Thursday, 3 December 2015

Hilary Benn's Appalling Speech

It 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 - 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. This 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 there 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 were. 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.


David Timoney said...

Benn made three claims: Daesh are Fascist; the Labour party opposed Fascism in Spain; UK airstrikes were instrumental in stopping Daesh advancing on Baghdad.

Daesh (or whatever you prefer to call them) are not Fascists. To use this term so loosely is to denude it of all meaning beyond “really bad”, to the point that Benn sounded like Neil from The Young Ones. Fascism is always fundamentally nationalist. Daesh are religious sectarians who reject the very concept of the nation state. They may well be evil fuckwits, but this alone does not make them Fascist.

Labour adopted a policy of non-intervention in Spain in 1936, much to the chagrin of the party rank and file who wanted military aid for the Republican government. As Mussolini and Hitler were busy arming Franco, this meant a de facto advantage to the Nationalists. The party changed the policy in October 1937, following pressure from the membership (achieved without Twitter “bullying”), but by then it was too late for the Republic.

Benn claimed that airstrikes in Syria would be worthwhile because those conducted in Iraq had stopped Daesh short of Baghdad. Daesh stopped at the de facto border between the Sunni and Shia populations, which happens to lie to the west of Baghdad. They had no interest in going further as their aim was to be seen as the protector of Iraqi Sunnis against Shia persecution. UK airstrikes were irrelevant to this.

I'd question your assumption that Benn made a "good speech". Even looked at in terms of its rhetorical skill, it was no great shakes, though as you note, the bar is set pretty low in the modern Commons. The speech was mendacious, misleading and borderline hysterial. As such, it was a pretty accurate representation of the current mentality of the Labour right.

Boffy said...

Its symptomatic of the bankruptcy of British bourgeois politics. They have got used to all spin and no knickers, to paraphrase an old saying. George Orwell would have found it all to familiar as "Newspeak", of politicians who can, will and do say anything in order to defend the indefensible.

The media, and those career politicians in the Westminster bubble are more concerned about whether you are a celebrity, that is good for copy, or whether you can provide good sound bites that will fill a few minutes of air-time every fifteen minutes on the news channel than that what you actually say having any meaning, or actually being based on facts and rational argument.

We've seen it before at similar points in history. I understand that Adolph Hitler, and Joseph Goebbels did a good turn in speechyfying, and rallying the assembled, so too did Mussolini, with all the attendant body postures. In Britain, Oswald Mosely was able to rose a crowd, and stir up his Parliamentary colleagues, whether he was addressing them from the Labour benches, or from those of the New Party. In fact, good speechyfying, to get other peoples sons to go to be slaughtered seems a common factor, as that other well-known butcher and antisemite, Winston Churchill was reputed to have a good turn of phrase too, though they were all probably written for him by someone else, and many on radio delivered by someone else, as he was generally too pissed to talk coherently anyway!

In terms of content, Benn's speech was garbage. Though the use of such terms is probably enough to get you expelled by the Blair-Bennites today, as their recently found thin skins, and sensibilities means that such a comment is apparently bullying, though they seemed to have issued much worse threats to the left, and people like Peter Tatchell in the past, without much concern.

Benn didn't seem to understand that the International Brigade went to fight not just AGAINST fascism, but for the working-class, and Republican government, and they went not as representatives of the British State, which was effectively backing the opposition to that government, but as representatives of the global labour movement! Part of the problem in Syria, is precisely the question of exactly who it is that British forces are going to support in Syria. Benn has simply swallowed the idea of the existence of the Bogus Batallions, and its difficult to believe that he is that stupid!

If Britain wanted to contribute to stopping war in Syria, the first thing would be to stop all of the British jihadis and their families going to Syria to carry out terrorist attacks. There have been thousands of terrorist attacks carried out by British jihadis, like London born Jihadi John, in Syria. It is Syria that has a problem with British terrorists, not vice versa. If bombing is the answer, then Benn should be supporting bombing of the places where those jihadis are based, in London and other British cities, or in similar cities across Europe, where the jihadi equivalent of the International Brigades have emanated from.

But, that perhaps would not have gone down too well in his speech!

Speedy said...

Wow, it really got your goat! It may not surprise you that i viewed it as a welcome, and rare, reminder of what a socialist party is supposed to stand for - if it won't stand against these fascists, then what does it stand for?

I suspect the clear expression of unambiguous, un-clever values may have been too much for some people, many of whom conceal their fear behind supposedly higher values, and I too doubt what difference a few bombers will make, but when Phil, you actually consider that in reality this is a minor extension of an existing campaign - ie we are already bombing the fuckers in Iraq - I think this is much ado about nothing.

One does wonder quite what it would make for some people (and I do not necessarily include you) to respond to these fascists. I would be interested to read the rhetoric of the appeasers, on both sides of the House, before WW2. I suspect there would not be much difference to now, and if we can't stand against people who bung gays off buildings and slaughter un-wanted sex slaves, what the fuck do we stand for?

To turn your observation on its head, when you have Tory cheers for a Labour speech that unambiguously expresses Labour's socialist values, you can see how far the Left has moved from its roots.

Boffy said...

"One does wonder quite what it would make for some people (and I do not necessarily include you) to respond to these fascists. I would be interested to read the rhetoric of the appeasers, on both sides of the House, before WW2. I suspect there would not be much difference to now, and if we can't stand against people who bung gays off buildings and slaughter un-wanted sex slaves, what the fuck do we stand for? "

So you will be proposing bombing Saudi Arabia, and the other gulf states then, I assume. What about Russia helping out, by bombing the jihadists as they cross back into Turkey? Or perhaps Russia could bomb them before they get into Turkey, on their way to Syria, by bombing them as they leave London, Birmingham and Manchester.

That would really show them we were serious opponents of fascism, wouldn't it?

Speedy said...

Boffy, on what side do you think Orwell would have voted?

Boffy said...


I think that Orwell would have looked at the facts, and asked the question who exactly is it that I am being asked to support, and would have concluded that bombing would undoubtedly make things worse.

But, I can't speak for Orwell, and we'll never will, so its a bit of a pointless question. However, the questions I put to you, are not pointless, and you can answer for yourself, so I would be glad to hear whether you will be calling for the bombing of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and so on, and supporting the right of Russia to bomb other countries in the name of destroying jihadists and so on.

Perhaps too, Putin might be glad of the precedent set once again, so as to be able to defend his own bombing of terrorists and fascists across the border in Ukraine, if national sovereignty no longer has any meaning.

Igor Belanov said...


Which of the many guises of Orwell are we talking about? Pacifist, anti-imperialist, socialist, nationalist, anti-socialist, collaborator with the security services? He changed his own mind more often than he changed his socks.

David Timoney said...

To be against UK airstrikes in Syria does not make one an appeaser, nor does it mean opposition to other measures that might militarily defeat Daesh. Casting the argument in terms of appeasement/confrontation or pacifism/defence is to let the government off the hook by failing to address the strategic and tactical weaknesses of their plan.

Strategically, the quickest way to defeat Daesh would be to allow Turkey to deploy its armed forces in Syria and Iran to do likewise in Iraq. This isn't going to happen because of political impediments, specifically the Saudi (and by extension US/UK) opposition to any extension of Iranian influence and the Russian opposition to the extension of Turkish influence.

Syria, like Iraq before it, is being trashed not because of its internal religious and ethnic divisions but because of foreign meddling. Daesh is a symptom of the current interregnum and the stalemate between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As ever, a lasting solution that either physically defeats Daesh or detaches its support will depend on a viable compromise by the regional powers.

Tactically, a few British Tornado strikes will do little to advance this. The suspicion is that the UK government is doing the bare minimum to save face internationally, its chief concerns being to keep Washington happy, gain some credit in Paris ahead of the EU negotiations, and avoid jeopardising arms deals with Riyadh. Lauding Hilary Benn's emotion is a substitute for actually giving enough of a shit about Syria.

It is meaningless to speculate how the Blessed Orwell would have voted, but we do know he was in favour of boots on the ground in Syria in 1941, ahead of the Allied takeover, specifically to deny the Axis use of the Vichy-controlled airbases. There is no evidence he took account of the interests or desires of ordinary Syrians. Given his strictures on the precision of language, I suspect he would have been reluctant to call Daesh "Fascists".

Speedy said...

Hi Boffy, well this is whataboutery, isn't it?

But since you ask, the policy team at Speedy Towers would like to see the following:

Disengagement from the Gulf States and an end to the reliance on their oil.

A peace settlement forced on Israel, with a return to its 67 borders in return for admittance to NATO. Full recognition and support for a fledgling Palestinian state.

Oh peace with Russia, and another settlement agreed. Stop being blackmailed by the totalitarians in Turkey.

Not much bombing, but until then... and btw, I don't really think bombing will achieve much either, but since the UN have called for support, as have our allies (and aren't you lot always insisting on the UN?) I suppose we may as well. I opposed Iraq and the first Syrian proposal, incidentally.

jim mclean said...

Oh God, the misuse of the term Fascist really pisses me off. Daesh are an apocalyptic cult. Also puppets whose strings lead back to the House of Saud.By the way, that was a job application from Benn.

Boffy said...


There is nothing in your list of proposals that are either a) going to happen, or b) have any bearing on the current situation, let alone provide any kind of solution for it.

"Not much bombing, but until then... and btw, I don't really think bombing will achieve much either, but since the UN have called for support, as have our allies (and aren't you lot always insisting on the UN?) I suppose we may as well. "

I don't know who "you lot" refers to, but I have absolutely no faith in the UN, and would never call on it to provide any kind of solution. It is merely a forum for the global imperialist powers, which is why on many important issues it is useless, because the conflicting interests of those powers prevent a single approach being agreed, and when such an approach can be agreed it is always a solution that is against the interests of workers.

That is why I favour the kind of approach that Benn mentioned, but then failed to advocate. In other words, that of the International Brigades. The workers in the 1930's were able to organise such action despite all of the manouvring and limitations of the Comintern. Today, the jihadists are able to organise such action, and even pacifists and others such as Medicins Frontieres are able to organise international action outside the control of capitalist states, and their global strategic interests.

As in everything else, I support the self activity and self-government of workers, organised themselves, collectively through the labour movement internationally, to provide a solution.

The problem at the moment is that in Syria, the country has been so decimated, and the working-class in any case was so weak, that there is no organised working-class of sufficient size that an international Brigade could come to assist. Nor is their any social forces, or social relations in the country capable of even sustaining a stable bourgeois democracy, which is why the whole thing from start to finish wa a dangerous adventure, egged on by external liberal forces, as happened in Libya.

Its a repeat of the Balkan Wars at the start of the last century that led up to WWI, and has every potential today of leading up to WWIII.

Speedy said...

Boffy, there are a few people going off to help the Kurds, but lets be honest - the international brigades? That was then, when people in Europe still believed in socialism and had faith in it as the answer. I don't see that much now.

Also, I think you misread the ME and the hold local culture, be it Sunni, Shia, Alawite Islam or Christianity, has on the region. You're right this is like a Balkan war, in so much as it is a medieval culture war - the people under ISIS are mainly Sunni, and as far as I understand, we underestimate their local support - they are seen as preferable to the non-Sunni Assad regime.

ISIS are about a "Sunni awakening" - they are not much interested in the rest of us, unless it is to stir up tensions, like the attack on Paris, Beirut, etc. What we should be seeing is the other Sunni nations, like Saudi and Turkey, invading and imposing a settlement - but get this, they're actually backing them and encouraging them in their assault against the rest of us. ISIS is the sharp end of their Islamist sword.

On a philosophical level this is very worrying, because deep down it says that Sunni Islam, as understood by the elites of these societies, considers itself to be antagonistic to the rest of the world. Otherwise, they would crush ISIS, as they could very easily.

I don't know the answer to this problem... paradoxically, Egypt may offer the only ray of light, which i admit is not saying much!

Boffy said...

I wouldn't disagree that much with any of the facts and assessments of the situation you have outlined. But, consequently, I cannot understand why you arrive at the conclusions you did for supporting Benn and the proposal for bombing.

If there is someone who doesn't like me too much, but is leaving me alone, and spending all their time fighting with other members of their household, I really don't see why anyone would think that it would be a good idea for me to go and throw a brick through the window of their house!

Of course, the Sunnis in Saudi and elsewhere are not going to walk in to Syria to deal with ISIS, because ISIS are in fact their irregular forces - given that Saudi also has a very small population. If Saudi and other Sunni majority states went into Syria, it would be to crush Assad, the Alawites and others to impose a Sunni confessional state. That is also the long-term aim of Neo-Ottomanism in Turkey.

The West will not seriously oppose the Sunnis in that, because a) the jihadists are useful tools for western imperialism for attacking its global strategic opponents in the Balkans, and Central Asia, b) the West is lined up against the Shia forces in the region, primarily Iran, because behind them stands its global strategic opponents Russia and China.

The religious divide is similar to that between Catholics and Protestants in Europe during the Reformation. It is undoubtedly a real ideological divide, but as with the English Civil War, it is a convenient peg upon which to hang other more material interests. In other words, there are four regional sub-imperialist powers. Iran, Saudi. Israel and Turkey.

Each is battling the other for regional dominance, but behind them stand the global imperialist powers, who are overlaying that with their own ambitions.

In which case, given the weakness of the working-class, and of the social relations that flow from that, both in the region, and within Europe and elsewhere - in the latter a subjective ideological and organisational rather than material weakness - I am at a loss to understand why any socialist would think we have a dog in this fight. In which case, sticking your hand in is likely to just get you badly bitten.

Sometimes, as Trotsky said in relation to the Balkans, the best advice that socialists can give is to stand aside, and to insist the people of the area have to sort it out amongst themselves, and to oppose any external intervention by the big powers.

The fact that the working-class in Europe and elsewhere is ideologically and organisationally weak is not a reason to not advocate the solutions required, but which require also a correction of that existing weakness. Correcting the weakness goes hand in hand with it. Workers had long lost the tactic of the flying picket until it was found again, and used extensively and effectively in the 1972 and 1974 Miners Strikes.

If someone has been ill, and off their feet for some time, the worst thing you can do is to suggest that they settle for being pushed in a wheel chair or staying in bed. Down that road leads to a permanent inability to stand up, and walk.

BCFG said...

I don’t believe that speedy has a degree and if he does then I don’t believe he is from a working class background. I certainly wouldn't take seriously anyone who thinks fascist lite UKIP are the new workers party! Corbyn’s heroic, socialist and principled stance is winning over the working class but possibly alienating some Middle class elements. Using his pro war anti war protester, pro middle class anti middle class persona speedy will manage to attack Corbyyn and big up UKIP whatever. Though by supporting UKIP but calling for holy war against the ‘fascist’ ISIS we can now call speedy the fascist anti fascist to add to his split personality list!

I suspect that in reality speedy is a disaffected BNP supporter out to wind up socialists. Well, we all need a hobby.

The line that Egypt offer the best hope made me suspicious of speedy’s motives, a military junta that kills its political opponents is the wonderful vision and best hope! You wonder what speedy could possibly have against ISIS given his best hope is a bunch of murderous military dictators!

I agree that Benn’s speech was appalling, utterly overblown, pompous and hyperbolic. If Corbyn wants serious and genuine debate he should give Benn a ticking off, because you can’t have serious debate with tub thumping speeches like this. Incidentally the claims of fascism by Benn remind me of Boffy’s and other imperialist apologist’s endless use of the word clerical fascism since Bush started the war on terror.

But it is good to see that the majority of the British public have not fallen for the propaganda of our unfree media and are beginning to see the rotten interests behind these endless wars.

A time for optimism!

Speedy said...

It's called nuance, BCFG.

Boffy, TBH I am actually ambivalent about the bombing. I don't see it as a solution, but I don't see it as "the new Iraq" as some do. In reality, that doesn't add up - considering we are already bombing ISIS in Iraq!

However, if someone is prodding you with a stick, sometimes it is not enough to ignore them or ask to be left alone. ISIS have a deliberate policy to attack the West with a view to precipitating further conflict. Unfortunately, our choice is lose/ lose. We either respond or do not, either way more of our people will die.

Just because for their own twisted reasons ISIS want to fight us, does not mean we should not fight them. Regularly, aggressors precipitate conflicts. My only real gripe this time is that we will not put boots on the ground and end it swiftly. Oh I know, Iraq etc, but a quick, ruthless campaign and a forced settlement might move things forward.

Because what have we now? ISIS are also in Afghanistan. This is a cancer that will not be stopped without radical surgery, and no amount of homeopathic treatment will make a difference.