle.
Bence was a Welshman, yet it was engineering Birmingham which formed him. For eight years, from 1962 to 1970, I used to see and phone Bence repeatedly to ask his advice about the huge BMC factory, soon to be the biggest machine-shop under one roof in Europe, which had come to Bathgate in my West Lothian constituency.
Bence was born in South Wales in 1902 into a skilled craftsman's family. As a teenager he saw the horrors of the First World War and became a member of the Pacifist Tendency. At Newport High School, he told me, he owed a lot to elderly teachers who should have retired but carried on as the younger ones were at the Front. It was the distress of these teachers at the failure to return of many of their own older pupils from Flanders which inculcated in Bence a moral hatred of violence.
Bence was apprenticed to Ashworth and Son of Dock Street, Newport, who were manufacturers of weighing-machines. As a fellow addict for participating in by-elections, I was intrigued by the fact that whenever we went round a factory with the candidate Bence would give the impressed manager and trade-union official a short lecture on any weighing-machine which he saw.
In 1937 the economic situation of his company dictated that Cyril and Florence Bence should move from South Wales to Birmingham. The couple, who were devoted to one another for 48 years, busied themselves in the work of the Birmingham Trades Council and the National Union of Scalemakers, later to be subsumed into the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW).
Bence fought and nearly won Birmingham Handsworth in 1945. Again, in 1950, Bence fought Handsworth twice - the second time at a by-election when his opponent was the late Edward Boyle. Boyle told me that he had always had a particular soft spot for Bence because he was the most chivalrous of opponents and a man with a genuine zeal for education and training.
Bence was rewarded in 1951 with the then safe Labour seat of Dunbartonshire East which he was to hold until 1970. Though there was, Bence told me, some initial resentment at the fact that the mighty engineering workers' union had imposed their candidate on a constituency with which he had had no previous connection, Bence soon overcame any potential antipathy by his cheerful approach and genuine wit. Along with the late Dick Winterbottom, a Sheffield MP, Bence was the most appealing by-election loudspeaker operator whom I have ever heard, with his lilting Welsh accent with a mixture of Brummy in it. Politics for him were serious and yet fun.
Truth to tell, the House of Commons and Opposition were not quite his scene. Bence told me that entering for the first time at the age of 49 was simply too old. It might have been different if Labour had been in government and his constructive talents, along with his engineering and training expertise, had been put to use. But the 1950s were an unhappy period for the Labour Party in Parliament and there were endless rows about German rearmament.
When I last saw him he told me that he thought he would have done better to have served the Labour movement outside the House of Commons. I don't agree. Nor would his constituents agree. He was much loved in Clydebank and took endless trouble in the early stages when it mattered to help set the new town of Cumbernauld on its fruitful path.
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