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