Andy McSmith's Diary: Benn the younger claims a place among his peers


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Indy Politics

The story of Tony Benn’s famous battle to forsake his seat in the House of Lords has come full circle. When the minutes of today’s proceedings in the House of Lords were posted on the website, it was confirmed that his oldest son, Stephen, has taken up the title of Viscount Stansgate, which his father renounced.

The older Benn made constitutional history when he announced in 1960 that he did not want the title that had been awarded to his father, William, a former Cabinet minister who was made a life peer in 1942. Tony was not expected to inherit the title, which should have gone to his older brother, Michael, but Michael Benn was killed in the war.

There was no precedent for a peer to renounce a peerage, and Tony Benn had to fight a long battle before he was allowed to resume his seat as MP for Bristol South. His victory made it possible for Alec Douglas-Home, the 14th Earl of Home, to find a Commons seat and become Prime Minister in 1963.

The fact that Stephen Benn is now officially the Third Viscount Stansgate, after the legal experts in the Lord Chancellor’s department had gone into the legalities, does not make him a member of the House of Lords. However, when the Labour government abolished most hereditary peerages in 1999, they did allow 92 to remain, four of whom are Labour peers. If one of those four were to retire or die, there would be a by-election, and the fact that Stephen Benn has claimed the title his father renounced would make him eligible to run. The youngest of the peers is aged 63, the oldest is 85.

Ebola before Ed, pleads Tony

Kay Burley cannot really be faulted for trying. Sky News’s veteran interviewer had Tony Blair on a live feed from Sierra Leone. The former Prime Minister wanted to talk about Ebola, but she was keen to draw him out on Ed Miliband’s qualities as party leader. “I don’t really want to talk about that today,” said Blair.

Burley persevered: “Don’t you think the Labour Party would really appreciate maybe 60 seconds comment from you?” Blair chuckled: “I doubt it.”

Pressed further, he protested: “Oh please Kate, I’ve had this a thousand times... I’ve said he has my support and that’s the end of it.”

“I’m putting that down as a lukewarm endorsement,” Kay Burley tweeted afterwards.

Some Russians never forget

Vladimir Bukovsky was a founder of the 1960s civil rights movement in what used to be called the USSR, who spent the best part of a decade in and out of confinement until he was suddenly plucked out of a labour camp in December 1976 and deposited at Zurich airport as part of a deal under which the leader of the Chilean communist party, Luis Corvalan, was simultaneously released. A few days later, he met Margaret Thatcher privately. She was, she wrote later, “immensely impressed by his intellect and physical courage” and helped secure him an academic post in Cambridge, where he has lived ever since.

Curiously, the communist regime never stripped him of his Russian citizenship – but now it appears that the Putin regime has. The World Affairs website reveals that Bukovsky, who is now 71, applied to renew his Russian passport. After seven months of silence, the Russian Foreign Ministry has replied that he cannot have a new passport because they “can’t confirm” that he is a Russian citizen.