Hilary Benn, Syria and Authentic Socialism

Many of those who opposed its conclusions have nonetheless recognised the ‘rhetorical brilliance’ of Hilary Benn’s Commons speech supporting air strikes on Daesh strongholds in Syria. ‘Rhetoric’ in this modern-day context suggests style over substance; suspect manipulation of oratorical technique for dubious moral ends. But classically, rhetoric combines genuine emotional passion and verbal fluency with cogent argument and ethical coherence. I believe that Benn’s speech demonstrated these classical qualities richly: indeed, it was one of the finest parliamentary speeches I have heard in my lifetime. Let me explain.

Many of those who have questioned Benn’s case have done so on the ‘pragmatic’ grounds that bombing Daesh is unlikely to make us safer in the short term. Granted, this may be the hardest of all elements to determine in the whole Syria debate. But the truly incisive thing about Benn’s speech was that it nailed the double standards of so many on the left of the Labour party, in the Stop the War movement, and more generally in the ‘not in my name’ constituency. Like Nick Cohen in his book What’s Left? and in Cohen’s more recent articles, Benn skewered the hypocrisy of those self-professed socialists who claim the moral high ground in suggesting that ‘violence breeds violence’ as a general ethical principle while in fact only really condemning violence they deem to be ‘ideologically unsound’.

Today I spent time with a couple of unconditional, out-and-out Christian pacifists from the Bruderhof. I don’t agree with their outlook, yet I utterly respect their consistency. But Corbyn and the majority of his followers are not in this category: they’re, at best, selectively pacifist. Corbyn has been an apologist for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His new director of communications, Seumas Milne, has been a welcome guest at Putin’s various propaganda forums. Corbyn and John McDonnell have defended the IRA, Hezbollah and Hamas. Ostensibly, Corbynites will assent to military action when the enemy is classically fascist, as with the Nazis of World War II. But when Benn, Cohen and others point out – correctly – that Daesh are also fascists and just as morally repugnant as the fascists against whom good British socialists fought willingly in Spain, Italy and Normandy seven or eight decades ago, it sits much more uncomfortably. Why? Because bombing Daesh could ‘make us less safe’ back here in Britain? If that’s truly the main argument of those who opposed last night’s motion, they might just as well have asserted that appeasing Hitler would have ‘made us safer’ because it would have avoided the Blitz. Again Benn made a telling point here: Labourite socialism is not a ‘Little Englander’ creed, not insular and protectionist. It’s internationalist, and one aspect of internationalism is recognising that we do not walk by on the other side just because the innocent victim battered and lying in the road happens to be battered and lying in a foreign road.

Of course, this cannot mean intervening in each and every conflict around the globe. Of course, there are judgments to be made in a fallen, imperfect, sinful world about one’s own nation’s interests, and about the protection of one’s own people. That’s one of the key responsibilities of those who govern a country. But as Benn also pointed out, it isn’t as if we’re not already bombing Daesh in Iraq, and it isn’t as if Daesh hasn’t already sought to export terror to the UK. Seven Daesh plots have been thwarted by the security services in 2015 alone. If one more such plot happens to succeed now that bombing has extended to Syria, it won’t be as if that extension will simplistically have ’caused’ the terror. The terror is already here: as Benn vividly stressed, Daesh already hate all that the British parliament, British democracy and British plurality represent; they already want to destroy it. Maybe in their deranged and twisted worldview bombing Syria as well as Iraq will give them more ‘reason’ to terrorise Britain; but are we really saying that this ‘rationale’ is to be taken as our own benchmark for deciding how best to resist their fascist death-cult?

If you want to have a debate about the sheer balance of probabilities on practical outcomes, fine. I’m prepared to look at this from a consequentialist angle – will it make us in Britain safer? But let’s not pretend that’s the whole issue here. In the long term, it’s clear that Daesh wants to build a territorial empire – caliphate as Reich – and insofar as that represents a pretty traditional fascist threat it can be met effectively by bombing, and maybe, if necessary, by ground troops. The more ‘globalised’ or ‘postmodern’ exportation of terror in atrocities such as occurred in Paris is a newer sort of fascist threat, and by its nature will need to be resisted more by counter-terrorist intelligence and security than by army and air force units. It will also, of course, need more gradually to be addressed through sanctions, education, community work and integration. Too much of the debate thus far has proceeded as if these two sets of solutions to these two very different forms of fascism are mutually exclusive; they are not, and Hilary Benn was right to say that they are not.

I don’t for a moment pretend that any of this is straightforward. But I cheered Benn in my home along with so many others in the Commons last night not because of his phrasemaking, skilled though it was. I cheered because he reminded his own party that authentic Labour values have never and should never collude with the kind of self-satisfied virtue signalling that too often these days passes for socialism. ‘Not in my name’ might be a catchy slogan, but in keeping with much supposedly left wing morality right now, it seems too often to be more about ‘me’, ‘my identity’ and ‘my ideological purity’ than about the genuine wellbeing of the other.


One thought on “Hilary Benn, Syria and Authentic Socialism

  1. Thanks David. I think that’s an excellent, incisive and bold piece. The arguments of this particular niche of the left are hypocritical and misrepresent much of the traditional left in this country. The Denis Healy’s that were beachmasters at Normandy, the scores of working class men conscripted to fight Hitler, knew that it is not compassionate to allow despotic evil to spread. Pacifism is a red herring here, as are the strategic concerns about how effective bombing will be (valid concerns as they are). Even if it’s proved to Corbyn etc that Daesh are fascists, the hypocrisy and ulterior reasoning remains. Perhaps those who oppose imperialism are ok? Perhaps those who have been oppressed are to be left alone? What are Corbyn’s criteria for an enemy to be worth bombing? As Benn pointed out, Daesh are as horrific as the Nazi’s, intent on smashing western democracy, and even by Corbyn’s selective pacficism, as necessitating a military response as anyone we’ll ever fight.

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