Hilary Benn’s speech in the Syria debate last Wednesday provided an electric moment in the House of Commons. But, four days later we should be able to summon some perspective and identify what Mr Benn didn’t do – and what he did.
I am not convinced of the government’s case. There was much reference to France and not enough discussion about how the contradictory nature of the supposed alliance could be resolved. There is confusion about the nature and number of ground troops – the necessary follow-up to any air intervention – and their ability to act.
Hilary Benn’s speech was high on passion and short on analysis. It would not have swayed my vote. ‘We need to do our bit,’ is not the same as, ‘this is the plan’. Benn’s arguments could have been deployed to justify a massive upscaling in British activity and, indeed, having made the moral case for this surely the relatively small action passed on Wednesday is not sufficient.
But what Mr Benn has done is to restate the case for Labour interventionalism – and in a way that was widely reported throughout the country in a way I can’t remember happening for years.
Here at the cafe we believe that Labour will not achieve office until it is trusted on the economy but the party also needs to come to terms with the 1997-2010 governments. During the last campaign the party was ridiculously hamstrung by its inability to defend its record and in particular its story on the economy and on immigration. But standing behind that was Iraq.
Before 2003, Tony Blair had for years made the case for interventionalism – think of the Doctrine of the International Community in 1999. Since Iraq there has been no real attempt to pick up that baton. And within Labour Iraq has been shorthand for every Blair shortcoming. Interventions are proposed by #redtory #blairite warmongers. What Hilary Benn’s own intervention has done is to remind his own community that there is a different argument. It is an important step in the Labour party’s post-Iraq healing.