Echoes of History: Hilary Benn and Michael Foot

Echoes of History: Hilary Benn and Michael Foot

Echoes of history. Donald Brind compares Hilary Benn’s speech on Syrian air strikes to Michael Foot’s on the Falklands.

How to draw the sting from Hilary Benn’s brilliant wind-up speech in the Commons debate on Syria air strikes? That was the problem facing Labour and SNP opponents of the military action who were on the wrong end of the 179 majority.

They set out to kill it with comparisons.

For Labour, the shadow chancellor John McDonnell said it reminded him of Tony Blair’s speech proposing the Iraq invasion, adding: “The greatest oratory can lead us to the greatest mistakes.” SNP wunderkind Mhairi Black tweeted a link to another speech in the debate opposing the invasion Iraq. It was the shadow foreign secretary’s father, Tony Benn and the comparison was left to speak for itself.

For me a more interesting comparison is with Michael Foot’s speech in April 1982 backing the operation to retake the Falklands after the Argentine. At that point parliamentary broadcasting was limited to radio (the transcript is here.)

Benn’s appeal to Labour traditions in fighting Fascism echoed Foot’s declaration that the Falkland islanders had an “absolute right” to expect British support in the face of “an act of naked, unqualified aggression” by the Argentine junta. “We can hardly forget that thousands of innocent people fighting for their political rights in Argentine are in prison and have been tortured and debased.”

But it was David Cameron’s behaviour in the debate and ahead of it that point to another echo of the 1980s – the willingness of Tory leaders to use national military endeavours to their own advantage.

Despite Foot’s support Margaret Thatcher was shameless in exploiting the eventual success of the Falklands task force, shrugging off jibes from Labour figures. When a questioner on a TV show said Mrs Thatcher had “showed guts,” Neil Kinnock replied: “It’s a pity others had to leave theirs on the ground at Goose Green to prove it.” Denis Healey accused her “of having gloried in slaughter.”  She crushed Labour under Foot’s leadership in the 1983 General Election.

David Cameron’s depiction of anti-war MPs as “terrorist sympathisers” comes from the same Tory playbook. Anyone who believes that David Cameron was in any way embarrassed that it was made public is being naive. He was all too happy to have it “leaked” and to out stare those calling for an apology during the debate. 

The Tories want Jeremy Corbyn to remain Labour leader. Victory in 2020 will be even more certain than in 1983. Cameron’s purpose, I believe, was to damage those Labour MPs who joined him in the division lobby on Wednesday night, especially Hilary Benn.

The best hope for Labour MPs who fear oblivion in 2020 is to coalesce behind a single alternative – if and when there is a new leadership election. At Westminster that Benn currently looks like that alternative. But the idea of being Cameron’s stooge could hurt him in an election amongst Labour’s enlarged membership. The idea is captured in Steve Bell’s cartoon in the Guardian sub titled “the tweet massacre of the Labour innocents” which captures the mood of recrimination in the party. We can be sure the nakedly partisan Prime Minister had a chuckle at that one.

Donald Brind

Comments are closed.