This month witnesses the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Peerage Act 1963, enabling hereditary peers to renounce their titles. It received Royal Assent and took effect on 31 July 1963. Its enactment was credited to Anthony (Tony) Wedgwood Benn (pictured right). He fought a vigorous campaign after the death of his father, the 1st Viscount Stansgate, had resulted in him acceding to the title and being disqualified from sitting in the House of Commons, where he was Labour MP for Bristol South-East. His seat was vacated upon his elevation, but he fought – and won – the resulting by-election. He was then unseated by an election court. His campaign to change the law resulted in a reluctant Government legislating. Benn renounced his title and was returned to the Commons in a further by-election, the Conservative who had been seated by the election court honouring a pledge to resign.
However, the principal beneficiary of the change in the law was not Benn, but the 14th Earl of Home. The Act took effect at the end of July. That autumn there was the Conservative leadership crisis, with an unedifying scramble to find a successor to Harold Macmillan, who – having been hospitalised – had announced his intention to resign. The Peerage Act meant that two senior Cabinet ministers in the Lords – Viscount Hailsham and the Earl of Home – could be considered, both being eligible to the renounce their titles. Hailsham did so, but the choice fell on the Lord Home, the Foreign Secretary, who accepted the premiership and renounced his title. As Sir Alec Douglas-Home, he fought a by-election and was returned to the Commons.
What has this to do with a faulty air speed indicator? On 23 June 1944, a faulty indicator resulted in an aircraft crashing at Chichester, killing Michael Wedgwood Benn, the eldest son of, and hence heir to, Viscount Stansgate. Before accepting an hereditary peerage, Stansgate had checked with his eldest son that he did not intend to seek election to the Commons, knowing that, if he planned to do so, his career could be ended by having to move to the Lords upon his father’s death. Michael assured his father that he planned to become a clergyman. Given that, his father accepted the peerage. Michael’s death resulted in the second son, Anthony, becoming the heir and hence becoming a peer upon his father’s death in 1960. Had Michael not been killed in 1944, he would have succeeded to the title, Anthony could have continued his career as an MP and hence would have had no cause to campaign for a change in the law (and least not at the time he did), and the possibility of the Earl of Home being a candidate for the premiership would not have arisen.