More than 10 hours of debate took place in the British Parliament yesterday (Dec. 2) before it voted to bomb ISIL in Syria and then began striking targets. Everyone, from the prime minister David Cameron to anti-bombing Scottish party members, had a free vote on the issue.
Though the Conservative government was most vociferously for the airstrikes, it was Labour member Hilary Benn who brought the loudest cheers in Parliament with an emotive speech for bombing ISIL. Foreign secretary Philip Hammond described Hilary Benn’s speech “as one of the truly great speeches made in this House of Commons.”
Benn went against his party’s own leadership when he called on members of parliament to vote for airstrikes in Syria and invoked the “internationalism” of the Labour party. Hilary Benn said:
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 were just one part of the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco.
It’s why this entire house stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It’s 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.
Hilary Benn’s full speech is here.
But in the hours leading up to the vote, those against airstrikes in Syria had been sharing another historic Benn speech calling against war. This was made by Hilary’s father, Tony, a legend of the British left.
Tony Benn, who was the president of the Stop the War Coalition until his death, was a fierce anti-war campaigner. In 1998, Benn called on Parliament to vote against dropping bombs on Iraq. He began,“I was in London in the Blitz in 1940,” and went on:
Every morning I saw the Docklands burning, 500 people were killed in Westminster by a land mine, it was terrifying!
Aren’t Arabs terrified? Aren’t Iraqis terrified? Don’t Arab and Iraqi women weep when their children die? Doesn’t bombings strengthen their determination?
Political commentators noted that while Hilary Benn has defied his father’s anti-war legacy, he has certainly inherited Tony Benn’s oratory skills. By electrifying parliament in the same way his father did, Hilary Benn’s may have finally moved out of his father’s shadow. As one journalist succinctly put it, “Syria may not be liberated, but Hilary Benn has been.”
Others have suggested it’s more apt to compare Hilary Benn to Tony Blair and the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell told BBC Radio 4 that while he was impressed with Benn’s speech, he was ”anxious that the greatest oratory is going to lead us to the greatest mistakes.”