Benn’s safe seat

The scourge of cap­i­tal­ism has turned en­tre­pre­neur by in­vent­ing the ‘Seat­case’ (in coali­tion with a Tory!)

Daily Mail - - Life - by Robert Hardman

HE HAS es­poused some pretty ex­treme ideas in his time. Some — like the abo­li­tion of the peer­age or the re­moval of the Queen’s head from the stamps — never took off. Oth­ers — like Con­corde, the Post Of­fice Tower and Bri­tish Ley­land — en­joyed vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess.

Now, at the age of 85, Tony Benn has had an­other brain­wave. At long last, the grand old man of the Left has hit on an idea which should ap­peal to ev­ery­one f rom the prover­bial Duke to the dust­man.

It will not re­quire a penny of state in­ter­ven­tion and, to cap it all, he’s cre­ated it with a card-car­ry­ing mem­ber of the Tory Party. ‘I call this the safest seat in Par­lia­ment,’ he says proudly as he in­tro­duces his new labour of love. ‘Here it is: the Seat­case!’

It is ex­actly what its name sug­gests — a seat at­tached to a suit­case.

And this week Mr Benn is cel­e­brat­ing. Be­cause his con­trap­tion has just re­ceived the ul­ti­mate seal of seden­tary ap­proval.

Just as planes have the Civil Avi­a­tion Author­ity and germ war­fare has Por­ton Down, so chairs have the Fur­ni­ture In­dus­try Re­search As­so­ci­a­tion (FIRA). And, hav­ing sailed through the rigours of a month-long FIRA in­spec­tion, Mr Benn’s in­ven­tion can now, of­fi­cially, call it­self a seat.

In all those years spent criss-cross­ing the coun­try to ad­dress al­most ev­ery assem­bly of Left-lean­ing folk since the in­ven­tion of the duf­fle coat, Mr Benn has done a lot of stand­ing up in trains, buses, sta­tions and air­port ter­mi­nals.

And it has all taken its toll. ‘As I have got older, I have found all that stand­ing up ex­tremely tir­ing,’ he tells me from his arm­chair in his London home. ‘I found I was al­ways look­ing for some­where to sit. So, in the end, I started to carry a stool with me.

‘It was quite a hand­ful, so about ten years ago I man­aged to lash a stool to a ruck­sack — I called it my back­bencher.’

On his trav­els, he found that his ‘back­bencher’ would of­ten at­tract ad­mir­ing com­ments. And then, a cou­ple of years ago, a mu­tual friend put him in touch with an ar­chi­tect called Gra­hame Her­bert, who had de­signed the Air­frame fold­ing bi­cy­cle in the Seven­ties.

The two men met in Mr Benn’s gar­den for a cou­ple of hours and hit it off, de­spite the fact that Mr Her­bert is an ac­tive mem­ber of South London’s Put­ney Con­ser­va­tive As­so­ci­a­tion. They de­cided to ex­plore ways of tak­ing Mr Benn’s idea to a wider mar­ket.

Over time, they came up with a pro­to­type in the form of a sturdy bracket which can be at­tached to most or­di­nary suit­cases, weighs less than a kilo and which can en­dure the rav­ages of the worst air­port lug­gage ma­chine.

You put the suit­case on the ground, slide the seat down two metal tubes strapped to the side of the case and flip it out.

THEN you sit back against the suit­case and wait for the lat­est vol­canic ash cloud to pass or for Mr Benn’s chums in Unite to call off their lat­est strike. Sim­ple. Ac­tu­ally, it is not that sim­ple. The two men have ap­plied for a patent for a par­tic­u­larly cun­ning as­pect of the in­ven­tion (they won’t tell me what it is).

The whole project has cost them around £3,000 and many hours of tin­ker­ing to de­velop some­thing ca­pa­ble of with­stand­ing the ‘static’, ‘im­pact’ and ‘fa­tigue’ tests im­posed by FIRA.

‘Ba­si­cally, it has to cope with a 17st per­son sit­ting down on it 10,000 times,’ ex­plains Mr Her­bert. Where on earth do you find a 17st guinea pig with the time, in­cli­na­tion and puff to do that? ‘ You use a ma­chine.’

The next step is to find a backer to take the project for­ward. Mr Benn reck­ons that his gad­get could re­tail for around £30. He has writ­ten to Sir Richard Bran­son, with­out much luck. ‘He sent back one of those “Sir Richard thanks you for your in­ter­est” letters, ’ he says.

‘We did write to Bri­tish Air­ways,’ adds Mr Her­bert. ‘We got a nice let­ter back from chief ex­ec­u­tive Wil­lie Walsh, but it was the day be­fore they an­nounced a £400 mil­lion loss and I don’t think their heart was in it.’

There is, how­ever, no short­age of me­dia in­ter­est. What’s more, some of the team f rom the BBC’s Dragons’ Den have also been round to in­spect the Seat­case, with a view to in­clud­ing it in a fu­ture episode.

It seems a bit rich for an old fire­brand who once de­nounced mar­ket forces as ‘the witch­craft of cap­i­tal­ism’ to be turn­ing into the Don­ald Trump of flip-down lug­gage ac­ces­sories.

Mr Benn is un­apolo­getic. ‘I have al­ways been in favour of new ideas, whether phys­i­cal or po­lit­i­cal, and, if it works, then that’s fine.’

He says he is not mo­ti­vated by money, but by help­ing those who, like him, dread the sight of crowded, seat­less pub­lic spa­ces.

‘If it makes any money, then I in­tend to give some of the pro­ceeds to Age UK.’

As for the man­u­fac­tur­ing process, he is adamant his Seat­case should be pro­duced in Bri­tain. In­ven­tors, he says, have long been un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated here. ‘We are a pretty con­ser­va­tive nation,’ he says. ‘So the best thing to do if you have a good idea is just get on with it. But I’m not an in­ven­tor. I’m just an im­prover.’

De­spite his protes­ta­tions, there is more than a whiff of old­fash­ioned English ec­cen­tric­ity, plus a dash of Heath Robin­son, in the man who would now be Vis­count Stans­gate had he not cho­sen to re­nounce his ti­tle in 1963.

He has all sorts of in­ven­tions scat­tered around the house. He shows me his por­ta­ble lectern — ‘if you’re giv­ing a lec­ture, you al­ways need some­where to put your notes’.

It’s a con­ven­tional, Eight­ies at­tache case, ex­cept that one side is cov­ered in green baize with a ledge at the bot­tom and a clip at the top.

He opens the case and re­moves a board which slots in­side two grooves and props up the lid.

Turn it round and, hey presto, here’s your very own trav­el­ling Despatch Box.

Suck­ing hard on his eter­nal pipe, the for­mer Post­mas­ter Gen­eral and Min­is­ter of Technology shows me some of his other gadgets.

There is the three-holed box which used to sit next to him in the car. ‘One hole for the mug, one for the tea and one for the ash­tray.’

Hang­ing by the front door is a mag­netic map of his Not­ting Hill neigh­bour­hood with two chips.

ONE says ‘T’ for Tony and one says ‘C’ for Caro­line, his adored wife and mother of their four chil­dren, who died in 2000. ‘When you got home, you put the chip on where you’d left the car so you could find it next time.’

Per­haps his most ter­ri­fy­ing con­trap­tion was the cam­paign chair, bolted to the roof rack on the fam­ily car, from where he would speed around ad­dress­ing vot­ers in the days be­fore health and safety.

We take the Seat­case out into the street for a test drive. While Mr Benn sits on the orig­i­nal ‘ back­bencher’, I plant my­self on the new de­vice. It’s cer­tainly com­fort­able and more sta­ble than the orig­i­nal.

We get friendly waves f rom passers-by. ‘I was sit­ting on it at Padding­ton sta­tion this morn­ing and a lot of peo­ple were very in­ter­ested,’ says Mr Benn.

I dare say they may have been more in­ter­ested in see­ing one of the most fa­mous faces in post-war pol­i­tics re­clin­ing on a suit­case than in its mer­its as a gad­get. Yet I sus­pect that Mr Benn and his true-blue Tory chum may be on to a win­ner. ‘You know, we agree on quite a lot,’ says Mr Her­bert. ‘Es­pe­cially Europe and sur­veil­lance cam­eras.’ What, i n deed, could be a bet­ter il­lus­tra­tion of the spirit of this coali­tion age than the ex­tra­or­di­nary jux­ta­po­si­tion of these words: Tony Benn, en­tre­pre­neur.

Labour of love: Robert Hardman and Tony Benn with the politician’s cun­ning in­ven­tion

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