The summing up speech that Hilary Benn made at the end of the Syria debate may go down in history for several reasons but whether as a high or low point only hindsight and perhaps the success of the Syrian campaign will decide. It was lauded as both important and influential and though it may have been both I would say, while it was a very good piece of oration, it was not a great speech. A great speech will usually be delivered with style and power and this one certainly was, as a technical piece of writing and delivery it was excellent. But a great speech must also be grounded in truths and honesty, be a logical illustration of ideas and lead to a compelling conclusion and by these criteria I believe the speech, when reviewed, does not stand up.
Many have used this opportunity to bash Hilary with comparisons to his father, the incomparable Tony Benn but I won’t be one of them. Clearly Hilary learned much about delivery from one of the greatest of all parliamentary speakers but for whatever doubts Benn senior may have had about the purpose to which those skills were deployed I believe that Tony would have defended absolutely his right to hold and expound those views.
What follows, however, is how I see the words spoken when taken out of the context of that high octane, highly scrutinised, climactic debate. With the emotion of delivery removed. With the cold light of day shining upon it.
(Speech in italics)
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.’
1) As a speech writer may tell you, the first job is to get the crowd on your side. The first rungs Hilary climbed on his empathy ladder were true, which made them particularly effective, but they acted as a way to both establish his credentials as respectful and to gently attack the morals of the Prime Minister, both positions which he needed to make his later words so effective.
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 that we hold in our hands tonight. And whatever decision we reach, I hope we will treat one another with respect.
2) Statesmanlike, moderate, soothing words drawing in cooperation and praising his immediate audience in the chamber, crediting them with a seriousness and consideration they all aspire to.
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 [Margaret Beckett], Kingston Upon Hull West and Hessle [Alan Johnson], Normanton Pontefract and Castleford [Yvette Cooper], Barnsley Central [Dan Jarvis], Wakefield [Mary Creagh], Wolverhampton South East [Pat McFadden], Brent North [Barry Gardiner], Liverpool West Derby [Stephen Twigg], Wirral West [Margaret Greenwood], Stoke on Trent North [Ruth Smeeth], Birmingham Ladywood [Shabana Mahmood] and the honourable members for Reigate [Crispin Blunt], South West Wiltshire [Andrew Murrison], Tonbridge and Malling [John Stanley], Chichester [Andrew Tyrie] and Wells [James Heappey].
3) By highlighting arguments from both sides of the debate Hilary again draws them all closer and illustrated what a level handed view he is taking of the debate by praising both sides. Of course, this is designed to make his own words resonate louder at a later point.
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?
4) Anyone who says this issue is simple doesn’t really understand the issue or is trying to provide a comforting solution. The Middle East in all of its historical and geopolitical facets is about as complicated as any problem you’d have the misfortune to wade through. The deeper one looks into its roots and influences, the more one realises that it is not a problem with a simple solution but an interlocking series of problems with an almost unending array of possible solutions.
Carnage in Paris brought home to us the clear and present danger we face from them. It could just as easily have been London or Glasgow or Leeds or Birmingham – and it could still be. And I believe we have a moral and a practical duty to extend the action we are already taking in Iraq to Syria. 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. We now have a clear and unambiguous UN Security Council resolution 2249, paragraph five of which specifically calls on member states to take all necessary measures; 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.
5) Anyone who has followed the issue of the Middle East even to a mild degree understands, and has done for a while, that we in Europe and other populations around the world are in danger from the consequences of those events. It shouldn’t take Paris for people to understand there are dangers with previous actions.
6) To say with certainty that the conditions set in resolution at Conference have been met is at best optimistic. I haven’t yet seen ‘a comprehensive plan for humanitarian assistance for displaced refugees’. Neither do I believe ‘military action is subordinated to international diplomatic efforts’
7) UN security resolution 2249 was indeed passed and urges ‘all necessary measures’ but it falls short of invoking Chapter VII of the UN Charter which by convention triggers the authorisation for military action.
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. And it was a Labour government, if the honourable gentleman will bear with me, 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.
8) I wish we were in a world where UN resolutions were taken more seriously but if Hilary is invoking this as a reason to extend a bombing campaign I’m assuming he’s also about to call for approximately 90 other outstanding UN resolutions to be complied with which governments around the world are openly and continually violating without being held accountable. Incidentally over 30 of these apply to Israel and over 20 to Turkey so I’d be more comfortable with his invocation of the UN were it more all encompassing.
So given that the United Nations has passed this resolution, given that such action would be lawful under Article 51 of the UN charter, because every state has the right to defend itself, why would we not uphold the settled will of the United Nations? Particularly when there is such support from within the region, including from Iraq.
9) Iraq has certainly requested our assistance but there are many other countries and groups within the area who are heavily against and/ or highly sceptical about the Wests methods of and reasons for intervention in the region.
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. They are the best hope we have of achieving a ceasefire. Now 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.
10) There were 12 (now thanks to our involvement 13) counties in military action in the area. If we are part of a coalition of 60 I assume that means there are 47 who help without dropping bombs into an already crowded theatre of battle?
11) Why is it vital to act before Vienna is complete, how will bombing help towards a ceasefire? Surely if the aim is to provide a long lasting solution the will of the major involved parties to agree to long term solutions is of much more importance than short term bombing. The position seems to be that if we just ‘do our bit’ with weaponry then global differences in political policy will automatically happen. If, broadly speaking, the west wants to remove Assad but Russia wants to keep him, where can the Vienna process possibly get to without one or other superpower making a 180° U turn? And how often does that happen? That of course doesn’t take into account the other 3 or 4 parties on the ground involved in the Syrian civil war, many of whom have fundamentalist positions of their own which are unlikely to be easy to resolve. To march into this situation in a heavy handed fashion with almost no idea of what the goal is, let alone how we get to that end game seems hopeful in the extreme and lies at the heart of why the #Don’tBombSyria voice have reservations about expanding military action.
12) Why, two weeks ago, did Hilary Benn hold and profess the exact opposite view to the one he so loudly proclaimed in this speech? He previously stated that immediate, short term military intervention would destabilise the area and make long term peaceful solutions less likely. A strange change of position from which to so loudly claim the moral high ground to say the least.
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 al-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 them apostates engaged in prostitution and vice. If it had happened here they could have been our children, and we know they are plotting more attacks.
13) We all know and accept that Daesh are unacceptable and need to be tackled, the question is how? We do not need convincing that we are dealing with terrible people. Listing their atrocious actions merely emphasises that something needs to be done but takes us no closer to what that solution actually is in practical terms. Outrage at what they do doesn’t automatically lead to knowledge of solutions.
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? 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. Now France wants us to stand with them , and President Hollande, the leader of our sister socialist party, has asked for our assistance and help. And as we are undertaking air strikes in Iraq, where Daesh’s hold has been reduced, and we are already doing everything but engage in air strikes in Syria, should we not play our full part?
14) Providing cooperation and standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies may be the strongest argument he makes and is a point that was made eloquently by Margaret Beckett amongst others. France is understandable hurting and wants to lash out but sometimes being a good friend can mean having to calmly and diplomatically show a friend that what they want may not be the best thing.
15) Conditions in Iraq are very different to those in the arena that were under consideration during this debate. In Iraq there is an organised, effective ground force waiting to take advantage in coordination with air strikes. Unfortunately, as we consider our actions, this is not the present situation in Syria.
Now Mr Speaker, it has been argued in the debate that air strikes 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 Kobane. 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.
16) 12 other countries are already giving them a hard time, are we as the 13th participant egotistical enough to believe that we are the answer or are we wanting to be involved for other reasons?
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. Rather we act to protect civilians from Daesh, who target innocent people.
17) Nobody is suggesting that we, unlike Daesh, are intentionally looking to kill innocents but this doesn’t answer the question of civilian casualties, it just acknowledges it. The unfortunate death of even small numbers of innocents will provide Daesh with the promotional ammunition they need to continue the narrative of radicalisation necessary for them to fight the war and so countering the very purpose of our actions.
Now on the subject of ground troops to defeat Daesh, there has been much debate about the figure of 70,000 and the government must, I think, better explain that. But we know that most of them are currently engaged in fighting President Assad. But I tell you what else we know: it’s 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 air strikes should not take place until the Syrian civil war has come to an end 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 air strikes that is being proposed.
18) Assad will also have time to diminish the forces of those he considers an enemy but we clearly have no idea who is actually going to provide the boots on the ground or who will profit from our degrading of Daesh, especially when combined with Russia’s degrading of whoever it is they may be bombing. That’s the whole point of Vienna and having a plan. Ground troops is something that everyone agrees will be necessary to win the battle so why assume that all will be well once we get going?
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 of course we should commit to play our full part in helping to rebuild Syria when the war is over.
19) This is the most vital aspect of tackling Daesh and should be primary focus to tackle the long term issue of organised radicalisation, it cannot be a supplementary point mentioned in passing. Even if the military intervention was largely successful by most measures the problem of Daesh will just move location if the funding of its leaders and the feeding of its ideological source isn’t tackled. Raqqa may be its base now but already we hear reports of operational control being moved in part to Libya. In this age of immediate and mobile global communication these bad guys don’t need a hollowed out volcano to lash out at the world and organise atrocities, they just need a telephone or a laptop.
Now I accept that there are legitimate arguments, and we’ve 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 honourable member for Edisbury earlier when she quoted that passage, and I just want to read what Karwan Jamal Tahir, Kurdistan regional government high representative in London, said last week, and I quote: ‘Last June Daesh captured one third of Iraq overnight, and a few months later attacked the Kurdistan region. Swift air strikes 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 have pushed them back and recently captured Sinjar. Again Western air strikes were vital. But the old border between Iraq and Syria does not exist. Daesh fighters come and go across this fictional boundary.’ And that is the argument, Mr Speaker, for treating the two countries as one if we are serious about defeating Daesh.
20) As stated before, Iraq is militarily different and if we accept that Daesh don’t acknowledge borders and so neither will we then we are letting them set the rules of engagement, not presumably something that is wise to concede.
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 here 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. 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 this motion tonight.
21) Internationalism does not mean militarism. No one is suggesting we turn our back or walk on by. Support and solidarity can and should come in many forms.
22) Nobody among us would argue that fascism, in whatever form it raises it takes, needs to be tackled. How we most effectively tackle it is the question and will take thought and negotiation rather than just a girding of the loins.
This speech may or may not have changed many minds but it did allow people voting with the motion to extend military action to feel better about themselves while doing it, to be part of a moral cause with the weight of our history behind you makes a decision to allow something distasteful in the present more palatable. It also allowed the Tories to cheer and holler, celebrating their success in taking another step on the journey to war, and in so doing rub it in the face of Corbyn and the anti war lobby. I’m sure this wasn’t upmost in the majority of those who took part in the vote but it surely factored in to the celebratory response to the end of Hilarys speech. Do we really think Philip Hammond would have praised, legitimised and emphasised the words of Benn had he made an equally passionate speech against their argument. Don’t kid yourself, the reason they acclaimed it was it did their job for them and better than they managed to do it for themselves.
Now am I biased against the content and thrust of this speech? Yes, I clearly don’t believe that parliament made the correct decision on Wednesday but I do hope with all my heart I’m wrong.
Was this speech effective, rousing and memorable? Yes.
Will it stand up as a great speech? Only time will tell us that.