Benn’s speech, four days on

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_BennHilary 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.



  1. That is the bit that is frustratingly missed – all that impassioned call to arms was for a bit of bully boy / show of strength bombing, not a longer term strategic plan, it’s jingoistic and depressing. “Look at me, being all British and protecting the people” – it chimes with that awful Niall Ferguson book about how imperialism was a good thing (!)

    War is big business, keeping the public afraid (and afraid of “foreigners”) is very useful. I can’t tell if the fact I can hear so many people objecting to this and protesting this is confirmation bias or a sign the public’s more clued in these days and won’t fall for it anymore..?

    On the economy piece, how does Labour get to that ‘trusted with the economy’ place, given they took so long to fight the narrative they crashed it in the first place? And don’t have good numbers people who can speak to Joe Public? I know it’s not helped by the fact very few people take left leaning economists seriously – I had a lot of rows with people during the election who’d just throw “but Venezuelans can’t afford toilet paper!” into the conversation as though that meant free market economies were the only ones that worked. A LibDem voter I know said “you should watch this guy – Friedman something or other – on youtube, such a warm man, talks great sense (??!!)”

    • Thanks for stopping by, Sam. I don’t think that the public is any less gullible than it used to be (it’s just that they are going to different sources) but Tony Blair made it so much harder for British prime ministers to take the country to war.

      But on the economy, I don’t think there is an easy way back for Labour. Ed M had his chance when he was trying to portray the market as reasonable but flawed and therefore in need of reform. The crash wasn’t Labour’s fault but it will have to take the blame for it until something worse happens. That isn’t fair, though the Tories taking the blame for Black Wednesday – when Labour would just as happily taken the overvalued pound into the ERM – wasn’t particularly fair either. Having said that, Labour can’t just wait for Osborne’s forecasts to unravel; they need to put some work in so that they are ready and waiting for the moment to arrive.

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