Hilary Benn is no leader

6 Dec

Benn’s Syria speech hailed as one of the finest in the Commons since WWII, screamed the Daily Mail in its kicker for an Andrew Pierce piece whose following line ran: Bookmakers have installed him as favourite to succeed Jeremy Corbyn. Not to be outdone by Rothermere, the Barclay Brothers’ Telegraph went with ‘speech of a true leader‘. Subtle or what?

Blairite Martin Kettle offers more nuanced fawning in the Grauniad. Benn was ‘riveting on the night’ and ‘still compelling in the cold light of morning’. The speech, Kettle assures us, ‘was calm and without pomposity … [leading] unerringly to a climactic argument – that the right thing to do in Syria is to stand up to Islamic State’s fascism’. I’ll come to my own ‘cold light’ analysis in a moment but want first to note that Kettle, who wrote piece after Corbyn trashing piece in the leadership campaign, has a stake in seeing the man unseated. More cautious than Mail or Telegraph – mindful perhaps of Gavin Esler’s pithily Shakespearian maxim, resurrected thirty years ago for Heseltine v Thatcher, that he who wields the dagger never wears the crown – Kettle progresses from bigging up an eloquent but content-lite speech to a decorously low key appraisal of Benn’s leadership qualities.

If this chorus doesn’t carry the anticipatory ring of knives on steel, how about Maria Eagle leaning across the ‘stony faced’ Corbyn, wedged between them, to offer Benn a congratulatory hand as he sat down to applause on all sides? Call me conspiratorial but in such fleeting scenes I see a plot that’s been playing out since Paris – merging the campaign to bomb Syria with that to oust Jezza* – step momentarily from the shadows. Which, for those of my persuasion, makes Oldham’s verdict the next day so much the sweeter. Is it too much to hope that front bench heads will now roll in a New Year reshuffle? Starting with a new Shadow Defence Secretary?

But I digress. What exactly did the Shadow Foreign  Secretary say in his Churchillian speech? Buried amid analogies – spurious in ways too obvious and many to recount here – with the International Brigades who went out to fight for an elected government against Franco … and amid a detailed rhetoric of Isis evil that simply echoed the straw-man insinuation, dominating mainstream discourse, that opponents of air strikes must be Daesh’s useful idiots … I could find just three substantive points.

  1. The UN has asked us – Resolution 2249, paragraph 5: ‘all necessary measures’ to combat terrorism – to hit Isis in Syria.
  2. France has asked us too.
  3. We’re strafing Iraq, so why not Syria?

Have I missed anything? Don’t think so. Here then are my thoughts re the above.

One, even if we set aside questions of UN even-handedness, does Benn also advocate strikes on Israel for defiance of its resolutions? And how does he address his leader’s objection that, to authorise bombing Syria, 2249 would have to be passed under Chapter 7 of the UN charter: something the Security Council, which of course includes Russia and requires unanimity, could not agree on? This from Lawfare:

It appears the British government has what it needed … [from] the Council’s compromise language. Corbyn’s brief intervention aside, Cameron’s depiction of the resolution as an authorization to use force has not been challenged, and most criticisms of the government’s plan for airstrikes have been on non-legal grounds. 

Two, I’ve addressed the ‘must help our pals’ argument in other posts but will add that an emotionalism running through the entire speech takes at this point the form of an implied rebuke: have we hearts of stone that we could ignore the distress of a wounded friend in her hour of need?  (So what if she does happen to be armed to the teeth and every bit as capable as Britain of reducing Syria to rubble?)

Three, perhaps the most pernicious of arguments for Britain attacking Syria is that it makes no sense to hit Isis in Iraq while respecting a border Isis holds in contempt. For reasons also set out elsewhere I say Britain, France and the USA have no progressive role to play in the middle east, period. But since few will share this view I offer two narrower reasons for calling Benn’s third argument fallacious. First, the Iraq government requested air strikes on Isis while no such request has come from Syria, whose government has asked Russia but not, for obvious reasons, Britain, France or USA. Second, the situation in Syria is vastly more dangerous than ever it was in Iraq, for all the carnage unleashed there by Bush and Blair. In Syria we have not only a bewildering plethora of ground forces at one another’s throats, but four nuclear powers in the air. As if that wasn’t bad enough, three of the four are in an alliance predicated on “containing” the fourth. Need I spell out how dangerous this is? Or how disgracefully Uncle Sam backed Turkey’s downing of a Russian Sukhoi?

But to stop at what Benn said  lets him off the hook. There are bigger issues with what he did not  say. Specifically, he failed to identify measures far more damaging than RAF strikes on this hideous product of western venality. Measures that would be uppermost in the thinking of any alliance truly determined to crush Isis. Measures like these:

Standing up to Riyadh re its prioritisation of undermining Iran over curbing Isis.

Standing up to Ankara re its prioritisation of crushing the Kurds – and the enrichment of its political class through the fencing of Isis oil – over curbing Isis.

Ceasing British involvement in the cold war with Russia, and recognising the folly of excluding Moscow from the search for solutions in Syria: I speak here not of the Vienna charade but of real exploration with no subject forbidden a priori.

Ceasing British involvement in the cold war with Iran, and recognising the folly of excluding Teheran from the search for solutions.

My list is incomplete but will suffice. Progress on any of the above would do more to defeat this ghastly cult, now thriving on the back of turmoil and the internecine games of those who so vigorously declare themselves its mortal enemy, than any number of air strikes. Yet Hilary Benn mentioned not one of these things and for that reason alone is unfit to lead the Labour Party.

* Another aspect of the way Lets-bomb-Syria merges with Corbyn-must-go is the overegging of hate mail directed at pro-airstrike Labour MPs. We all know the left, so often consigned to impotent rage by sham democracy and billionaire press, can behave in ways both puerile and vicious. But for a hardened bruiser of Simon Danczuk’s calibre to go public with his ‘distress’ smacks not only of disproportionality – I’d reserve the D-word here for the Syrian recipients of our lethal weaponry – but of that same campaign to oust Corbyn. The more so when Danczuk speaks, without offering a shred of evidence, of a leadership that connives at such abuse. Needless to say, “our” media have been more subdued in covering Tory MP Louise Allan’s creative activities




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