It would seem that, having led his party to multiple unpredicted victories before having the grace to fall on his sword when he failed to clear the final hurdle of the Independence Referendum, the political death of His Eckness has been greatly exaggerated. He was never likely to leave politics entirely. But, unlike Ted Heath, whose eminence grise may have haunted Thatcher but soon faded from public perception, Alex Salmond makes much too good copy to let him go gently into any such good night.
And so it was this week that, freed from the constraints of leadership (even of the third-largest MP group at Westminster) he flashed back into headlines both sides of the border with pithy commentary on the debate over adding bombing of Da’esh in Syria to that already underway in Iraq. That debate drew memorable speeches from a number of members, as well as the usual collection of toe-curlers. But the one that will sit best among Westminster’s hefty panoply of ‘history made eloquent’ came from Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn.
Had the speech been against the bombing, the story would end there. But, despite due deference being paid to his anti-war leader Jeremy Corbin, Hilary came down emphatically on the war side of the debate.
Having carved a political career for himself that owes little to his more famous father, it was perhaps inevitable that comparisons between the two would be drawn—especially as Tony made a typically blistering attack on the idea of bombing Saddam’s Iraq when things were leading up to Gulf War II in 1998. Describing Hilary’s speech on LBC Radio “Leading Britain’s Conversation”, Alex said;
(Hilary) “was batting a good wicket, with adoring Labour behind him and enthusiastic Tories in front. The buttons he pressed were appealing to Labour’s internationalism, the United Nations, the Spanish Civil War…but I’ll tell you this: his father, whose speech I heard in the Iraq debate all those years ago, would be birling in his grave hearing a speech supporting a Tory Prime Minister taking his country to war.”
Cue outrage among Labour chatterati that members of their Patrician elite could betray Labour principles, let alone each other. Prominent among them was the third generation—Emily Benn, Hilary’s niece and Tony’s granddaughter, demanded an apology from the former first minister, saying on Twitter: “Your comments are both deeply offensive and simply untrue. I hope you reflect and retract them.”
The Daily Record reported others leaping to Hilary’s defence. Labour’s lonely MP Ian Murray accused the SNP politicians of “dreadful behaviour”, claiming “This is too important an issue to play petty politics with“. But is this dreadful behaviour? Do the collective ladies protest too much? At what point does any politician—let alone a patrician dynasty—become such a revered shibboleth and immune from comment? This is democracy; it’s called debate.
No student of British politics can avoid Tony Benn. He gave up a peerage for a cabinet post in Wilson’s government and waxed lyrical over the ‘white heat of technology’ that was to power Britain out of its grey gas-fired black-and-white miasma that passed for post-war prosperity.”One of the few UK politicians to have become more left-wing after holding ministerial office“, he was a constant rallying point for the Left.
Benn stood against Denis Healey, the party’s incumbent deputy leader, triggering the 1981 Deputy Leadership election, disregarding an appeal from Michael Foot to either stand for the leadership or avoid inflaming party schisms. Fully supportive of Labour’s “Longest Suicide Note in History” that led to their 1983 GE nadir, he symbolically lost his seat. All this is not to denigrate Tony Benn, but to underscore that, eloquent, principled and passionate though he was, he (unlike his son) could in no way be called mainstream, even in the Labour Party.
Add in the fact that successive generations often establish their identity by reaction against what went before, and it’s mostly whips and others tholed to blind party discipline who would finesse honest democratic differences and decry those who would discuss them. There is no evidence Tony was ever other than proud of his son, a pride unshaken by their embracing differing threads within the Labour movement. But Salmond was simply articulating what anyone—whether in Labour or not—might have said when any media were out of earshot.
What this debate ought to have been about was Hilary’s speech itself. Memorable and well delivered as it was, it did signify a major shift from a anti-war stance that he had held and advocated as recently as two weeks earlier. It would appear the Paris bombings may have changed his mind. But there is much more than that deserving analysis.
Autonomy Scotland has done a thoughtful and provocative filleting of the speech: “Benn’s oratory was articulate and impassioned (but) the substance of what he conveyed was insubstantial. Although France is a great country and a great ally, the much trumpeted idea that we must bomb by their side is idiotic.” It then goes on to posit a sensible metaphor for the situation.
“There is more than one way to help a friend. For instance when my friend came round to my house one night agitated after having his car windows smashed in, I didn’t acquiesce to his request to join him in a bloody quest for vengeance. Instead, I sat him down, poured him a drink and talked some sense into him. He thanks me now as he appreciates not being in prison. This is the type of approach we need to adopt with our allies.”