Benn, William Wedgwood, first Viscount Stansgate 1877-1960, parliamentarian, was born 10 May 1877 at Hackney, the younger brother of (Sir) Ernest Benn [qv.], a notice of whom appears above. He was educated at the Lycée Condorcet, Paris, and at University College, London, where he obtained a first in French (1898) and later became a fellow (1918). He worked for some years in his father's publishing business. Deeply influenced by social conditions in the east end of London, associated with the London Progressive Party, a lifelong radical nonconformist, Benn was soon adopted as Liberal candidate for his father's former seat of St. George's, becoming member at the general election of 1906. He gained experience at the Treasury, Board of Education, and Admiralty as parliamentary private secretary to Reginald McKenna [qv.]; retaining his seat at both general elections in 1910 he became a junior lord of the Treasury and thereafter a full-time and singularly active politician. In 1912 he was a successful organizer of relief of suffering during the dock strike and two years later, when war broke out, he became chairman of the organizing committee of the National Relief Fund.
In October when over two million pounds had already been raised, he resigned to respond to the inner call for more personal service. Despite his short stature, Benn secured a commission in the Middlesex Yeomanry, and took part in the fierce fighting on the heights above Suvla Bay, in the Gallipoli campaign. He next became an observer with the Royal Naval Air Service and personally participated in the pinpoint bombing of the Baghdad Railway, was rescued from a sinking aeroplane in the Mediterranean, and was in an improvised aircraft carrier sunk by shore batteries at Castelorizo. He commanded a party of French sailors in guerrilla activities against the Turks, served in authorized privateering in the Red Sea, and returned to England to qualify as a pilot.
Refusing the office of chief whip from the hand of Lloyd George, Benn returned to service in Italy and was eventually seconded to the Italian Army to organize and participate in the first parachute landing of a secret-service agent behind the enemy lines. He was twice mentioned in dispatches, appointed to the D.S.O., awarded the D.F.C., was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honour, received the croix de guerre, the Italian war cross, and the Italian bronze medal for valour.
At the general election of 1918, his former constituency having been redistributed, Benn was returned as member for Leith, a seat which he held, through three more general elections, for nine years of intense parliamentary activity. He and Lord Winterton, in the judgement of Lord Halifax [qv.], were two of the best parliamentarians of my time in the House. A supporter of Asquith just this side of idolatry Benn chafed under the leadership of Lloyd George, and finding himself increasingly voting with the Labour Party, applied for membership in 1927 and resigned his seat.
He was returned at a by-election in the following year as member for North Aberdeen, and, holding this seat in the general election of 1929, became secretary of state for India with a seat in the Cabinet, and was sworn of the Privy Council.
Benn occupied this high, but exposed, position for the next two years under fairly constant attack. The controversial political trial at Meerut, authorized by his predecessor, was about to commence. The report of the Indian statutory commission under Sir John (later Viscount) Simon [qv.] was in course of preparation and was published in June 1930. Meantime Benn authorized the viceroy, in 1929, to make the historic declaration that the legitimate goal of Indian aspirations was dominion status. Simon's concurrence was not obtained. In a short but bitter parliamentary debate Benn defended his action with courage and when Lloyd George denounced him as a pocket edition of Moses retorted But I never worshipped the golden calf. In 1930 the Indian leader M. K. Gandhi [qv.] initiated a successful campaign of civil disobedience, directed against the salt tax, and Benn ultimately felt compelled to order his arrest. Gandhi was released next year for talks with the viceroy which resulted in the Delhi Pact, but by the time he arrived in London for the second Round Table conference, Benn was out of office. On the formation of the national Government Benn had remained loyal to the Labour Party, was decisively defeated at the ensuing general election, and was again defeated in 1935 as a candidate for Dudley.
The period of enforced parliamentary inactivity was used to make, with his wife, a journey round the world by almost every known means of transport, an extensive visit to the United States being continued via the Far East, Japan, Mongolia, Siberia, and Moscow.
At a by-election in 1937 Benn was returned as member for the Gorton division of Manchester. On the outbreak of war in 1939 he enlisted as a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force, rising to the rank of air commodore, being again mentioned in dispatches, and though officially grounded was known to have taken part in air operations. In January 1942 he was called to the House of Lords as first Viscount Stansgate, the peerage being expressly granted to strengthen Labour representation in the Upper House. In 1943-4 he was vice-president of the Allied Control Commission in Italy.
In the Labour Government of 1945 Stansgate became secretary of state for air. In 1946 he was entrusted by the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin [qv.], with the conduct in Cairo of the abortive negotiations for a revision of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. Late in 1946, on a minor reconstruction of the Government, he resigned his office at the Air Ministry.
In 1947, at the age of seventy, Stansgate became president of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and held this position for ten years with universal esteem. In the House of Lords he became the authentic voice of liberalism. His persistence might cause temporary annoyance and once Lord Hailsham (later Mr. Quintin Hogg) carried a motion that the noble lord be no longer heard, but Stansgate's patent sincerity, his complete freedom from malice, his natural modesty of manner, made many admirers and no enemies. His perpetual effervescence, his buoyancy, his wit, conveyed an impression of the gay cavalier; but Wedgy Benn was really the happy warrior, a man of profound ethical conviction, with a great love for his fellow men.
Stansgate was taken ill in the Palace of Westminster whilst waiting to speak. He had closed the previous day's debate with an appeal for understanding of the problems of India. He was taken to hospital where he died 17 November 1960.
Benn married in 1920 Margaret Eadie, daughter of Daniel Turner Holmes, Liberal member for Govan, Lanark, from 1911 to 1918. There were four sons of the marriage of whom the youngest died at birth. The eldest, a flight lieutenant, was awarded the D.F.C., and died in 1944 of injuries received in action. His second son, Anthony Neil Wedgwood (born 1925), sought to renounce the succession, was held to be disqualified from the Commons, headed the poll at the ensuing by-election, was again ruled disqualified and continued the struggle until, following the report of a select committee of the Lords and Commons, the law was changed in 1963 and having renounced his peerage he was again returned for Bristol and took his seat. He became postmaster-general in the Labour Government of 1964 and minister of technology in 1966. The viscountcy remained in abeyance.
W. W. Benn, In the Side Shows, 1919
W. W. and Margaret Benn, Beckoning Horizon, 1935
The Times, 18 November 1960
Contributor: Leslie Hale.