The ‘Syria debate’ in Parliament last Wednesday has gone down as a victory for Hilary Benn, oddly given a prime-time opposition slot to speak against the opposition (specifically, against his own party leader) as the debate came to an end. Media ‘commentators’ (whether they can be called ‘journalists’ is, as always, a moot point) who were busy being so sadly mistaken about the result of the Oldham West and Royton by-election rushed to hail Benn as a leader-in-waiting (for example, this exercise in wishful thinking from the Telegraph). He had previously found ‘compelling’ Cameron’s case for bombing Syria, and he would now be praised for his eloquence, although it is difficult to see how anyone should have been persuaded by what was, in essence, a straw-man argument: any care at all taken in reading it would expose the speech’s lack of substance, given that the view expressed of ISIS is probably, so far as it goes, uncontroversial. However, Benn’s reference to the International Brigades in 1930s Spain might be considered a tad more questionable (see, for example, this story by George Monbiot). One might say that, if there is a parallel with the International Brigades from the 1930s, it would be the PKK, currently designated a terrorist group because Turkey, a British ally, insists on it. According to this Channel 4 News story from September 2014 the number of British Kurds going to fight Isis has increased; and more recently, of course, as Cameron was talking up the 70,000 ‘freedom fighters’ who will prevent any need for British ground troops in Syria, came this story of Silhan Özçelik, the first British citizen to be convicted for trying to join the campaign against Isis jihadis in Syria’. The government’s hypocrisy here is transparent, and the very least that can be said of Benn is that he would have been better advised to choose other examples to add colour to his rhetoric. This speech will be analysed in some detail later because, if nothing else, it was the speech the government and the corporate media wanted him to give; it was a speech designed to promote a certain (‘right-wing’) version of Labour, a revisionist account that necessarily played fast-and-loose with history, as will become clear to anyone who can make it all the way through this Guardian article by Martin Kettle.
In the event, of course, the votes of Labour MPs were of little importance to the decision to bomb Syria, given the failure of Conservative or Liberal Democrat MPs (the latter, perhaps, still nursing a belief that they are members of a coalition government) to vote against Cameron’s motion: there was a huge majority in favour of ‘air strikes’ (a term that, perhaps, seeks to avoid the messy and emotive connotations of ‘bombing’). Further, it might be said that extending RAF operations into Syria was no big deal: Isis doesn’t recognise the border, so why should we? (This example of the politics of the playground would, indeed, feature in Benn’s speech.) It is, then, an unavoidable conclusion that one main purpose of the debate and Benn’s role in it was to present a supposedly coherent alternative to Corbyn’s leadership of Labour, beginning with Cameron’s ‘terrorist sympathisers’ gibe, nothing if not designed to be provocative (and see, of course, the reference to the PKK above). If Benn, speaking at the end of the debate, was then heard in respectful silence (until the nauseating applause that greeted him when he sat down), the same was not the case for Corbyn, as the opening moments of his speech illustrate: quite apart from heckling by Conservatives, he is interrupted twice in a matter of minutes by two Labour MPs for whom attacking their own leader, highlighting their own opposition to him, was more important than a serious discussion of the merits of killing people in Syria.
Corbyn began with a reference to Cameron’s comments, and a failure to apologise that ‘would be very helpful and improve the atmosphere of this debate’. He was then interrupted by John Mann: ‘Does he [Corbyn] also agree that there is no place whatsoever in the Labour party for anybody who has been abusing those Labour Members who choose to vote with the Government on this resolution?’ Mann’s cynical opportunism, of course, merely underscored what Corbyn had said about ‘the atmosphere of the debate’. Moments later, following his own rather more principled reference to the Kurds, Corbyn was again interrupted, this time by John Woodcock, who asked: ‘Could he be clear at the Dispatch Box that neither he, nor anyone on these Benches, will in any way want to remove the air protection that was voted on with an overwhelming majority in the House 14 months ago?’ Corbyn’s response here (‘That is not part of the motion today, so we move on with this debate …’) was to the point.
To be continued.