Hilary Benn – Thinking About War

The Parliamentary debate on bombing IS/Daesh in Syria was brought to an intense and rousing conclusion by Hilary Benn, Shadow Foreign Secretary. It was Benn rather than Tory Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond who inspired the House of Commons — MPs endured Hammond and applauded Hilary Benn.

The commentariat relished the difference between Hilary Benn and the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, but also inevitably, perhaps, with his father Tony Benn.

It was as if they had not noticed Hilary Benn’s eloquent defence of his leader — as a politician and as a person — and his unrequited invitation to David Cameron to apologise for his ‘terrorist sympathiser’ slur.


And it as if they had not noticed that throughout Hilary Benn’s parliamentary life he has not been an echo of his father — that the Benn family has survived generational and individual differences with better manners than most.

Melissa Benn — the only girl among Tony and Caroline Benn’s children, an astute writer and activist — reminds us that ‘the Benns have something of a history of courteous exchange but also of opinions strongly held to and expressed. Often not exciting enough for rapacious press, looking for gossip, intrigue and networking and power plays.

She’s right: schism and ‘irreconcilable differences’ attract attention, whilst respectful, intelligent and peaceful co-existence doesn’t.

Hilary Benn is not his father.

This is not a dynastic drama; it isn’t a sectarian schism either.

Hilary Benn has always disagreed with Tony Benn and with Jeremy Corbyn about Britain’s wars.

That makes Benn’s appointment as Foreign Secretary by Corbyn a daring move; just as his appointment of Maria Eagle as shadow Defence Secretary is also interesting. They don’t agree on the war in Syria. They don’t agree on the renewal of Trident nuclear missiles.

So, they’re going to have to work it out.

The surprise is that they’re going to try. And they’re going to try in the knowledge that these issues are difficult because they are difficult, we should expect disagreement because they are among the most testing themes of our times.

Listening to the Syria debate and Benn, brought to mind not his father but Parliament itself and a sense that Benn was emancipated by the context — Parliamentary democracy at work.

I didn’t agree with him about the bombing. But Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who has brought a genial tone to the Corbyn team, lost his touch a bit when he said Benn’s speech was like Tony Blair in 2003 when he argued for war in Iraq.

No, he wasn’t.

Benn wasn’t so much charismatic as effective: the performance was adroit, supple and smart. He didn’t overwhelm the honourable members with evangelism, he didn’t deceive or bully. He invited them to think, and to be available for persuasion. That’s what made his speech bracing.

Unlike, for example, David Cameron who de-humanised the enemy, Benn discussed some particulars — acts of violence animated by a special kind of manly excitement; an enemy that electrified by violence that is also thought-about and strategic: aimed not only at destruction but the theatre of terror.

That’s what made his allusion to fascism so interesting. Who knows if he’s right, but the word takes us to other modern — not medieval — ideologies of supremacist violence: the Nazis, Mussolini’s nationalism, racist lynching in the United States.

If he soared on this occasion it was because the occasion — the place, the time, the people — demanded it: here was Parliamentary debate at its best, and here was Hilary Benn doing his best.

Weirdly, the commentariat responded not by thinking, but by boxing the speech into its own discourses about power and politics. They’re missing the point: this isn’t about splits  (whatever the ‘traitor’ twitters outside Parliament get up to).

Isn’t disagreement and debate what happens in political parties, in relationships, in families?

Westminster’s political culture isn’t used to this — witness the utter bewilderment about Scotland’s great independence conversation: households, friends, lovers dissented from each other — but they didn’t get divorced or die. They kept talking.

This is good politics, and Westminster and the commentariat should get used to it.

What we witnessed during the Syria debate was a party that was functioning; recovering from near death, from being eviscerated, hollowed out; from being ruled by diktat, by people whose anti-party politicking left Labourism too terrified to do what it is supposed to do: think, look right, look left, look right again and then go.

13 thoughts on “Hilary Benn – Thinking About War

  1. Gary Rudd

    Two weeks Hilary Benn said that he was utterly opposed to bombing Syria. What happened to change his mind? I thought what I heard in his speech was jingoistic sabre-rattling which, had he written it in an internet thread would have been held in contempt and disregarded under Godwin’s law. Any comparison with his father fails the test of integrity; when did Tony Benn ever take such a sudden and dramatic u-turn on a deeply held belief? Sitting down on Jeremy Corbyn afterwards was as clumsy as his decision to bomb innocent people, another of the tenets set by his father which he would signally fail by any measure including Tony’s statement: “There is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons.”
    Your attempts to reconcile his performance with the Leader of the Labour Party and its policies, however well-intentioned, is mistaken when clearly Hilary Benn’s dissent has declared that he is leading his own bid for leadership at the behest of his Blairite enemies. I hope and expect it to fail and, like the mission to destroy ISIL, show that one cannot bomb or destroy the will of one’s opponents with such ill-conceived rhetoric.

      1. Gary Rudd

        The very notion of ‘the west’, who constructed the ‘middle east’ and drew their own arbitrary lines in the sand, is in itself fascist.
        Your analysis utterly ignores the fascist elephant in the room who are doing a very convincing imitation of their former oppressors as the apogee of fascism: Israel.
        It’s like discussing Southern Africa without even hinting at Mugabe’s existence: invalid.

      2. Gary Rudd

        So much sensitivity from people who think it’s ok to aggressively interfere in the affairs of a foreign state, uninvited. And what’s abusive? I agree that death threats are absolutely beyond the pale, particularly when accompanied by 500lbs of high explosive raining down from above. Sticks and stones and Pavier bombs and Brimstone missiles. As ye reap so shall ye sow.

  2. Johan scheffer

    There’s much to agree with in what Beatrix Campbell writes. Debates in which MPs are not bound by collective party positions often produce this sense of sharpness and bring moral concerns to the fore. One had a sense, watching the debate, that MPs might have been ready to qualify their own judgements. But I suspect that not one Member actually changed their mind as a result of what was said. There is much to admire in Hilary Benn’s speech, but fundamentally, in my view, it was less than persuasive because it failed to take on two key issues.
    The first was to own up to the history that produced IS and brought about the brutal and complex situation in Syria and Iraq and across the region. This is the history of the violent interference of global superpowers and their fellow travellers in the affairs of the people of the region. Parliaments and Governments of the ‘alliance’ have not owned up to the Western imposition of the Sykes Picot boarders, the exploitation of oil, the propping up of domestically violent dictatorships, the undermining of the development of progressive, middle class independence movements over the last half century and more, the reckless militarisation of the retaliation of the attack on the Twin Towers and the carnage visited upon the people and institutions of the region. Hilary Benn’s speech failed to embody the proposition that the only way of understanding politics is to understand it’s history. To own up to the brutal role played by the West is in no way to justify the actions of IS but decent people throughout the Middle East need to hear the West acknowledge and take responsibility for the creation at the present impasse.
    The second matter Benn failed to address is the resourcing of IS. There has been much discussion of the power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and reports on the Saudi’s bankrolling of Sunni insurgents. If this is true, then the West, the Governments of the alliance members have an obligation to explain to their people how the Saudi’s fuelling of IS is being terminated. If the Saudis are not funding IS, there is an obligation to explain how IS is being resourced, how is it selling it’s oil, for example, where do its weapons come from, and how can this can be stopped.
    These are the critical questions that are not part of the mainstream debate in the West. It is all very well for Benn and others to call up the left’s proud history of internationalism (which I think was more about solidarity with people’s movements than the armies of governments, WW2 excepted), and set out the ways bombing has assisted the Kurds move boundaries, and arresting the expansionary momentum of IS. But this does not in itself lead to a solution. We are entitled to know what the blocking of material support to IS can achieve. Benn is right, the West does have a moral obligation to fight fascism, but the people of the Middle East may find it very difficult to see how this high mindedness is possible when the West is itself the cause of so much violence in their region. The West has an obligation to speak on this point and Benn needed to locate his case in this dynamic.

    1. beatrix campbell Post author

      I agree with your argument. Benn did not address either the long history you allude to or the strategic difficulties. I was, however, trying to address the way his speech attracted irrelevant agendas. Thanks for your insight

  3. Ann Day

    On a day when social media is filled with calls of “traitor” and references to Tony Benn “spinning in his grave”, its brilliantly refreshing to read an intelligent, thoughtful and insightful response. I watched a lot of the debate and there was good speaking on all sides. Sad to now see the caricature responses from people who either didn’t listen or who were just alert for speakers who they already agreed with – in their gang. Brilliant Bea

  4. Alan G

    I haven’t tried it, but posting awful comments on social media must be easy in comparison to engaging in robust debate. You put into words my thoughts that Hilary Benn is an astute and compassionate politician who obviously has a sense of history. I am referring to the rise of fascism under Hitler and Mussolini.

    On a personal level, growing up in Lincolnshire with socialist ideals meant my own family’s conservative views often evoked debate. But I lived in hope of changing minds. Sadly, that never happened. Too often when there is a majority opinion that “this way is the only way and if you dare to challenge it you will be labeled as not loving one’s county, or worse” means it stifles change. Politics of intimidation and the subsequent rise of fear become symbiotic within our institutions and personal lives that keep us in our place.

    Conversely, Jeremy Corbyn and Hilary Benn bring a new perspective to compassionate politics, where members are beginning to be allowed to speak freely. They are the pioneers of change.

  5. Kenneth Hall

    The present strategy in Syria seems to be so obviously doomed to failure that I have to automatically ask myself about the motives about those who voted for.

  6. Nick

    How refreshing to read such an elegantly-crafted analysis of Hilary Benn’s Commons contribution to Wednesday night’s Syria debate. I would urge all those who haven’t seen it in its entirety (it’s under 15 mins long), to watch it on The Guardian’s website.

    It’s good to find such a thoroughly adult contribution here on your site too, Bea. Would that you could have delivered such a polemic to a live audience on the BBC’s ‘Any Questions’ – but I suppose you’d have been interrupted half-a-dozen times by The Dimblebore!

    More please, ma’am!


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