Hilary Benn's speech – a personal view

Post date: 10/12/2015

Here are the thoughts of IBMT member Kit Prendergast about the speech by Hilary Benn in the House of Commons on 2 November in favour of Britain bombing Syria. The speech stirred controversy by referencing the International Brigades. IBMT members are invited to send any comments or alternative assessments of the issues raised by Hilary Benn’s invocation of the International Brigades to:


The speech 

As the 10-hour or so succession of pennyworths droned to its pre-ordained conclusion, suddenly a flash of gold appeared in the parliamentary firmament, rocketing straight to the top of the political hit parade and finding pride of place in the 10 ‘best speeches’ extracted from the flow by the Guardian’s rolling coverage of the debate. No surprise then that the commentariat found itself reaching for the pseudo-counterfactual: what would that other great parliamentary orator, Tony, have made of it? Not of course Tony Blair (presumably thrilled by the intervention from the Labour MP who followed him into the lobby in 2003), but the other one, the paternal Tony. Clearly there was lots of  psychobabble fun to be had on this front. One commentator saw in the speech a laying to rest of the ghost of the Father. Many spoke of fatherly ‘pride’. Someone wrote of ‘genes’, a kind of biological transmission of oratorical skills such that Benn père would have recognized himself, mirror-like, in the brilliance and panache of Benn fils. Alex Salmond’s less reverential thought (Tony Benn would have been turning – ‘burling’ – in his grave) elicited from granddaughter Emily a peremptory demand for retraction, somewhat silly really given that, in light of everything we know about Tony Benn’s politics, Salmond’s counterfactual has to be by far the most plausible. 

For the most part the riotous dance of conditional perfect and subjunctive mood around the father-son relation is of course just so much media hype. ‘Coulda, woulda, shoulda, three blind mice’  muses Sabbath in the Philip Roth novel. On the whole best avoided, at least in this sort of context. If you can’t predict the future, it’s even trickier when the future is also the past. Nevertheless the whole business has sparked a couple of ‘would have’s’ of my own. My stepmother, for some years the parliamentary secretary of Labour MP Joan Maynard knew Tony Benn well and worked with him in numerous political causes. My father knew him less well, though they met a couple of times in connection with International Brigade memorial business. I have the clearest sense imaginable what my father, after having recovered (from throwing up), would have said of Hilary Benn’s wickedly dishonest invoking of the Brigaders to justify siding with Cameron’s proposal to bomb Raqqua. 

Naturally, Benn went through the motions of gently chiding the prime minister (naughty boy to have called that decent, principled man, Jeremy Corbyn, a ‘terrorist sympathiser’, he really should man up and say ‘sorry’). Equally naturally, he stopped short of drawing the obvious conclusion: Cameron’s gutter discourse renders him unfit to lead and he should step down forthwith. But then how could he say that about the Tory prime minister with whom a few minutes later he was to declare his solidarity while turning his back on his own leader? A nimble pirouette, but as nothing alongside the bold manoeuvre, as if in a kind of Doppelgänger ballet, of turning his back on himself. In a published interview just over two weeks previously, but after the attacks in Paris, Benn opined that there should be no bombing of Isis before a Syrian political settlement, a view the Commons speech consigned to the trash can (fast mover, our Hilary). It seems that now we simply can’t ‘wait’ after all, certainly no time to be debating the question of numbers, breezily dismissed (‘whatever the number—70,000, 40,000, 80,000’) after the manner of those who have the power to decide to go to war but do not themselves fight in it. There was a tiny bone for the dissenters, a crafted display of decorous litotes on the key military question they raised again and again, above all from the Tory hero of the day, John Baron: Cameron of course must ‘explain more’ what he means by the militarily meaningless 70,000 available ground troops, but in the meantime let’s get on with it; what exactly is to be ‘explained’ now a mere footnote. ‘It’ here equals ‘bit’ (‘doing our bit’ Benn’s dad’s army’s way with British fortitude, as the quietly modest counterpart to the general invasion of Pentagon-speak, what with ‘degrade’, ‘collateral damage’ and ‘boots on the ground’ popping up now all over the place). I’m not sure which is the worse form of euphemistic blandness, though absolutely sure counterfactually that had the Guardian instead compiled a list of the 10 worst speeches of the night, Benn’s should have to have been the outright winner for sheer intellectual sloppiness and disingenuousness.

However, self-contradiction, non sequitur and a wantonly cavalier way with the basic issues proved no impediment to the majestic flow of the ‘impassioned’, at least for those primed for rapture. Thus, we must ‘stand with’ our ally, France, not least because they have asked us to. Does Benn not recall President Chirac’s creditable refusal, when explicitly asked, to ‘stand with’ Britain and the US in 2003? 

‘If we do not act, what message will that send about our solidarity with those countries that have suffered so much, including Iraq and our ally, France? France wants us to stand with it, and President Hollande, the leader of our sister Socialist party, has asked for our assistance and help.’

That’s certainly a handsome offer in the ‘internationalist’ spirit, but only if we bracket the stomach-churning reference to the ‘suffering’ of Iraq and forget what he clearly has forgotten or suppressed (his own complicity in the chain of events that brought that suffering about). This is the moral swagger of the morally illiterate. As for France, well, that’s more likely to raise a belly laugh or two in certain  quarters. Remember the instant renaming on the cafeteria menus of the US House of Representatives of ‘French fries’ as ‘Freedom fries’. Not much fraternité there, apart from supplying Freedom fries with a lexical brother (‘French toast’ became ‘Freedom toast’). Meanwhile back in France, and talking of great speeches, let’s not forget Dominique de Villepin’s extraordinary performance at the UN explaining and defending France’s refusal to join the war. The accolade it received across the entire National Assembly in Paris reduces Benn’s standing ovation to a whimper. It has been described – by an American commentator – as an address that ‘remains today a benchmark speech in international politics’. So I do wonder what certain readers of the Sunday Telegraph, a paper that heaped contumely on ‘cowardly’ France in 2003, made of the appearance in its pages a few days after the Commons vote of a piece by the journalist , Edouard Tréteau of Les Echos, with the headline: ‘Merci, mes amis. Britain is a true friend to France’. On the other side of the pond, that American friend of freedom, the unbelievable Mr Trump, took a different fraternal tack, opining that it would have been better if France reinvented a yankee version the Citizens’ Army; if everyone had a gun, they could take out the terrorists before the latter took out them.

The jewel in the chutzpah crown, however, breathtaking in its insolently cynical appropriation, was the appeal to ‘internationalism’ by way of the example of the ‘socialists, trade unionists and others [who] joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco’.(1)

At this point in the TV replay swivel to the wisely nodding heads on the benches opposite. How wonderfully and generously ecumenical a place the Commons can be! And where is the fulcrum in which the International Brigade, trade unionists and the Conservative union-hating right can meet? The fight against ‘Fascism’. This is the crux of the Bennian (for obvious reasons not ‘Bennite’) justification for dropping bombs in Syria:

‘We are faced by fascists – not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this Chamber tonight and all the people we represent.’

Cameron seems to prefer the term ‘medieval’, capable of great barbarism to be sure, crusading Christian Europe a vivid example, Christ’s metaphor ‘I come not to bring peace but a sword’ literalised with spectacular abandon. Along with enslaving, for both labouring and sexual purposes (the aged and the infirm discarded on the pile of corpses), maiming, disfiguring, burning, impaling, there was also a nice line in cannibalism, with a strong preference for the flesh of young children. And oh yes, I nearly forgot, beheadings on a grand scale. Ring any bells? Cameron’s advisors should whisper a little history in his good Christian ear before he next trots out the adjective ‘medieval’.

Benn doesn’t use ‘medieval’. He uses ‘fascist’, but uselessly. ‘Fascism’ properly describes a specific set of largely 20th century, semi-secular movements primarily concentrated in mainland Europe. Isis is a Sunni fundamentalist movement, the convulsive ideological offspring of the 18th century Wahabi revivalist movement within Islam. I cannot think of any serious historian or political scientist who is going to get us from Mein Kampf to an interpretation of the Koran. Mind you, it seems to have done the trick for Stella Creasy, who told her constituents and the world (aka the media) that she had converted to the bombing party after hearing Benn’s speech, which ‘persuaded me that fascism should be defeated’, an insight of staggering novelty and well worth waiting for; it will live forever in the annals. At a stroke, a word that once meant something is drained of meaning. Isis, no thinking person disagrees, is unimaginably cruel and violent. But ‘fascist’ is not a word that makes any analytical sense of it at all, unless it’s taken to mean that any movement or regime that goes in for rape, torture, murder, violation of human rights and systematic cultural destruction qualifies for the description. In which case vast swathes of human history and endless chapters in the tale of man’s inhumanity to man fit the definition. 

Cameron’s way with history, though reckless, is almost certainly unreflecting (’medieval’ simply means gruesome). Benn’s way is also reckless, but calculated, a deliberate ploy to woo, or perhaps more accurately outflank, the Left. ‘Fascism’, ‘Spain’, ‘International Brigade’, these were hot buttons to hit though with nothing remotely coherent appearing on the screen. But then this sorry debacle was never about what anything actually means. It was (and is) about political jostling and the pursuit of agendas. It’s the leadership, stupid. First, the continuation by other means of the Get Corbyn campaign. If you think Cameron plumbed the depths with his ‘terrorist sympathisers’ remark, think again; he’s been outdone by an unnamed shadow cabinet member who has been doing the media rounds accusing Corbyn of setting up dissident Labour MPs as targets for home grown jihadists. McCarthyism in spades. In the meantime, the Tory press lavishes praise on the leader-in-waiting, a future prime minister no less. Benn himself went for a truly devious above-the-fray gesture of prime-ministerial magnanimity, courteously dishing out compliments to speeches by the ‘right hon’ this and the ‘hon’ that on both sides of the argument. The whole point of it, however, was what wasn’t on the list, his leader’s speech. Nice chap and all that, but of no consequence. Bye, bye Jeremy, you don’t count; I do. 

In this context, ‘Fascism’ was just a handy term, useful for pedigree as Benn marched full-on into the Cameronian embrace, and evocations of the Spanish Civil War mere cover for supporting a high-precision reenactment of Guernica. Really? Guernica? Surely not? This operation is precisely high-precision, not at all the same thing. That is true, but not so fast. ‘Guernica’ here has two referents. There’s Picasso’s mural, whose infamous fate in the halls of the UN (the very body Benn claims has provided ‘legal’ cover for the operations he endorses) is worth recalling. A tapestry reproduction has hung on the wall just outside the Security Council chamber since 1985 when it was donated by Nelson Rockefeller. However, on 5 February 2003 it was covered up. This was the date of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the Security Council defending another bombing campaign (the one Benn also signed off on, in Iraq). Since the TV cameras filmed the walls as diplomats came and went to and from the chamber, it was well to avoid this iconic image appearing on television screens around the world. 

And Guernica itself, the Basque village? Here is the deepest and most hideous irony of all. On Monday 26 April 1937, at Franco’s behest, the fascist airforce par excellence (Hitler’s Luftwaffe) rained bombs on the village as one of the first demonstration of what came to be known as ’terror bombing’, wiping out, on best estimates, over one third of its 7000 population. ‘Our’ bombing is of course not like this at all. ‘Terror bombing’ is ‘saturation’ style, and indiscriminate in its targets. We, on the other hand, have that lovely little number, ‘Brimstone’ (another desecration of the English language, extracted from the Biblical idiom of hell, fire and brimstone as terms for God’s wrath), which bypasses innocent civilians. That is indeed one of its purposes. But official ‘collateral damage’ claims on its behalf need to be taken with a pinch of salt. We are told that the bombing of Isis in Iraq has so far yielded not a single ‘reported’ civilian casualty. Given past form, we should keep a close eye on the load-bearing capacity of that term ‘reported’. More to the point is the element of duration. The Luftwaffe spent an afternoon dropping bombs. According to our own government (an announcement held back until after the Commons vote was taken), we are in for the long haul, minimum two years. Two years? Anyone got a clear idea of what Raqqua will look like two years down the line? The shadow of Guernica does indeed loom over this technologically sanitised version of military action. 

Naturally, none of these ironies seem to have crossed Benn’s capacious mind. Guernica was not even the smallest of small blips on the radar of his 1930’s Spain, nor for that matter, since the ’Churchillian’ is also in the frame, the faintest trace of our own terror bombing of the cities of Germany in the later stages of the WW2. Inconvenient intrusions on moral grandeur, one supposes, and so best confined to silence. Benn’s magisterial contribution to the question of civilian casualties was to touch on it gingerly and above all briefly, in the muffling tones of parliamentary civility (‘I share the concerns that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian casualties’), before dispatching the ‘concerns’ to a silent graveyard of their own. If that’s all Benn can muster for probable horrors to come, children ripped limb from limb, heads rolling in the gutter, and all the dismembering rest, then, since the ‘concerns’ are themselves dead on arrival, rapid conveyance to the quietude of the grave is the best place for them. 

There are other silences too in the speech. In very many of the pro-bombing statements during the Commons debate there was much talk of ‘shame’, the shame of doing nothing. This theme curls back onto various moments of Benn’s speech in unsettling ways. For instance, it loops back perversely to his comments on France. Some (Mrs Beckett, a former Labour Foreign Secretary an example, but mostly Tories reaching desperately for moral safety) evinced the view that it would be ‘shameful’ if we were not to heed France’s call for assistance. Benn seems to share that view. In which case why did he not also point out that, on this principle, France should be ashamed of having abandoned us in 2003? Surely virtue is indivisible. Surely at the very least France can’t reasonably request solidarity without at the same time offering an apology for having refused it to us. 

More pertinently, it folds back onto the tendentious uses of ‘Spain’. In addition to discreetly passing over any reference to Guernica, there are two interrelated silences that cry out for attention. First, where the RAF pilots are under the direct instructions of a government, the International Brigaders were volunteers who went to Spain both clandestinely and illegally. This is how my father made it to Spain, from Ireland to England, then down through France and over the Pyrenees. They were of course – in another grim echo bouncing off Benn’s negligent imperturbability – ‘boots on the ground’, though good boots, as my father told me, were often hard to come by. Secondly, the then Tory government turned its back on the Spanish Republican government; indeed prime minister Baldwin was known to favour the Franco military uprising, as a bulwark against ‘communism’. Much of the right wing press was uninhibitedly pro-Franco. The official policy became one of non-intervention, and joining the Brigade was declared to be illegal (guilty – another incredible echo – of joining a ‘foreign army’). 

And so the ironies proliferate on and on, filling and overwhelming the irredeemable vacuity of the Benn speech. The silences lie coiled in the heart of darkness that is the truth of its reach for the moral high ground, like bombs ready to blow the ‘argument’ out of the intellectual desert it inhabits. Do we have any reason to believe that any of this occurred to Benn as he stood before the Tory benches bellowing their approval, the prime minister sleekly beaming gratitude, the ‘patriotic’ press at the ready to blaze their dithyrambic headlines across the front page, and more generally the HB love-in gathering pace? Did it not occur to him for one moment that, on the matter of the Spanish Civil War, the predecessor Conservative government to that whose embrace he was now receiving, should have been mentioned as something the entire nation should be, yes, ashamed of? Did it not occur to him that his own manipulative editing of the past – the evasions, the suppressions, the distortions – were themselves a shameful crime of both commission and omission against historical memory? Or does he simply know no shame? It’s the duty of all of us who have some connection with the memory of 1930s Spain to speak out against this cheap exploitation of the dead. It is what my father would have wanted. What Benn’s father would have wanted, I can surmise, but leave that one for his son to wrestle with. It doesn’t look as if it will be detaining him for long; Benn junior has other fish to fry. 

We can, I suppose, be grateful for small mercies: at least there was no reprise in the speech of No pasarán! That would have been the last straw, though consistent with a key feature of the speech nagging at the edge of consciousness but overlooked, anger at the traducing of what my father thought he was fighting for in Spain getting in my way. A final counterfactual might have it, that had Dolores Ibárruri’s famous rallying cry crossed his lips, it would have shown conclusively what is obvious to any dispassionate listener: just how immature and juvenile the performance was, as if stutteringly time-machined back to the school Debating Society. Master Benn has the floor.

(1) Mind you, the Stop the War Coalition managed to outclass Benn’s ineptitude with a truly hair-raising statement in an online article (since taken down): ‘Benn does not even seem to realise that the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh [Isis] is far closer to the spirit of internationalism and solidarity that drove the International Brigades than Cameron’s bombing campaign.’ With friends like these, who needs enemies?

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