The government predictably won its debate over whether to extend British air strikes into Syria last night. Unlike 2013, there was never really any doubt about the outcome. Cameron had his party behind him, in addition to the Liberal Democrats, the DUP and a large enough number of Labour MPs to ensure that the government’s position was always going to prevail.
So once again, the British political class has opted to wage an open-ended war without any coherent military or strategic goals, beyond vague talk of ‘degrading’ Daesh. In the short term, British airstrikes in Syria will have little impact on Daesh itself, and are not even intended to. Their real purpose is restore Britain’s ‘credibility’ as a ‘major player’ on the world stage, fulfill promises that Cameron made to the United States long before the Paris massacre, and put Britain in a position from which it will be able to extend and expand its military operations when the inevitable ‘mission creep’ kicks in.
As is always the case in British parliamentary debates about whether or not to ‘go to war’, the latest intervention was justified in numerous speeches yesterday on moral and humanitarian grounds, because it is an essential rhetorical component of all British wars – at least in recent years – that they are always waged for a high moral purpose.
And so the commons echoed with the cant words and phrases that we have become depressingly familiar with these last years. There was much talk of ‘our values’, ‘evil’, ‘our way of life’, ‘national security’ and the need to ‘keep our country safe.’ Many of these speeches came from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour opponents, including politicians who had once supported the wars in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo on very similar grounds.
Many of these speeches had a horrible element of Groundhog Day about them. Watching Beckett, Johnson and co. wrestle with their consciences yet again about the moral quandaries of ‘intervention’, the ‘difficult’ decision about whether to bomb or not to bomb, and their concern over the prospect of civilian deaths, was a reminder of how effortless these struggles actually are for politicians who are incapable of acknowledging the catastrophic consequences of similar decisions they have taken in the past, and will never bear the consequences of the wars they currently advocate.
At times it was possible to close your eyes and imagine that you were not listening to a debate about Syria, but about Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. As in those wars there was the same absence of strategic or critical thinking, the same fake and misleading historical parallels, the same phony internationalism.
Pride of place in this regard must go to Hilary Benn, whose closing speech received a standing ovation – from both sides of the House. Benn’s ‘extraordinary’ speech has been much praised. Philip Hammond called it ‘ one of the truly great speeches made in this House of Commons.’
Today Dan Hodges described it as the speech of a future prime minister in the Telegraph this morning, and gleefully claimed that Corbyn and his supporters were ‘ destroyed in an instant. Crushed by Hilary Benn and 100 years of the Labour party’s accumulated moral authority.’
Personally, I don’t think Corbyn was very good yesterday. He came across as pedantic, fussy and nitpicking, rather than impassioned – not that it would have made much difference to the result. But Hodge’s eulogy is overblown – no surprises there, and so is much of the praise heaped on a speech that belonged firmly to the Churchillian tradition of grandstanding oratorical flourishes that British politicians have often drawn upon in reference to their latest enemies du jour. .
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Egeus accuses Lysander of having wooed his daughter:’With feigning voice verses of feigning love/And stol’n the impression of her fantasy/With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gauds, conceits.’
In political terms this is what Benn did last night. His speech was intended, like so many of Blair’s pro-war speeches before him, to steal the impression of the British elite’s fantasy about its wars, the better to undermine his own leader and recast British militarism as an act of socialist internationalism. So once again, the fight against Daesh was a fight against fascism. Why is Daesh fascist? The answer, according to Benn, lies:
‘Not just their calculating 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 rules by which we will make our decision tonight – in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated.’
Do fascists need to be defeated? Goodness, who’d have thought it? Benn’s description of Daesh could easily be applied to Saudi Arabia – an ally in the anti-Daesh coalition. Cruelty,intolerance and a sense of superiority are not defining characteristics of fascism, though fascists are certainly likely to exhibit them. But fascism was an extreme manifestation of nationalism, racism, and imperialism, a violent response to socialism and communism that emerged from the crisis of liberal democracy, and which liberal democratic states did not fight – and which lived with fairly comfortably – until it threatened them directly.
The wars against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein were also described as wars against fascism, – in order to justify dubious, dangerous, ill-thought-out and sometimes illegal military adventures, and Benn’s description belongs to the same tradition.
Whether Daesh is fascist or not, it is certainly a savage and dangerous movement which needs to be defeated. But Benn’s fascism comparisons simply take it for granted that bombing will achieve this objective. They entirely ignore the political context in which Daesh has emerged, the way in which it feeds off weak, wrecked, and wartorn societies which have imploded as a result of some of the same wars that ‘anti-fascists’ like Benn once supported.
Benn even had the unbelievable gall to say this:
‘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 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.’
To call this playing fast and loose with the facts does not even begin to describe what Benn has done here. The ‘socialists and trade unionists and others’ who crossed the Pyrenees put their own lives on the line, something that today’s armchair bombardiers would never dream of doing.
It is a very different matter to go unarmed to fight for a country and a people you have never seen, knowing that you may never come back, than it is to stand up in parliament and describe a bombing campaign as an act of socialist internationalism. .
Some brigaders fought in defense of the Spanish Republic because they supported the Spanish revolution; others did so because they regarded Spain as a frontline in the coming war against fascism. But their efforts were actively undermined by the British and French governments, who used the Non-Intervention Pact to cut off military support to the Republic even when they knew that Franco was being armed to the teeth by Italy and Germany.
To evoke the international brigades in support of Cameron’s bombing campaign requires real audacity, bad faith, and an indifference to history or the political realities of the 21st century. Benn does not even seem to realize that the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh is far closer to the spirit of internationalism and solidarity that drove the International Brigades than Cameron’s bombing campaign – except that the international jihad takes the form of solidarity with oppressed Muslims, rather than the working class or the socialist revolution.
It is obvious that not all Muslims who have gone to fight in Iraq, Syria, Chechnya and other places have gone to these countries to obtain sexual slaves and throw homosexuals off balconies. Understanding these distinctions would make it a lot easier to understand the wellsprings of ‘radicalization’ than the fatuous inanities emanating from Cameron and his ministers.
Clearly, the Tories did not applaud Benn’s speech yesterday because they wanted to celebrate the role of their International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. They did so because Benn gave them a better ‘moral’ case for bombing than the one they had put forward themselves, and because they recognized that Tony Benn’s son had successfully appealed to the same political traditions that Jeremy Corbyn – and Tony Benn himself – has so often evoked to oppose war, in order to justify it.
They clapped because, like Hodges, they saw Benn’s speech as a fatal blow to Corbyn’s authority, and because they would like to replace him with Benn himself. Of course Benn knew exactly what he was doing, and that speech will now almost certainly make him the Labour rightwing’s preferred replacement for Corbyn in any future palace coup.
In that sense it really was a ‘great speech’, though its grandeur is really pretty cheap and tawdry, and so are the plaudits it has received.