Hilary Benn and the allure of business as usual

As oratory, Hilary Benn’s speech in the House of Commons winding up for the opposition on the Government’s motion on Syria was something very special.  The uninhibited passion was something that mainstream debate has lacked for a long time, especially from the Labour benches.  It was greeted by applause from both sides of the House, and there are reports that some MPs were asking him to autograph the order paper.  In the context of the internal difficulties in the Labour Party, it was seen by some commentators as Benn’s bid for the leadership.  His argument was flawed – he didn’t really addressthe issues of what the airstrikes would mean in terms of either the long-term future of Syria or the impact of civilians there – but, nevertheless, on its own terms, the speech was quite brilliant.

But its significance goes beyond that.  The enthusiasm was genuine and heartfelt; but the reasons for that seem to me to be more about the weaknesses of our Parliamentary system than its strengths.

First, it was predominantly a speech about morals rather than issues.  ISIL are fascists, murderers who despise our way of life; who demonise the young people they murdered at the Bataclan theatre as pimps.  The speech was, in its way, a classic piece of liberal interventionism; and that is territory on which Parliament is supremely confident.  Earlier in the debate, Gerald Kaufman – a long way from being a voice on the Left – had characterised the rush to bomb as gesture politics, that would change nothing; the complexities and challenges inherent in that argument were swept away in school-of-Jed Bartlett essentialism.  At the end of a debate fraught with uncertainty and surrounded by uncomfortable historical precedent, Hilary Benn led Parliament back to its comfort zone.

Second, it was a speech that allowed Parliament to reassert its own self-image.  Parliamentary politics has been under strain in recent years, apparently increasingly remote from public opinion.  On the Syria issue, much of the debate has been outside Parliament; there has been much political pressure on MPs, some of it going well beyond the bounds of what is acceptable; and the “new politics” of the Jeremy Corbyn Labour leadership is, at one level, about giving grass-roots members a much bigger stake in the political agenda.  Benn’s speech was one that, to put it crudely, would help MPs – especially those backing bombing but not really happy that the argument had been fully made – feel good about themselves.  That effect is likely to be felt particularly by the many Labour MPs who are themselves concerned about how Corbyn’s election has shifted the balance of power in the Labour Party.

And, thirdly, and related to that, the speech was one that encapsulated so many Labour traditions.   It was both Bennite – not just the Benn name, and mannerisms, but in the power of the oratory and its appeal to values – and Blairite in its emotionalism, and its sense of liberal mission.  It was a reminder to people right across the Labour spectrum of happier times for a deeply divided party.

Fourth, for many Tories it was the speech that they would have liked Cameron to have made, while knowing that he couldn’t.  Its tone was lofty and idealistic – and Cameron, following his remarks about Labour MPs being “terrorist sympathisers”, had nothing to offer apart from shop-soiled generalities and petty sniping.  They knew that one reason why Cameron was rushing the motion through was because his case was unravelling – the 70,000 moderates on the ground being no more than wishful thinking; Cameron’s weapons of mass destruction.  A Benn speech, not least because of the Benn name, has the air of honest idealism about it – untouched by the whiff of spin that Cameron, like Blair before him, can never quite evade.

So where does this leave us? With the first bombing taking place within a couple of hours of the Parliamentary vote, we are now engaged on a military action that, in the opinion of many, backed by historical precedent, will achieve nothing and leave Britain more vulnerable to attack.  And perhaps the real genius of Benn’s speech was that it provided an idealised morality that took Parliament beyond those inconvenient facts.  No wonder they applauded so vociferously.

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3 thoughts on “Hilary Benn and the allure of business as usual

  1. Hilary Benn’s speech was indeed a “classic”, given that it was riddled with factual elisions and the sort of patronising high-mindedness that Parliament loves. In this respect he is his father’s son. While Tony is still regarded as a socialist saint by some, he was actually a statist liberal with a crush on the working class (though he preferred Diggers and Chartists to real life proles), who would have made a fine viceroy if born 50 years earlier. The missionary zeal of Blair and Benn senior has common roots.

    Daesh (or whatever you want to call them) are not Fascists. To use this term so loosely is to denude it of all meaning beyond “really bad”, to the point that Hilary sounded less like his dad and more like Neil from The Young Ones. Fascism is always fundamentally nationalist. Daesh are religious sectarians who reject the very concept of the nation state (their rise has many causes, but one is the failure of Arab nationalism in the face of the monarchical/clerical reaction facilitated by the west post-WW2).

    Hilary’s claim that the Labour party has always stood up to Fascism, citing Spain in the 1930s as evidence, is simply untrue. Labour adopted a policy of non-intervention in 1936, much to the chagrin of the party rank and file who wanted military aid for the elected Republican government. As Mussolini and Hitler were busy arming Franco, this meant a de facto advantage to the Nationalists. The party changed the policy in October 1937, following pressure from the membership (all done without Twitter), but by then it was too late for the Republic.

    Hilary claimed that airstrikes were worthwhile because those conducted in Iraq had stopped Daesh short of Baghdad. As some in the Commons must have known, Daesh stopped at the de facto border between the Sunni and Shia populations, which happens to lie to the west of Baghdad. They had no interest in going further as their aim was to be seen as the protector of Iraqi Sunnis against Shia persecution. UK airstrikes were irrelevant to this.

    The lauding of Benn’s speech by fellow MPs and the media has little to do with its substance, let alone its rhetorical skill (if anyone really was swayed by it, they are clearly unsuited for any position of responsibility). Just like the airstrikes themselves, this was gestural politics. Whereas Cameron has the excuse of pragmatic calculation (buttering up the US and France), Benn’s speech reeked of the self-indulgence and entitlement that have become the defining characteristics of the Labour right.

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