Hilary Benn: we never should walk by on the other side of the road

UK Labour MP Hilary Benn has given a powerful, compelling speech in favour of air strikes in Syria. He put the case far better than the hopeless Tory leader David Cameron, who had early alienated potential support from Labour MP’s with a stupid sound bite about Jeremy Corbyn being a terrorist sympathiser.

Corbyn has survived a potential leadership crisis in part because of Cameron’s ham fisted gaffe and mostly because he wisely allowed a ‘free’ vote for Labour MP’s. That clever decision allowed Hilary Benn to take the floor in Westminster and speak to both sides of the house.

And what a speech it is!

It’s a tour de force of political rhetoric, rightly hailed as one of the greatest pieces of oratory of recent years. Whether you agree with Benn’s position or not, I think you’ll marvel at it’s dignified power. First he roasts Cameron. Then he praises Corbyn. Then he moves on to make a sound, reasoned case for Britain to go on the front foot against Daesh. It’s just 15 minutes long, but it’s come to define the debate.

Personally, I was quietly pleased to hear Benn echo some of the points I made in a post earlier this year. In War HUH! I equated the threat of Daesh to the rise of fascism in Spain. However, Hillary Benn has put it far more eloquently than I:

“We are here faced by fascists – not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this chamber – they hold us in contempt”.

“They hold our values in contempt, they hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt, they hold our democracy – the means by which we will make our decision tonight – in contempt. But what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. And it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists were just one part of the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco.

“It’s why this entire house stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It’s why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice and my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil.

It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria.”

Benn is correct. It is the duty of the class conscious left to support the struggle against fascism, whatever its form.

But it’s not enough to just bomb Daesh, there has to be a political solution to the Syrian civil war as well. It’s a sign of how complex and fast moving this situation is that only two weeks ago Hilary Benn was lukewarm at best about joining the bombing campaign. But when push comes to shove, tough calls have to be made.

In effect, the UK parliament was voting not just for air strikes, but to tacitly endorse a multi-faceted approach to Daesh’s threat. UK PM David Cameron has proposed a seven point plan:

  1. Protect the UK at home by maintaining robust counter-terrorism capabilities
  2. Generate negotiations on a political settlement, while preserving the moderate opposition
  3. Help deliver a government in Syria that can credibly represent all of the Syrian people
  4. Degrade and ultimately defeat Isil, through Coalition military and wider action
  5. Continue leading role in humanitarian support and forestall further migratory flows towards Europe
  6. Support stabilisation already underway in Iraq and plan for post-conflict  reconstruction in Syria
  7. Work in close partnership with allies across the Middle East to mitigate the impact of Isil and other violent extremist groups

That seems to me to be a reasonably comprehensive approach, of which military action is not the defining point. We can bomb the middle east to pieces, but we cannot bomb it to peace.

However, Hilary Benn notes that military intervention in Iraq has halted Daesh’s advances there:

” … 14 months ago, people were saying that it was almost at the gates of Baghdad, which is why we voted to respond to the Iraqi Government’s request for help to defeat it. Its military capacity and freedom of movement have been put under pressure.

Ask the Kurds about Sinjar and Kobane. Of course, airstrikes alone will not defeat Daesh, but they make a difference, because they give it a hard time, making it more difficult for it to expand its territory. I share the concerns that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian casualties. However, unlike Daesh, none of us today acts with the intent to harm civilians. Rather, we act to protect civilians from Daesh, which targets innocent people.”

It’s important that the UK Parliament has endorsed a joint approach, weakening Daesh militarily, and advancing the end of the Syrian civil war by diplomatic means. The two approaches are intertwined. That is exactly the answer to the problem.

As an aside, throughout the speech, Benn refers to the terrorist organisation as ‘Daesh’. Apparently it is a name hated by the leaders of Isil/Isis/whatever. That’s as good a reason to use it as any.

The response to Hilary Benn’s speech has been for the most part positive. One sour note was from Scottish SNP trougher Alex ‘two salaries’ Salmond who claimed Benn’s father, Tony, would be spinning in his grave. That’s rubbish. Benn Snr. would have been proud as punch that his son was making a stand against fascism. Tony Benn was a man of principle, and a humanist, and it appears his values have been passed on to the next generation.

Speaking to his fellow Labour MP’s, Hilary Benn makes this profound point:

“As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have and we never should walk by on the other side of the road”

Hear, hear!

Watch the full speech and marvel at what quiet fury and considered words can do in a parliament. And weep that we don’t have a PM capable of using our house in the same way.


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