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Benn speech: a fine masterclass in dressing up an intellectual and political collapse

Hilary BennIt doesn’t take much to be Labour’s leader-in-waiting these days. There’s David Miliband, failed leadership candidate and proud former owner of a 0.5% contact rate. Dan Jarvis is another – a distinguished military service makes him a front runner regardless of what he says and does. And there is Hilary Benn, the man who electrified the political establishment and their media hangers ons with a simple 15 minute speech.

Having odd-jobbed his way around the front bench for years, before taking up shadow foreign secretary under Harriet Harman’s ill-fated tenure as caretaker leader, Hilary cut something of an overlooked figure. He reminded me of Lembit Opik, sans The Cheeky Girls and the crippling mid-life crisis. He is well-liked, able, and considered a little bit bumbling in a friendly, avuncular kind of way. But not someone destined for a seat at the captain’s table.

I’ve met him the once, too. We went down London town for a staffers’ briefing in early 2011 at party HQ. Our reward for braving Virgin Trains was a star turn from The Edster, who took time out to address us minions, and while we were hanging around for lunch Hilary came in and amiably nattered with us… in what looked like rain-drenched cycling fatigues. Proof, as if it were needed, that nice, friendly people are quite capable of doing the most damnable things.

As a piece of oratory, Hilary’s speech was good. His cadences rose and fell, the pointing fingers and table prodding were deployed to full effect, alliteration and wordplay, history and socialist internationalism were pulled together in a well-crafted speech that was reputedly written on the green benches as other members made their contributions. Technically polished and married to effective delivery, Hilary’s was a stand out speech not because it’s up their with the oration of Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George, but because Parliament contains so few skilled speakers. It’s rare to hear an argument, any argument, put with eloquence and persuasive force. And that is the case with this Parliament more than any other, seeing as members – Tory members especially – speak to score points and to cretinously endear themselves to the front bench. The problem, however, is that Hilary’s speech, polished as it was, contained nothing new. All he achieved was to make Dave’s incredible plan appear that little more credible.

Less than a month ago, Hilary was in The Indy arguing against the government extending airstrikes to IS targets in Syria, adding that they needed to have a plan. As Hilary gave this interview after the Paris atrocity, what had changed to necessitate bombing in the absence of reliable intelligence and a clear plan for Syria, and not the pie in the sky dependent on so many undependables as per Dave’s plan? There is nothing I can see, nothing that has changed. Yes, airstrikes could harm and hamper IS, but how to “smart-bomb” without intelligence? The RAF record in Iraq doesn’t fill one with confidence. The ‘no civilian casualties’ figure arising from RAF bombing in Iraq since IS were at the gates of Baghdad last year, and bandied about by Michael Fallon like a rabbit’s foot, is a MoD estimate.

Hilary hasn’t accounted for his journey from a conditional no to an unconditional yes. Treat the speech as a master class, fine. But it is also a salutary lesson of dressing an intellectual and political collapse up in fine words, of a pragmatic position surrendering to the understandable but wrongheaded and reckless “we must do something” nonsense peddled by the Prime Minister. And if you were in any doubt, the enthusiastic cheers and applause greeting the speech’s climax from the Conservative benches underlines how off course Hilary and all the Labour MPs who voted with him. If the Tories are in raptures over your contribution and, reportedly, were queuing up to have him autograph their order papers, something is very, very wrong.

Hilary Benn made a good speech. That didn’t stop it being an appalling speech.


  1. Mervyn Hyde (@mjh0421) says:

    Hilary Benn went from mouse defending Labour’s corner, to lion campaigning for the Tory war.

    His assertion that we are going to fight fascism by bombing Syrian children is so wide of the mark to make him utterly irrelevant as a strategist.

    He has in one speech sought to undermine Jeremy and place his hat firmly in the ring for the next leadership challenge, only all the party members I have spoken to today are well ahead of him and see what his real objectives are.

    It may well have sent the vile media into rapturous applause for a worthless speech that doesn’t bear up well under real scrutiny, but in the end as even Diane Abbott said last night; fine speeches are one thing; but the facts mean that Jeremy Corbyn is right; and those like Blair that make the facts suit their case, will come unstuck just like he did.

  2. Verity says:

    I don’t know why I was so surprised by how poor most Labour speeches were. In general they really are more lite-weight than I thought. We really have some problems when many speeches given by the Tory’s did attempt to address issues in a more focus way. What is the worry for me is that we are relying on many of these Labour individuals to help develop and promote a critical alternative government. Unfortunately for our fortunes, Jeremy’s shake up may not constitute a sufficiently hard – hitting opposition. The optimism has surely to lay in the needs of a more energised and demanding Party Membership/Supporters.

    1. Will says:

      David Davis made a plea to avoid inflicting further bloodshed through air strikes as did Juian Lewis with his “bogus battalions” they both stood out during the debate and were more eloquent than most anti war Labour members.

  3. Jo Urquhart says:

    Good article, personally I think his speech was emotional claptrap and was surprised that he didn’t brandish photos of beheading victims to back up his emotion. There was no substance and no obvious analysis of the situation or Cameron’s so called plan..but then again what can you expect from someone who so obviously made up his mind on the night?

    He’s flip flopped his mind so often on the subject – in July he was moving towards air strikes…in September he supported them…then in an interview on the 15th November he was clearly against them…now he’s for them again, that’s worse leaf blowing than Andy Burnham.

    If he found a principle and stuck with it, people would respect him more.

  4. David Melvin says:

    Hilary Benn’s comparison of Cameron’s bombing of Syria to the International Brigade was deeply offensive to those who gave their lives defending the Spanish Republic. It was a mixture of his father’s mannerisms and Tony Blair’s rhetoric. No wonder the Tories and Labour right cheered him. A career as a Shakespearean actor is there for the taking if he wants a career change, with a role in Julius Caesar an almost certainty.

  5. John Penney says:

    At one stage during Hilleery Benn’s q

  6. John Penney says:

    At one stage during what I saw as Benn’s quite appallingly cynical speech, I was strongly reminded by some lines by the old fictional First World war General Melchett, from Blackaddern IV. The substance of Melchett’s peroration was to the effect that things on the Western Front were going badly, each side pinned down in the morass of senseless trench warfare . So, Melchett concluded ..”It’s time for a futile gesture !” ie, another suicidal frontal assault.

    And that pretty much sums up both Cameron’s outlined “justification” for bombing for its own theatrical sake, and Benn’s dishonest bit of over-heated supporting rhetoric too.

    Get to grips with the reality of Turkey’s intimate and absolutely vital supportive relationship with its proxy war fighting force , Daesh ? Definitely not old boy – can’t accuse a fellow NATO member of not playing with a straight bat !

  7. Hazel Malcolm-Walker says:

    Events have overtaken Hilary Benn.
    At BEST, he has been shown to be: Gullible, Malleable and lacking in the intellectual rigor necessary to form an independent opinion.
    He delivered a masterly performance when orating his speech, which was totally at odds to his opinion of last week.
    Who or what changed his mind? I don’t think it was the UN resolution, I think it was something else.
    It will be interesting to watch the 66 trying to spin themselves out of this hole, but I can assure them, there is no way out of this!

  8. John P Reid says:

    I love the fact that you quote another website, saying Harriet Germans ill fated tenure, as if just because another website puts it, doesn’t mean there’s acincensus that their opinion is God given fact

  9. I assume Corbyn told shadow cabinet colleagues about the points he was going to make in his commons speech.
    Benn, in contrast, has admitted he wrote his while listening to the debate: which is probably not the best way to develop a coherent statement about a complex issue. This suggests it was shared with no one. That could be dismissed as not relevant, but Benn was attacking, using emotive language, the position of Labour’s leader and that of the majority of the party and PLP. His diffident attitude after suggests the speech was simply not thought through.
    And what about the points? The speech came across as a brain-dump connecting many incidents in a way that doesn’t add up. For example, the bombing of the Russian passenger jet last month has been claimed by the Sinai branch of Daesh. But can it be said with confidence it was directed by Daesh in Raqqa? Is the UN resolution unambiguous? It’s understandable for Hammond and Cameron to say it does: they are defending government policy. But why would a spokesman on foreign affairs for the opposition say the same when it’s open to question?
    The improvised nature of the speech was demonstrated by the reference to the Spanish Civil War. Hundreds of articles have been written about Syria and Daesh but none have attempted to suggest there is a parallel worth mentioning. More thought and a bit of a talk with Labour colleagues would have probably led to this bit being cut out. The reference to “doing our bit” probably meant nothing to anyone aged under 50.
    The free vote was there to provide Labour MPs the opportunity to express themselves freely. Benn went beyond what might reasonably be considered to be appropriate for a shadow cabinet member and foreign affairs spokesman. Hammond praised him, but not for the substance. There was an enthusiastic response on the Conservative benches, but was that Benn’s objective?
    So the real question is: why did he do it? Nothing can be certain until Benn provides an explanation.

  10. Namak says:

    Benn’s account of Labour opposing fascism was also shallow.Franco and Salazar dominated Spain and Portugal until the mid-seventies; Apartheid was introduced in South Africa during the Attlee government and Labour Ministers resisted action against the apartheid regime all, through the sixties.
    And don’t let me start on the Partition of India.

  11. Nehalmc says:

    It should be up there, not up their with the oration! Good piece. Please don’t overlook there, their.

  12. Jim Denham says:

    The reason Hilary Benn’s speech was so effective is not because he had anything to say to respond to Corbyn’s position put forward earlier that day, but because he correctly identified Corbyn’s and much of the entire left’s political weakness over the last 25 years:

    – its softness or even support (ie SWP, Counterfire, etc) for fascism and medievalist reaction as long as it comes in some anti western form.
    – that even after the fall of the Soviet Union the same old apologist shit still remains strong on the left and particularly the Labour left and the people around the Morning Star: they’re against human rights abuses and “imperialism” except when it’s by Russia and its allies, in which case they use all sorts of relativist arguments to support/excuse it.
    – that via Stop The War’s popular front with the right, the left has adopted the old right’s isolationism: the idea that it has “nothing to do with us”.
    – the much older Labour Pacifist tradition that Corbyn is steeped in. Despite some notable personal bravery in World War One and in the fight against nuclear weapons, this tradition rejects class struggle or anti-fascist struggle, in favour of impotent, pacifist saintliness.

    So this meant even when Corbyn was making the better internationalist arguments against this specific bombing campaign, people knew his and the Stop The War/SWP (etc) left’s record with regard to groups like Daesh is poor.

    We should be plain with people on the left that this debate should have been won. The right could play on peoples desire to do something to oppose Daesh and the better suggestions of the left to do this (support / arm the Kurds, end Assad’s bombing, stop the alliances with Turkey and Saudi) were not credible given the left’s history and the nature of some of our ‘comrades’ on the left opposition to bombing.

    1. John Penney says:

      A very important set of points, I think, Jim. I am a “Corbynista” on most issues, but on the “selective pacifism” derived from the Stop the War, and Morning Star soviet era analysis of the struggle in the Middle East… nope. It’s sloganized gobbledegook – which sees only “US Imperialism” as the guilty party, and simply won’t recognise the dire role of the lesser imperialisms of Russia and Iran. Or indeed the fundamental clerico fascist nature of Daesh. A legacy of the appalling sucking up/ concession to Muslim Fundamentalism of sections of the radical Left in 1990’s onwards. Some , old neo-Stalinist, sections of the Left are also undoubtedly keen to re-embrace the murderous Assad dictatorship as a part of the “solution” to the crisis !

      I thought the really toe curling bit, and key political weakness in Jeremy’s otherwise quite good Commons peroration, was when he twice had opportunities to support the Kurdish People’s right to source vital air support from whomsoever they tactically thought appropriate, when faced with Daesh tank and artillery assaults. No such concession was allowed by Jeremy – who simply ignored the question – whilst stating his 30 year support for Kurdish freedom ! All too common a selective blindness on the Left today – for whom the previously longstanding support for Kurdish self determination, has been replaced by embarrassment that the Kurdish need for air support raises more complex issues about the tactics of the complex struggle in Syria/Iraq, than the grossly simplistic , unqualified ,”No to Bombing” mantra covers.

      That said , and apart from supporting the Kurdish right to secure arms and air support from whoever THEY choose – the current almost cosmetic very minor extension of the UK air assault to Syria – particularly Raqqa, and elsewhere ,is undoubtedly a useless diversion from the need to deal with Turkey’s (and the Gulf States’, major sponsorship , via arming, and oil purchases, of Daesh.

      1. Can you explain the Kurdish people’s right to source air support? The KRG is not a sovereign state, but a region of Iraq whose government resides in Baghdad and which the UK supports and assists. The rights of the KRG are set out in the Iraqi constitution agreed by its first democratically-elected government; they do not include the right to invite foreign countries to intervene militarily in the territory of Iraq. Responding, without reference to the government of Iraq, to a request for KRG bombing support will have implications for settled UK policy, including that of the last Labour government.
        There are substantial Kurdish minorities in Syria, Turkey and Iran but they are not recognised even as partially-autonomous bodies by the governments of those countries in the way the KRG is by the Iraqi goverment. How could the UK respond legally to a call from those quarters?
        The Syrian bombing campaign is validated — to the extent that the relevant UN resolution allows — by the self-defence argument made both by Cameron and Benn about ISIS.
        Corbyn explained the legal, military and ethical objections to the UK Syrian bombing campaign and echoed arguments made by opponents of the campaign on both sides of the house and elsewhere.
        Benn’s argument that the internationally-agreed border between Iraq and Syria can be ignored in the campaign against ISIS was contentious. It has no foundation in international law.

        1. John Penney says:

          A strange bit of rigid ahistorical legalism in your post, for someone presumably on the Left and presumably aware of the history of this region, Edmund O’Sullivan. Yes I can, as a socialist and internationalist, justify the right of the Kurdish People to get weaponry and air support from whatever source they wish, Edmund.

          The Kurdish People are a distinct nation, robbed of their right to self determination and promised statehood by the machinations of the then Great Imperial Powers, Britain and France, after 1918. Instead of statehood they were shared out across all the surrounding newly created states , and have been severely oppressed ever since. “International Law” in this case is merely the codification of past Imperialist machinations and crimes.

          So as a genuinely oppressed national grouping the Kurds have long had the support in their struggle for self determination by most of the Left. Should the Left give a flying f— about the Imperialism-imposed “legalism” of the Kurdish People’s current unsupportable territorial situation ? Nope. We should instead support their struggle for self determination , and their right to secure whatever means necessary to fight off the Daesh clerico- fascists , and any other repressive power oppressing them – including the Turkish government.

          The USA didn’t seem to have any legal trouble giving vital air support to the Kurdish fighters in Kobane – or elsewhere – so what is your strangely nitpicking legalism about the UK’s air power trying to prove ?

          Trying to set up some permanent “International Law” legalism around either Syria or Iraq’s current geographic boundaries is a joke – all the post 1918 state boundaries in that area are being redrawn through inter ethnic/religious mayhem and war as we sit here. Its a 1947 India/ Pakistan (re) partition situation for the Middle East happening now – with mass population transfers and unfortunately even more mass inter-communal pogroms yet to come – before the area settles down again within new boundaries. Which is why no Vienna diplomatic settlement at this stage will work .

  13. Jim Denham says:

    “Can you explain the Kurdish people’s right to source air support? The KRG is not a sovereign state, but a region of Iraq whose government resides in Baghdad and which the UK supports and assists. The rights of the KRG are set out in the Iraqi constitution agreed by its first democratically-elected government”… bloody hell! It seems that for some people Westpahalian bourgeois legalism trumps anti-fascist struggle.

    1. Richard Tiffin says:

      I will start by saying I’m a died in the wool pedant, so I like my concepts to be clearly defined, this means I struggle with the word fascist being thrown around willly nilly. I’ve also seen clerico-fascist as a label for Isis and this also stretches the concept for me.
      I know that the term is emotive and so it has a seductive appeal to be used but I find the term medieval reactionary or theocratic reactionary more appropriate in the context of Isis, though this not a point I wish to labour.
      So, having said that I want to move on to my main point. The implication of your position is that the fight against Isis (the fascists) is so important that international legality is something of an irrelevance. Moreover, you appear to be suggesting that the best thing we can do (by we I mean US, UK and French imperialism) is advance the interests of the Kurds by bombing Isis forces to allow the Kurds to remove Isis (the fascists) and in the process take territory.
      You haven’t made it clear why you think this is a progressive step unfortunately, so I find it hard to agree with your position. I can see quite clearly that the Kurdish forces are very progressive compared to others in the region, particularly in their attitudes toward women and religious minorities. I can also see that they are quite possibly the largest force on the ground and so in a position to remove Isis from Syria with the help of air support, but I am still struggling to see why we as socialists in the Labour Party should support their advancement.
      If they were a red army bringing socialism then I would see the point you are making, but what would they bring? Freedom from Isis is a good, clearly, but what would replace it? If all we are looking for are a more progressive and liberal regime then why not simply promote the idea of a imperialist invasion? It would be even more progressive than the Kurds surely as they would have no interests in occupation as the Kurds would and they would bring liberal democracy.
      In short, please argue your case and give me your reasoning as to why the Kurdish forces are deserving of Labout Socialists support.

      1. Jim Denham says:

        If Isis are *not* fascists then that can only be because of some obscure theoretical technicality: for all practical purposes, as far as socialists, democrats, women and minorities, they are and should be treated as such.

        The Kurds deserve our support (including arms and air support when they request it) on the basis of national self-determination and because they are fighting the fascists on the ground – and they’re the only force doing that who socialists can give unconditional support to. In an otherwise difficult and complex situation, I’d have thought support for the Kurds, at least, would be a-b-c stuff for socialists.

        1. Richard Tiffin says:

          You’re right, support for national self determination of the Kurds is important, but what territory is my question? Any time lapse map of Northern Syria over the past four years clearly shows how the Kurds have taken ever more territory. Is there a proposed limit to this expansion or do the imperialist forces just carrying on responding to requests for air support all the way over the Euphrates south and west? Then what?
          This is where national self determination is messy as the Turks will be more than a little agitated by this. This is the question I would like you to address, so I am sorry if my original question was unclear.
          In terms of an obscure theoretical technicality in the use of the term fascist but in practical terms they are fascists the minimising of my position is not an argument, make you case. What practical similarities do you include in your categorisation to reach the conclusion you do?

        2. David Ellis says:

          Problem with the Kurdish groups is they are either pro-West or pro-Putin. None of them seem to act in the name of the Kurds. In any case what is Denham on about. He supports Ziofascism which may appear opposed to Islamism but is in fact identical relying on brutal terrorism, land-grabbing, racism and religious sectarianism.

          As for Benn’s speech being effective. It wasn’t. It was hysterical and not in the funny sense. If he’d wanted to land a blow on Corbyn he would have opposed the bombing and the Russian bombing but he supported bombing so useless.

    2. John Penney says:

      Well said Jim .

  14. peter willsman says:

    A letter in the increasingly right wing Guardian pointed out ”H Benn said the Kurds were one of the most effective forces fighting Isis.A teenager is serving 22 months for going out to support them”.

    1. Sue says:

      Thank you for reminding me re that Pete.

  15. Sue says:

    I was very disappointed with both Hilary Benn and his speech for two reasons. First I was hoping to hear some solid answers to the points made by the anti bombers. I wanted to hear a good solid argument for bombing. I didnt get that. All the anti bombing speakers were able to quote facts and figures and seem to have done actual research. Second it seemed to me that this was a speech as much aimed against Corbyn as it was pro bombing. As Benn is not a stupid man then this had to have been very deliberate. Maybe he was hoping that the vote would go badly in Oldham? I can respect many politicians even when disagreeing with them but I have lost my respect for Benn.

  16. stewart says:

    all the weak idiot armchair general corbyn lackies have been lining to slag of hilary benns speech,thats all fine from your armchair know it alls,but I ask all you white skinned appeasers of daesh this,what do you say to all the familys of these black and brown skinned Christian and peace loving muslim sect of yazidi girls in Syria and Iraq whos women are being held as sex slaves by daesh,what do you say to the familys of the beheaded,the old womem shot and and put in mass graves because they was to old to be sex slaves,what is your message john penney and co to the victims of daesh genocide and mass murder when your tucking into your Christmas dinner,what is your message to these poor people you gutless cowards and traitors to true human rights and decenty,you all make me sick.

  17. John Penney says:

    My answer to your perfectly valid core question is this , Stewart.

    I consider that the women enslaving, murderous clerico-fascists of Daesh have to be utterly smashed. But how to do this is surely the issue. Useless gestures won’t do it.

    I totally support the right of the highly effective various Kurdish factions (and their Yazidi and other allies) battling Daesh to secure whatever arms and air support they deem necessary to combat Daesh. Most of the Left seem totally unwilling to concede this vital point.

    Elsewhere however the situation is chaotic to say the least . Unfortunately in Iraq the Iraqi government is a deeply sectarian Shia grouping – which has driven its Sunni minority into Daesh’s arms – and is utterly dependent on indisciplined , sectarian, Shia militias whose behaviour towards the Sunni minority population (who provide the support base for Daesh), is almost as brutal as Daesh itself.

    In Syria the Assad government is an Alawite minority-based hereditary family murderous dictatorship – which has killed waaaaay more Syrian so far than Daesh.

    The Turkish government have been blatantly supporting and sponsoring Daesh from day one as a proxy army in its proxy war with its regional rivals Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Iran. Daesh could not survive without access to Turkish/Saudi oil sales outlets, and arms supplies. And Likewise Iran and Russia are deeply engaged in supporting the Shia/Alawite side in this complex regional power struggle for their own regional imperialist reasons.

    So , will a few Brimstone missiles, from a mere handful of UK Tornadoes and Typhoons make any difference to sorting out this absolute quagmire, and stop the rape and enslavement of women and pretty generalised mass murder, by Daesh, and many other factions ? I don’t think so. Until the UK (and USA, France, etc,) get to grips with the huge support from Turkey/Gulf States for Daesh, the poisonously sectarian Shia Iraqi government’s oppression of its large Sunni minority, and of course the continued existence of the murderous Russian client Assad regime on an unreformed basis – there is no solution – only an ever greater spiral into ever widening regional mayhem.

    So, Stewart, my position is not actually identical to Corbyn. I do support the Western powers giving the secular, women’s rights supporting, nonsectarian, Kurds whatever support they require. Beyond that though, just ramping up a bit more bombing (most Western fighter bombers at present simply can’t find any suitable targets), purely for cosmetic display, will do nothing – until the Western powers get to grips with Daesh’s Turkish and Saudi sponsors – and cut a deal with Russia to dump their client, Assad – for some , no doubt unsatisfactory, but acceptable, transitional new government in Damascus.

    A long, and complex answer, but then it’s a deeply historically embedded and currently fiendishly complex problem.

    1. David Ellis says:

      Just another lefty playing big power politics. Why don’t you get a job with the Foreign Office and forget about being a socialist? The Arab Spring was betrayed by the West and the degenerate Western left who support Putin and Assad and that is all you need to know. Everything else is just a carve up. As for this moron Stewart save your hysteria for Daily Mail on-line. The ultimate winners from aerial bombing in Syria will be exactly the same as they are in Iraq: ISIS and Tehran.

      1. John Penney says:

        So “all (all ?) we need to know is that the Arab Spring was betrayed by the West and the degenerate Western Left who supported Putin and Assad”, David Ellis ? Dearie me, what a slogan-ridden, simplistic, little ideological world you exist in. Why don’t you do a bit of wider reading, David , then you wouldn’t come across so laughably whenever you do your so predictable trolling thing.

        1. David Ellis says:

          Fuck off.

        2. gerry says:

          Now children – play nicely! Or its the naughty step for you…

  18. Andrew Anderson says:

    What is a “0.5% contact rate”?

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      The contact rate is the percentage of people in the constituency for whom the party has a record of voting preference. Actually, Mark Ferguson, former editor of LabourList, reported it as having been as low as 0.2% but let’s just call it nearly no canvassing at all from the man who inspired the creation of the Movement for Change. Impressive!

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