Soaring Oratory in the British Parliament
The soaring oratory of Tony Benn in defense of airstrikes against Syria harks back to the days when such speech making mattered. References for the material below and another perspective appears here.
So there will be another war. Last night, the House of Commons decided, by 397 votes to 223, to carry out airstrikes in Syria. After the result had been announced, after the morbid spectacle as hundreds of overstuffed suits cheered the news that people would shortly be dying at their hands, the Speaker and a few MPs congratulated each other on an orderly and decorous debate, on being sensible and well-mannered as they discussed whether or not to throw dynamite at people from out of the sky. We will bomb Syria, not because it’ll make anything better, but for purely symbolic and autotelic reasons: to be seen to be bombing, to kill for the sake of having killed. (Who else behaves like this?) So it’s not surprising that as the eternal war continues to spin out forever, all anyone wants to talk about is how great Hilary Benn’s speech was.
During the debate, Hilary Benn MP, son of the great socialist campaigner Tony Benn, delivered a 14-minute speech in which he defied Jeremy Corbyn to express his support for an air war in Syria, and seemingly everyone agrees that it was wonderful, statesmanlike stuff. He might be endorsing a thousand years of blood and slaughter, but what great rhetoric.
The reviews are pouring in, as if this were a West End musical instead of the overture to a massacre. “Truly spellbinding”, the Spectator gushes. “Fizzing with eloquence”, gurgles the Times. “Electric”, gloops the Guardian. The Telegraph‘s Dan Hodges, who can reliably be called upon to provide the worst possible opinion at any given time, goes further. “He did not look like the leader of the opposition,” he writes. “He looked like the prime minister.”
But none of this is true. It is, however, a very convenient stance for those who see failure to drool at the prospect of an aerial bombardment as an unpardonable offence, and something that they hope to turn into fact by constant repetition.
Hilary Benn’s speech was not the masterstroke of a consummate statesman; it was disingenuous nonsense. Even on the level of pure rhetoric: he imitated better speakers by occasionally varying his tone, rising from a sincere whisper to tub-thumping declamation without much regard for the actual content of what he was saying; this is now apparently what passes from great oratory. The speech was liberally garnished with dull clichés: “clear and present danger”, “safe haven”, “shoulder to shoulder”, “play our part”, “do our bit”. He said “Daesh” a lot, and mispronounced it every time.
As if the self-image of the British state were worth a single innocent life.
And then there’s what he actually said. Hilary Benn has form here: he voted for the 2003 war in Iraq (making him far more responsible for the rise of Isis than some of the people who will die in the airstrikes he’s so passionately promoting) and the disastrous 2011 air war in Libya. Much of his speech is familiar invocation of the just war doctrine: laying out the brutality of Isis, as if the eight British jets we’re sending could put an end to it; asking “what message would [not acting] send?”, as if the self-image of the British state were worth a single innocent life.
But along the way Benn made a few comments that were really startling, both callous and clunky. He mentioned the inevitability of civilian casualties only once. “Unlike Daesh”, he said, “none of us today act with the intent to harm civilians. Rather, we act to protect civilians from Daesh, who target innocent people.” Well, that’s fine then. As if our sincere good wishes mean anything when we’re lobbing bombs at a city from 30,000 feet.
He declared that the United Nations had been founded because, “we wanted the nations of the world working together to deal with threats to international peace and security,” rather than with the goal of abolishing wars altogether – wars like the one Hilary Benn MP helped start in 2003, which led to the one he helped start last night.
He gave a strange sort of credence to David Cameron’s absurd claim that there are 70,000 ground troops in the Syrian opposition ready and waiting to help Britain defeat Isis – while admitting that it’s simply not true, he insisted that, “whatever the number, 70,000, 40,000, 80,000,” their existence requires us to act now. Maybe there are a million, he may as well have said. Maybe there’s just one.
All of this was followed by a truly cackhanded coda. Addressing his colleagues in the Labour party, Benn said:
“We are here faced by fascists. […] And 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 and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It is 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’s a very strange comparison to make, especially as he aligns himself with a Tory war. During the Spanish Civil War, thousands of British left-wingers did indeed join up to fight against the fascists, but Benn’s new friends weren’t great supporters of the effort. George Orwell writes in The Lion and the Unicorn of the “frightening spectacle of Conservative MPs wildly cheering the news that British ships, bringing food to the Spanish Republican government, had been bombed by Italian aeroplanes.”
The British government choosing to attack a city halfway across the world for no good reason and to no great effect doesn’t have much in common with the heroism of the thousands who travelled to Spain, volunteering their lives against fascism. But there are other analogues. During the Spanish Civil War, the first mass aerial bombardment of a population centre was carried out by German and Italian pilots over the Basque town of Guernica. The town itself had little military importance; it’s possible the fascists committed their slaughter their just to see what their weapons could do. Up to 300 people died as they tried to go about their lives; the town was almost entirely destroyed. Afterwards, the massacre inspired a painting by Pablo Picasso, Guernica; a copy hangs in front of the General Assembly of the United Nations, put there to remind the delegates of the consequences of war. Clearly, as Hilary Benn’s speech shows, it isn’t working.