Hilary Benn’s ‘extraordinary’ speech

Benn’s speech in the Syria debate last night was met with universal adulation by the UK media. It was wildly applauded in the Commons by the Conservative benches and by Labour right wingers. Described as: ‘riveting’ and ‘compelling by Blairite fan boy Martin Kettle in the Guardian; ‘extraordinary’ (Spectator, Mirror); ‘truly historic (Sky); ‘historic’ (Telegraph); ‘rousing’ (Standard); and ‘electrifying’ (Daily Mail).

In reality what was extraordinary about it was that he was prepared to support a campaign of air strikes on the flimsiest basis and with a strong possibility of worsening the situation in order to embarrass his party leader and to support a completely clueless Prime Minister in the midst of a sub-Churchillian spasm.

Judge for yourself:


Hilary Benn speech 021215 (my comments in blue)

Thank you very much Mr Speaker. Before I respond to the debate, I would like to say this directly to the Prime Minister: Although my right honourable friend the Leader of the Opposition and I will walk into different division lobbies tonight, I am proud to speak from the same Despatch Box as him. My right honourable friend is not a terrorist sympathiser, he is an honest, a principled, a decent and a good man and I think the Prime Minister must now regret what he said yesterday and his failure to do what he should have done today, which is simply to say ‘I am sorry’.

Now Mr Speaker, we have had an intense and impassioned debate and rightly so, given the clear and present threat from Daesh, the gravity of the decision that rests upon the shoulders and the conscience of every single one of us and the lives we hold in our hands tonight. And whatever we decision we reach, I hope we will treat one another with respect.

Now we have heard a number of outstanding speeches and sadly time will prevent me from acknowledging them all. But I would just like to single out the contributions both for and against the motion from my honourable and right honourable friends the members for Derby South, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, Barnsley Central, Wakefield, Wolverhampton South East, Brent North, Liverpool, West Derby, Wirral West, Stoke-on-Trent North, Birmingham Ladywood and the honourable members for Reigate, South West Wiltshire, Tonbridge and Malling, Chichester and Wells.

The question which confronts us in a very, very complex conflict is at its heart very simple. What should we do with others to confront this threat to our citizens, our nation, other nations and the people who suffer under the yoke, the cruel yoke, of Daesh? The carnage in Paris brought home to us the clear and present danger we face from them. It could have just as easily been London, or Glasgow, or Leeds or Birmingham and it could still be. And I believe that we have a moral and a practical duty to extend the action we are already taking in Iraq to Syria. [Doesn’t follow from what precedes it] And I am also clear, and I say this to my colleagues, that the conditions set out in the emergency resolution passed at the Labour party conference in September have been met . [Have they? Doesn’t look like it to me. These were the conditions laid down by the motion:

  1. Clear and unambiguous authorisation for such a bombing campaign from the United Nations;
  2. A comprehensive European Union-wide plan is in place to provide humanitarian assistance to the increased number of refugees that even more widespread bombing can be expected to lead to;
  3. Such bombing is exclusively directed at military targets directly associated with ‘Islamic State’, noting that if the bombing campaign advocated by the British government in 2013 had not been blocked by the PLP under Ed Miliband’s leadership, ‘Islamic State’ forces might now be in control of far more Syrian territory, including Damascus.
  4. Any military action is subordinated to international diplomatic efforts, including the main regional powers, to bring the Syrian civil war to an end, since only a broadly-based and sovereign Syrian government can ultimately retake territory currently controlled by ‘Islamic State’.


We now have a clear and unambiguous UN Security Council Resolution 2249 ,[You can judge for yourself how clear and unambiguous the UN Security Council resolution is here http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/2249%282015%29 ] paragraph 5 of which specifically calls on member states to take all necessary measures [It depends on what you consider to be ‘all necessary measures’ and the full text refers to taking such ‘measures’ against both ISIL and ‘all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups’.] to redouble and co-ordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by Isil, and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria.

So the United Nations is asking us to do something. It is asking us to do something now. It is asking us to act in Syria as well as in Iraq . [All true but it doesn’t follow that that means the UN is calling for a bombing campaign. There is no specific call or even mention of air strikes against settlements where ISIL is entrenched] And it was a Labour government that helped to found the United Nations at the end of the Second World War. And why did we do so? Because we wanted the nations of the world, working together, to deal with threats to international peace and security – and Daesh is unquestionably that.

So given that the United Nations has passed this resolution, given that such action would be lawful under Article 51 of the UN Charter [You can see Article 51 here http://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/chapter-vii/index.html It’s pretty clear from the preceding Articles (especially Article 50) that it refers to responses to armed attacks by one state (or states) on another. It does not refer to pre-emptive attacks nor does it refer to responses to the actions of terrorist groups.] – because every state has the right to defend itself – why would we not uphold the settled will of the United Nations [It’s not clear that a bombing campaign is the ‘settled will’ of the UN], particularly when there is such support from within the region including from Iraq. [You know someone’s in trouble when their argument for a just war involves calling in its support ‘the region’ when ‘the region’ includes the corrupt Shia government of Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the authoritarian Egyptian and Turkish governments, the Saudi theocratic dictatorship, and the corrupt statelets of the Gulf. Other supporters of bombing ISIL would no doubt include Assad himself, Hamas and Hezbollah. It doesn’t mean that the decision is necessarily wrong but pointing to the support of ‘the region’ certainly doesn’ make it right either.] We are part of a coalition of over 60 countries , standing together shoulder-to-shoulder to oppose their ideology and their brutality.

Now Mr Speaker, all of us understand the importance of bringing an end to the Syrian civil war and there is now some progress on a peace plan because of the Vienna talks . [The ‘progress’ is extremely limited as this Economist piece shows http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21678712-part-puzzle-after-paris-syrias-peace-process-limps but more importantly, will a bombing campaign on Raqqa assist in moving the talks on or not? We get no answer from Benn] They are the best hope we have of achieving a cease-fire. That would bring an end to Assad’s bombing, leading to a transitional government and elections. And why is that vital? Both because it will help in the defeat of Daesh, and because it would enable millions of Syrians, who have been forced to flee, to do what every refugee dreams of: they just want to be able to go home.

Now Mr Speaker, no-one in this debate doubts the deadly serious threat we face from Daesh and what they do, although sometimes we find it hard to live with the reality. We know that in June four gay men were thrown off the fifth storey of a building in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor. We know that in August the 82-year-old guardian of the antiquities of Palmyra, Professor Khaled al-Assad, was beheaded, and his headless body was hung from a traffic light. And we know that in recent weeks there has been the discovery of mass graves in Sinjar, one said to contain the bodies of older Yazidi women murdered by Daesh because they were judged too old to be sold for sex.

We know they have killed 30 British tourists in Tunisia, 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane, 178 people in suicide bombings in Beirut, Ankara and Suruc. 130 people in Paris including those young people in the Bataclan whom Daesh – in trying to justify their bloody slaughter – called ‘apostates engaged in prostitution and vice’. If it had happened here, they could have been our children. And we know that they are plotting more attacks.

So the question for each of us – and for our national security – is this: given that we know what they are doing, can we really stand aside and refuse to act fully in our self-defence against those who are planning these attacks? [Listing the ISIL atrocities does not in itself justify the UK government’s approach] Can we really leave to others the responsibility for defending our national security when it is our responsibility? And if we do not act, what message would that send about our solidarity with those countries that have suffered so much – including Iraq and our ally, France. [This cynical cocktail of emotive appeals is completely dishonest as the choice is not between doing what the UK Government suggest and nothing.]

Now, France wants us to stand with them and President Hollande – the leader of our sister socialist party – has asked for our assistance [Again it does not follow that this leads to the UK Government’s bombing campaign] and help. And as we are undertaking airstrikes in Iraq where Daesh’s hold has been reduced and we are already doing everything but engage in airstrikes in Syria – should we not play our full part? [Air strikes against an attempted advance by ISIL are different to what the Government is proposing. Cameron said the purpose was to ‘go after these terrorists in their heartlands’, ‘the head of the snake in Raqqa’ and ‘It is Raqqa in Syria that is the headquarters of this threat to our security’ http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/blogs/prospector-blog/syria-debate-full-text-of-david-camerons-statement-and-key-speeches ]

It has been argued in the debate that airstrikes achieve nothing. Not so. Look at how Daesh’s forward march has been halted in Iraq. The House will remember that, 14 months ago, people were saying: ‘they are almost at the gates of Baghdad’. And that is why we voted to respond to the Iraqi government’s request for help to defeat them. Look at how their military capacity and their freedom of movement has been put under pressure. Ask the Kurds about Sinjar and Kobani. Now of course, air strikes alone will not defeat Daesh – but they make a difference. Because they are giving them a hard time – and it is making it more difficult for them to expand their territory.

Now, I share the concerns that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian casualties. However, unlike Daesh, none of us today act with the intent to harm civilians [It is not whether there is ‘intent’, rather it is about outcome and whether action taken by the UK is likely to result in harm to civilians. Does Benn really think that the terrorist planners and bomb factories, trainers and barracks will be moved into a nice clear piece of desert with a black flag that can be easily identified by RAF aircraft and bombed without risk of civilian casualties? Of course not, they are embedded among a civilian population of around 200,000]. Rather, we act to protect civilians from Daesh – who target innocent people.

Now on the subject of ground troops to defeat Daesh, there’s been much debate about the figure of 70,000 and the government must, I think, better explain that [Benn says that the government must ‘better explain’ their claims that there are 70,000 ‘moderates’ ready to take on ISIL. But in the meantime he’s obviously prepared to vote for the bombing even though the success of the air strikes rests on having ground troops to follow up. There are disputes about the numbers that exist but, perhaps more importantly, many of these are not what anyone would recognise as ‘moderate’, they are split into about 100 factions, are located at the wrong ends of the country to fight ISIL at Raqqa and are more interested in fighting Assad (or sometimes each other).] . But we know that most of them are currently engaged in fighting President Assad. But I’ll tell you what else we know, is whatever the number – 70,000, 40,000, 80,000 – the current size of the opposition forces mean the longer we leave taking action, the longer Daesh will have to decrease that number. And so to suggest, Mr Speaker, that airstrikes should not take place until the Syrian civil war has come to an end [Is anyone saying this? The real point is that there is widespread agreement that air strikes will ultimately have little effect without ground troops to push forward afterwards. This is precisely why Cameron brought up what his fellow Tory Julian Lewis called the ‘bogus battalions.’ Ghadi Sary, a Syria specialist at the Chatham House thinktank, said ‘It was oversimplified when it was said that 70,000 were waiting. It would have been better to say there are 70,000 opposed to Assad who are not radical. The idea that they would take Raqqa is overstretching it’ and ‘The maths is correct but it has been taken out of context with regard to Raqqa. There are at any point 70,000 people, but that number does not take account of geography or whether they are logistically capable of mounting an attack on Raqqa or the internal dynamics.’ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/30/70000-syrian-fighters-david-cameron-islamic-state-airstrikes ]

is, I think, to miss the urgency of the terrorist threat that Daesh poses to us and others , and I think misunderstands the nature and objectives of the extension to airstrikes that is being proposed. And of course we should take action. It is not a contradiction between the two to cut off Daesh’s support in the form of money and fighters and weapons, and of course we should give humanitarian aid, and of course we should offer shelter to more refugees including in this country and yes we should commit to play our full part in helping to rebuild Syria when the war is over. All of which could be done instead of – and would probably be more effective than – attempting to bomb the ISIL leadership in Raqqa

Now I accept that there are legitimate arguments, and we have heard them in the debate, for not taking this form of action now. And it is also clear that many members have wrestled, and who knows, in the time that is left, may still be wrestling, with what the right thing to do is. But I say the threat is now, and there are rarely, if ever, perfect circumstances in which to deploy military forces. Now we heard very powerful testimony from the honorable member for Eddisbury earlier when she quoted that passage, and I just want to read what Karwan Jamal Tahir, the Kurdistan regional government high representative in London, said last week and I quote: ‘Last June, Daesh captured one third of Iraq over night and a few months later attacked the Kurdistan region. Swift airstrikes by Britain, America and France, and the actions of our own Peshmerga, saved us. We now have a border of 650 miles with Daesh. We’ve pushed them back, and recently captured Sinjar. Again, Western airstrikes were vital. But the old border between Iraq and Syria does not exist. Daesh fighters come and go across this fictional boundary .’ [Tahir did say this and you can read the full statement here http://uk.gov.krd/articles/detail.aspx?lngnr=12&anr=37382 What Benn didn’t say was that he also said the following: ‘Sooner or later, ground troops will be needed to defeat Daesh in direct combat. We know that many British people are wary of further such intervention in Iraq or Syria but we have to say, as your allies, that some British troops could be absolutely vital for ground operations to succeed.’ It’s safe to say that including this in his speech would not have helped Benn’s cause]

And that is the argument Mr Speaker, for treating the two countries as one, if we are serious about defeating Daesh.

Now Mr Speaker, I hope the house will bear with me if I direct my closing remarks to my Labour friends and colleagues on this side of the House. As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have – and we never should – walk by on the other side of the road.

And we are here 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 of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt .[All true but equally true of a range of other vile and malevolent ruling elites like the Saudi dictatorship who are ‘our’ allies. It underlines the point that far from some extraordinary political tour de force, Benn’s speech was a combination of tendentious argument and a cynical playing on emotions, all bound up in a pathetic attempt to isolate the Labour Leader and set the scene for his removal] And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. And it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. And that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for the motion tonight.