I watched Hilary Benn’s speech about 10 minutes after he’d finished talking; the Commons hadn’t yet voted to extend air strikes to Syria but it was already being talked of as “one of the truly great speeches made in this House of Commons”. Philip Hammond said so, and everybody agreed.
Loading it up on parliamentlive.tv, then, my expectations were high. In the few instances I’d seen Benn speak before he’d struck me as schoolmasterly and uninspiring. But this must have been special—even while it was still going on Zac Goldsmith had tweeted that it was a “truly magnificent speech”.
Eyes glued to one half of my screen—the other half taken up with the Guardian MBM, where news of the results was about to filter through—I saw Benn take to the despatch box. In his Harry Potter glasses and his usual I’m-disappointed-in-you teacherly manner, he scolded Cameron for branding those who opposed the motion “terrorist-sympathisers”. Corbyn was an “an honest, a principled, a decent and a good man”. (Read: not strategic, hard-headed or practical.)
He gave a roll call of MPs whose speeches he’d enjoyed; rather than naming names he referred to their constituencies, to the honourable members from Derby South, Normanton and Chichester and Wells, among others. At this point, I begun to feel a strange rumbling in my stomach (what, later, I would diagnose as nausea). His rolling elongation of the vowels in “Tonbridge and Malling” suggested this wasn’t going to any normal speech—it was going to be A Great Speech.
This was confirmed by Benn’s next move. After a day of arguments trying to do justice to the complex moral and politico-strategic issues involved in combating Daesh/ISIS, Benn had decided he’d had enough: “The question which confronts us in a very, very complex conflict is at its heart very simple.” The simple heart, obscured by so much debate, was this: Daesh/ISIS are evil (more than just a “cruel yoke” at least) and therefore we have a “moral and a practical duty” to wage war against them. Simple.
Of course, Benn knew this wasn’t exactly what MPs had been arguing about (where were the defenders of Daesh or those arguing for our moral/practical duty to support terrorism?). The debate had been about whether further air strikes would be, in this instance, justified and/or effective—two ideas which, at their heart, are very, very complex. Since this was going to be A Great Speech, however, Benn decided to brush all detail aside: the conditions “set out in the emergency resolution passed at the Labour party conference in September” had been met, he said. (Those conditions are here; decide for yourself whether they’ve been met.)
To be fair to him, Benn did try to back up this point with references to Article 51 of the UN Charter (the right of countries to engage in self-defence against armed attack—but, in the case of wading into a civil war, does this provide clear backing?) and the Vienna peace talks. But he didn’t dwell on either of these. He wanted moral certainty and historical scope.
So next, since nobody else had seen fit to spell it out, Benn returned to the theme of Daesh being evil. Really evil. They threw four gay men off the fifth storey of a building in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor, for example; they beheaded an 82 year-old professor and slaughtered a group of elderly Yazidi women. Again, Benn’s aim wasn’t to link these evil deeds to the case for air strikes per se. He therefore wasn’t interested in allaying MP Hannah Bardell’s concerns that air strikes might pose a greater threat to the LGBT community; he wasn’t interested in responding to Billy Bragg’s point, made the day before, that if the British government were so concerned about violence against women why did they say nothing about the recent beheadings of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. The point was, Daesh are evil and evil must be fought against. Simple.
By this point, in real-time, the Speaker of the House had called to “clear the lobbies” and division bells were ringing; a vote was imminent. Benn was talking emotively about the terrorist attacks in Paris (“they could have been our children”) and saying, without evidence—unless he meant this in the most undeniably literal sense—that air strikes “do make a difference”. On the subject of civilian casualties—a key factor in the radicalisation of many jihadis—Benn sought, in as few words as possible, to dismiss qualms on the basis of intent: whereas Daesh seek to murder and maim, the West merely accrues collateral damage. The fact that, from the perspective of a grieving relative, the two amount to the same thing, hardly seemed to matter.
There was some attempt to address the mythical “70,000”-strong army of “moderates” waiting for our help to topple Daesh, but concerns about who these soldiers were and what would happen in the event of their success, were dismissed outright, this time on account of urgency. For Benn, air strikes didn’t have to rule anything else out: the British government could still cut off Daesh’s support lines, offer humanitarian aid to those in need and shelter refugees; when the time came, it would also, of course, help to rebuild Syria. If anything, Benn implied, air strikes would help facilitate—rather than set back—all manner of good things (this is part of a separate narrative whereby the use of bombers and UAVs (Unarmed Aerial Vehicles, or drones) have been rehabilitated as forms of humane warfare—not because they kill fewer people than ground forces (the opposite is true) but because they pose less of a risk to their own troops).
This was all boring detail Benn needed to get through so that he could come to his real tub-thumping, jerkily gesticulating, listen-here-you-no-good-terrorists moment. This was it, I could sense—the moment.
Having established the moral certainty of his case, Benn now put it in its historical context: Labour were an internationalist party. In the 1930s, socialists and trade unionists had fought against General Franco; the whole House, indeed, had stood together against Hitler and Mussolini. He didn’t mention, of course, that the annihilation of Guernica, ordered by Franco, was one of the first air strikes on a densely populated urban area, and that, as Michael Chessum has pointed out, the International Brigades were fighting against the rise of a dictator, whereas in the case of these strikes, they will consolidate the position of another, Bashar al-Assad. In stressing one part of Labour’s history, Benn de-emphasised another: its pacifist roots. Commentators often cite the short-lived tenure of George Lansbury, but Labour’s founder, Keir Hardie, was just as strong a pacifist; in his last years, he tried to organise—yes, internationally—a general strike in opposition to the First World War.
The important point, said Benn, is that Daesh—like Franco, like Hitler, like Mussolini—were fascists. With the relish of an ageing preacher having hit upon a theme, he spread out his arms and drove home the “brutality” and “contempt” of those who turn against the light: “what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated”. This was Labour’s chance—the whole House’s chance—to do credit to their best traditions, to oppose evil, to stand up and be counted. To bomb Raqqa.
As with the Oscars, where the films that do best usually celebrate the history of films and filmmaking in some way (like Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard or, more recently, The Artist), in the House of Commons, what’s required of A Great Speech is that it in some way celebrate the House of Commons itself. By characterising Daesh as fascists—implying a kind of coherent threat on the level of Nazi Germany or fascist Italy—Benn was giving MPs the chance to act out, however briefly, their fantasy vision of democratic politics as a sphere which, rising above mundane strategising and peacenik concerns (boring, complicated civilian casualties), was defined by its inherent moral superiority. Benn made everyone in the Commons feel once again like actors, in every sense, on a grand historical stage. They applauded, as they never normally do, because they were applauding themselves.
At least this was the only way I could understand the rapturous response Benn’s speech received, and continued to receive. Those political commentators who spend far more time than I do on parliamentlive.tv must also have been waiting for this: the opportunity to bathe in the reflected glow of a politics that seemed to matter. The day after, an editorial in the Guardian compared Benn’s “oratory” to Corbyn’s “laboured” (no pun intended) attempt to forestall the air strikes. Martin Kettle called it transformative, “electrifying”. Forget the detail; everyone wanted A Great Speech, and so it was.
In the other half of my screen, as Benn stopped talking and Philip Hammond, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, stepped up to call it one of the “truly great speeches”, I saw that 397 MPs had backed the motion in favour of extending air strikes. The government had won by a majority of 174 and, minutes later, from an RAF base in Cyprus, British jets were taking to the skies.
I checked on Facebook, then on Twitter. Friends of mine were expressing their immediate revulsion at Benn’s speech—“his dad must be rolling in his grave” was a common refrain—jarring with the response among so many politicians and political journalists. Andrew Sparrow, summing up, called it “extraordinary”, suggesting that the “chatter” around Benn as an alternative leader to the party would only grow. The honourable Stella Creasy tweeted that Hilary Benn’s speech had persuaded her that “fascism must be defeated”.
As you can probably tell, I wasn’t a fan of the speech. Why would I have been? It was another middle-aged white man waving the imperialist swagger-stick of us vs. them rhetoric. Perhaps it sounded better in person. Or perhaps the weird gap between opinion in and around Westminster and among the public reflects a wider rift between those two worlds—evidence of what Peter Mair called democracy’s “hollowing out”. Whatever the case, Britain is a faded power; for all the jihadis or (mostly) civilians that will be killed in Syria over the next few years, the 2nd December debate will be remembered in terms of insular party politics, as another convulsion in the life of post-New Labour Labour. I hope it won’t mark the decline of “laboured” Corbyn. I’d rather a “laboured”, “honest” politician than a triangulating, self-righteous, war-mongering one. Perhaps this speech, so acclaimed now, will disappear in the next news cycle, being remembered decades from now, if at all, for the strangeness of its jarring, violent certainty.