The speech

Chris Prendergast
December 9, 2015
Source: Flickr Creative Commons.

As the 10 hour or so succession of pennyworths droned to its  pre-ordained conclusion, suddenly a flash of gold appeared in the  parliamentary firmament, rocketing straight to the top of the political  hit parade and finding pride of place in the 10 ‘best speeches’  extracted from the flow by the Guardian’s rolling coverage of the  debate. No surprise then that the commentariat found itself reaching for  the pseudo-counterfactual: what would that other great parliamentary  orator, Tony, have made of it? Not of course Tony Blair (presumably  thrilled by the intervention from the Labour M.P who followed him into  the lobby in 2003), but the other one, the paternal Tony. Clearly there  was lots of  psychobabble fun to be had on this front. One commentator  saw in the speech a laying to rest of the ghost of the Father. Many  spoke of fatherly ‘pride’. Someone wrote of ‘genes’, a kind of  biological transmission of oratorical skills such that Benn père would have recognized himself, mirror-like, in the brilliance and panache of Benn fils.  Alex Salmond’s less reverential thought (Tony Benn  would have been  turning – ‘burling – in his grave) elicited from granddaughter Emily a  peremptory demand for retraction, somewhat silly really given that, in  light of everything we know about Tony Benn’s politics, Salmond’s  counterfactual has to be by far the most plausible.

For the most part the riotous dance of conditional perfect and  subjunctive mood around the father-son relation is of course just so  much media hype. ‘Coulda, woulda, shoulda, three blind mice’  muses  Sabbath in the Philip Roth novel. On the whole best avoided, at least in  this sort of context. If you can’t predict the future, it’s even  trickier when the future is also the past. Nevertheless the whole  business has sparked a couple of ‘would have’s’ of my own. My  stepmother, for some years the parliamentary secretary of Labour MP,  Joan Maynard, knew Tony Benn well and worked with him in numerous  political causes. My father knew him less well, though they met a couple  of times in connection with International Brigade memorial business. I  have the clearest sense imaginable what my father, after having  recovered (from throwing up), would have said of Hilary Benn’s wickedly  dishonest invoking of the Brigaders to justify siding with Cameron’s  proposal to bomb Raqqua.

Naturally, Benn went through the motions of gently chiding the prime  minister (naughty boy to have called that decent, principled man, Jeremy  Corbyn, a ‘terrorist sympathizer’, he really should man up and say  ‘sorry’). Equally naturally, he stopped short of drawing the obvious  conclusion: Cameron’s gutter discourse renders him unfit to lead and he  should step down forthwith. But then how could he say that about the  Tory prime minister with whom a few minutes later he was declare his  solidarity while turning his back on his own leader? A nimble pirouette,  but as nothing alongside the bold manoeuvre, as if in a kind of  Doppelgänger ballet, of turning his back on himself. In a published  interview just over two weeks previously, but after the attacks in  Paris, Benn opined that there should be no bombing of Isis before a  Syrian political settlement, a view the Commons speech consigned to the  trash can (fast mover, our Hilary). It seems that now we simply can’t  ‘wait’ after all, certainly no time to be debating the question of  numbers, breezily dismissed (‘whatever the number—70,000, 40,000,  80,000’) after the manner of those who have the power to decide to go to  war but do not themselves fight in it. There was a tiny bone for the  dissenters, a crafted display of decorous litotes on the key military  question the skeptics raised again and again, above all from the Tory  hero of the day, John Baron: Cameron of course must ‘explain more’ what  he means by the militarily meaningless 70000 available ground troops,  but in the meantime let’s get on with it; what exactly is to be  ‘explained’ now a mere footnote. ‘It’ here equals ‘bit’ (‘doing our bit’  Benn’s dad’s army’s way with British fortitude, as the quietly modest  counterpart to the general invasion of Pentagon-speak, what with  ‘degrade’, ‘collateral damage’ and ‘boots on the ground’ popping up now  all over the place). I’m not sure which is the worse form of euphemistic  blandness, though absolutely sure counterfactually that had the  Guardian instead compiled a list of the 10 worst speeches of the night,  Benn’s should have to have been the outright winner for sheer  intellectual sloppiness and disingenuousness.

However, self-contradiction, non sequitur and a wantonly cavalier way  with the basic issues proved no impediment to the majestic flow of the  ‘impassioned’, at least for those primed for rapture. Thus, we must  ‘stand with’ our ally, France, not least because they have asked us to.  Does Benn not recall President Chirac’s creditable refusal, when  explicitly asked, to ‘stand with’ Britain and the U.S. in 2003?

‘If we do not act, what message will that send about our  solidarity with those countries that have suffered so much, including  Iraq and our ally, France? France wants us to stand with it, and  President Hollande, the leader of our sister Socialist party, has asked  for our assistance and help.’

That’s certainly a handsome offer in the ‘internationalist’ spirit,  but only if we bracket the stomach-churning reference to the ‘suffering’  of Iraq and forget what he clearly has forgotten or suppressed (his own  complicity in the chain of events that brought that suffering about).  This is the moral swagger of the morally illiterate. As for France,  well, that’s more likely to raise a belly laugh or two in certain  quarters. Remember the instant renaming on the cafeteria menus of the  U.S. House of Representatives of ‘French fries’ as ‘Freedom fries’. Not  much fraternité there, apart from supplying Freedom fries with a  lexical brother (‘French toast’ became ‘Freedom toast’). Meanwhile back  in France, and talking of great speeches, let’s not forget Dominique de  Villepin’s extraordinary performance at the U.N. explaining and  defending France’s refusal to join the war. The accolade it received  across the entire National Assembly in Paris reduces Benn’s standing  ovation to a whimper. It has been described – by an American commentator  – as an address that ‘remains today a benchmark speech in international  politics’. So I do wonder what certain readers of the Sunday Telegraph,  a paper that heaped contumely on ‘cowardly’ France in 2003, made of the  appearance in its pages a few days after the Commons vote of a piece by  the journalist , Edouard Tréteau of Les Echos, with the  headline: ‘Merci, mes amis. Britain is a true friend to France’. On the  other side of the pond, that American friend of Freedom, the  unbelievable Mr Trump took a different fraternal tack, with the cowboy  view that it would have been better if France reinvented a yankee  version of the Citizens’ Army; if everyone had a gun, they could take  out the terrorists before the latter took out them. Such are the bonds  of ‘solidarity’.

The jewel in the chutzpah crown, however, breathtaking in its  insolently cynical appropriation, was the appeal to ‘internationalism’  by way of the example of the ‘ socialists, trade unionists and others  [who] joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against  Franco’.[1] At  this point in the TV replay swivel to the wisely nodding heads on the  benches opposite. How wonderfully and generously ecumenical a place the  Commons can be! And where is the fulcrum in which the International  Brigade, trade unionists and the Conservative union-hating right can  meet? The fight against ‘Fascism’. This is the crux of the Bennian (for  obvious reasons not ‘Bennite’) justification for dropping bombs in  Syria:

‘We are faced by fascists—not just their calculated  brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one  of us in this Chamber tonight and all the people we represent’

Cameron seems to prefer the term ‘medieval’, capable of great  barbarism to be sure, crusading Christian Europe a vivid example,  Christ’s metaphor ‘I come not to bring peace but a sword’ literalised  with spectacular abandon. Along with enslaving, for both labouring and  sexual purposes (the aged and the infirm discarded on the pile of  corpses), maiming, disfiguring, burning, impaling, there was also a nice  line in cannibalism, with a strong preference for the flesh of young  children. And oh yes, I nearly forgot, beheadings on a grand scale. Ring  any bells? Cameron’s advisors should whisper a little history in his  good Christian ear before he next trots out the adjective ‘medieval’.

Benn doesn’t use ‘medieval’. He uses ‘fascist’, but uselessly.  ‘Fascism’ properly describes a specific set of largely  twentieth-century, semi-secular movements primarily concentrated in  mainland Europe. Isis is a Sunni fundamentalist movement, the convulsive  ideological offspring of the eighteenth-century Wahabi revivalist  movement within Islam. I cannot think of any serious historian or  political scientist who is going to get us from Mein Kampf to an interpretation of the Koran.  Mind you, it seems to have done the trick for Stella Creasy, who told  her constituents and the world (aka the media) that she had converted to  the bombing party after hearing Benn’s speech, which ‘persuaded me that  fascism should be defeated’, an insight of staggering novelty and well  worth waiting for; it will live forever in the annals. At a stroke, a  word that once meant something is drained of meaning. Isis, no thinking  person disagrees, is unimaginably cruel and violent. But ‘fascist’ is  not a word that makes any analytical sense of it at all, unless it’s  taken to mean that any movement or regime that goes in for rape,  torture, murder, violation of human rights and systematic cultural  destruction qualifies for the description. In which case vast swathes of  human history and endless chapters in the tale of man’s inhumanity to  man fit the definition.

Cameron’s way with history, though reckless, is almost certainly  unreflecting (’medieval’ simply means gruesome). Benn’s way is also  reckless, but calculated, a deliberate ploy to woo, or perhaps more  accurately outflank, the Left. ‘Fascism’, ‘Spain’, ‘International  Brigade’, these were hot buttons to hit though with nothing remotely  coherent appearing on the screen. But then this sorry debacle was never  about what anything actually means. It was (and is) about political  jostling and the pursuit of agendas. It’s the leadership, stupid. First,  the continuation by other means of the get Corbyn campaign. If you  think Cameron plumbed the depths with his ‘terrorist sympathisers’  remark, think again; he’s been outdone by an unnamed shadow cabinet  member who has been doing the media rounds accusing Corbyn of setting up  dissident Labour MPs as targets for home grown jihadists. Mccarthyism  in spades. In the meantime, the Tory press lavishes praise on the  leader-in-waiting, a future prime minister no less. Benn himself went  for a truly devious above-the-fray gesture of prime-ministerial  magnanimity, courteously dishing out compliments to speeches by the  ‘right hon’ this and the ‘hon’ that on both sides of the argument. The  whole point of it, however, was what wasn’t on the list, his leader’s speech. Nice chap and all that, but of no consequence. Bye, bye Jeremy, you don’t count; I do.

In this context, ‘Fascism’ was just a handy term, useful for pedigree  as Benn marched full-on into the Cameronian embrace, and evocations of  the Spanish civil war mere cover for supporting a high-precision  reenactment of Guernica. Really? Guernica? Surely not? This operation is  precisely high-precision, not at all the same thing.  That is true, but  not so fast. ‘Guernica’ here has two referents. There’s Picasso’s  mural, whose infamous fate in the halls of the UN (the very body Benn  claims has provided ‘legal’ cover for the operations he endorses) is  worth recalling. A tapestry reproduction has hung on the wall just  outside the Security Council chamber since 1985 when it was donated by  Nelson Rockefeller. However on February 5, 2003 it was covered up. This  was the date of Secretary of State, Colin Powell’s presentation to the  Security Council defending another bombing campaign (the one Benn also  signed off on, in Iraq). Since the TV cameras filmed the walls as  diplomats came and went to and from the chamber, it was well to avoid  this iconic image appearing on television screens around the world.

And Guernica itself, the Basque village? Here is the deepest and most  hideous irony of all. On Monday April 26 at Franco’s behest, the  fascist airforce par excellence (Hitler’s Luftwaffe) rained bombs on the  village as one of the first demonstration of what came to be known as  ’terror bombing’, wiping out, on best estimates, over one third of its  7000 population. ‘Our’ bombing is of course not like this at all.  ‘Terror bombing’ is ‘saturation’ style, and indiscriminate in its  targets. We, on the other hand, have that lovely little number,  ‘Brimstone’ (another desecration of the English language, extracted from  the Biblical idiom of hell, fire and brimstone as terms for God’s  wrath), which bypasses innocent civilians. That is indeed one of its  purposes. But official ‘collateral damage’ claims on its behalf need to  be taken with a pinch of salt. We are told that the bombing of Isis in  Iraq has so far yielded not a single ‘reported’ civilian  casualty. Given past form, we should keep a close eye on the  load-bearing capacity of that term ‘reported’. More to the point is the  element of duration. The Luftwaffe spent an afternoon dropping bombs.  According to our own government (an announcement held back until after  the Commons vote was taken), we are in for the long haul, minimum two  years. Two years? Anyone got a clear idea of what Raqqua will  look like two years down the line? The shadow of Guernica does indeed  loom over this technologically sanitized version of military action.

Naturally, none of these ironies seem to have crossed Benn’s  capacious mind. Guernica was not even the smallest of small blips on the  radar of his 1930’s Spain, nor for that matter, since the  ’Churchillian’ is also in the frame, the faintest trace of our own  terror bombing of the cities of Germany in the later stages of the WW2.  Inconvenient intrusions on moral grandeur, one supposes, and so best  confined to silence. Benn’s magisterial contribution to the question of  civilian casualties was to touch on it gingerly and above all briefly,  in the muffling tones of parliamentary civility (‘I share the concerns  that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian  casualties’), before dispatching the ‘concerns’ to a silent graveyard of  their own. If that’s all Benn can muster for probable horrors to come,  children ripped limb from limb, heads rolling in the gutter, and all the  dismembering rest, then, since the ‘concerns’ are themselves dead on  arrival, rapid conveyance to the quietude of the grave is the best place  for them.

There are other silences too in the speech. In very many of the  pro-bombing statements during the Commons debate there was much talk of  ‘shame’, the shame of doing nothing. This theme curls back onto various  moments of Benn’s speech in unsettling ways. For instance, it loops back  perversely to his comments on France. Some (Mrs Beckett, a former  Labour Foreign Secretary an example, but mostly Tories reaching  desperately for moral safety) evinced the view that it would be  ‘shameful’ if we were not to heed France’s call for assistance. Benn  seems to share that view. In which case why did he not also point out  that, on this principle, France should be ashamed of having abandoned us  in 2003? Surely virtue is indivisible. Surely at the very least France  can’t reasonably request solidarity without at the same time offering an  apology for having refused it to us.

More pertinently, it folds back onto the tendentious uses of ‘Spain’.  In addition to discreetly passing over any reference to Guernica, there  are two interrelated silences that cry out for attention. First, where  the RAF pilots are under the direct instructions of a government, the  International Brigaders were volunteers who went to Spain both  clandestinely and illegally. This is how my father made it to Spain,  from Ireland to England, then down through France and over the  Pyrenees.  They were of course – in another grim echo bouncing off  Benn’s negligent imperturbability – ‘boots on the ground’, though good  boots, as my father told me, were often hard to come by. Secondly, the  then Tory government turned its back on the Spanish Republican  government; indeed prime minister Baldwin was known to favour the Franco  military uprising, as a bulwark against ‘communism’. Much of the right  wing press was uninhibitedly pro-Franco. The official policy became one  of non-intervention, and joining the Brigade was declared to be illegal  (guilty – another incredible echo – of joining a ‘foreign army’).

And so the ironies proliferate on and on, filling and overwhelming  the irredeemable vacuity of the Benn speech. The silences lie coiled in  the heart of darkness that is the truth of its reach for the moral high  ground, like bombs ready to blow the ‘argument’ out of the intellectual  desert it inhabits. Do we have any reason to believe that any of this  occurred to Benn as he stood before the Tory benches bellowing their  approval, the prime minister sleekly beaming gratitude, the ‘patriotic’  press at the ready to blaze their dithyrambic headlines across the front  page, and more generally the HB love-in gathering pace? Did it not  occur to him for one moment that, on the matter of the Spanish Civil  War, the predecessor Conservative government to that whose embrace he  was now receiving, should have been mentioned as something the entire  nation should be, yes, ashamed of? Did it not occur to him that his own  manipulative editing of the past – the evasions, the suppressions, the  distortions – were themselves a shameful crime of both commission and  omission against historical memory? Or does he simply know no shame?  It’s the duty of all of us who have some connection with the memory of  1930s Spain to speak out against this cheap exploitation of the dead. It  is what my father would have wanted. What Benn’s father would have  wanted, I can surmise, but leave that one for his son to wrestle with.  It doesn’t look as if it will be detaining him for long; Benn junior has  other fish to fry.

We can, I suppose, be grateful for small mercies: at least there was no reprise in the speech of No pasarán! That  would have been the last straw, though consistent with a key feature of  the speech nagging at the edge of consciousness but overlooked, anger  at the traducing of what my father thought he was fighting for in Spain  getting in my way. A final counterfactual might have it that, had  Dolores Ibárruri’s famous rallying cry crossed his lips, it would have  shown conclusively what is obvious to any dispassionate listener: just  how immature and juvenile the performance was, as if stutteringly  time-machined back to the school Debating Society. Master Benn has the  floor.


[1]  Mind You, The Stop The War Coalition Managed To Outclass Benn’s  Ineptitude With A Truly Hair-raising Statement In An Online Article  (Since Taken Down): ‘benn Does Not Even Seem To Realise That The  Jihadist Movement That Ultimately Spawned Daesh [Isis] Is Far Closer To  The Spirit Of Internationalism And Solidarity That Drove The  International Brigades Than Cameron’s Bombing Campaign.’ With Friends  Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

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Chris Prendergast