‘We have a moral responsibility to help’

Standing aloof is not an option in today’s world, Hilary Benn tells Richard Angell and Adam Harrison  

Within 24 hours of our meeting him in his parliamentary office, Hilary Benn hits the headlines twice. What lay behind both stories was his long-standing internationalism and enduring foreign policy interest.

It was no overstatement on Benn’s part, then, for him to tell us that the Labour party is in ‘a troubled state’ – within hours, it emerged that the appropriately named Tosh McDonald, president of the rail trade union Aslef, had compared him to Hitler.

It is a sorry footnote in Labour’s recent history that Hitler is now such a popular point of reference for those wishing to strengthen their control of the party. It is sorrier, too, that the attack was made in light of the former shadow foreign secretary’s speech in the House of Commons on Daesh, one of the most powerful addresses to the chamber in years.

The plight of Syria is such that doing nothing should not be an option. Is this the international community’s greatest foreign policy failure in the postwar period? ‘Well, currently, yes,’ Benn says, ‘because this is a civil war that has killed a huge number of people. We’ve seen half the population of Syria having to flee their homes. That’s like 32 million people in Britain no longer living, in five years’ time, in the home they’re living in today.

‘I always say, we would not accept a society in which we had peace and stability in London, civil war in Manchester and genocide in Glasgow’.

Despite clear support from the United Nations to take action against Daesh, Benn reminds us that, ‘in the case of Daesh, the UN [took] the lead. It … call[ed] on member states, if you can, to stop them from what they’re doing. Which is why in my speech I pointed to the fact the UN was asking us to do this, and I thought we should uphold their decision.’

The Syrian conflict reveals unresolved questions around genocide prevention and Benn has led the charge in lobbying the government on Daesh’s crimes. ‘The House of Commons has voted to declare, backing up the United Nations, that Daesh have been and are committing genocide against the Yazidis and other minority religious groups. What we’re doing – well, what I’ve been doing – is to press the government: “The Commons has voted. You’ve seen what the UN has said. What are you doing about it?” And they keep saying, “Well, we’re going to announce something.” Most recently they said, “We’re going to announce something at the ‘Unga’ in New York.”’ But, Benn asks, ‘What is being done to provide forensic assistance and expertise to the Kurdish regional government, and the Yazidis, who’ve asked for it, to identify the remains in the graves? So that, if you can get to the point of holding people to account, you’ve got evidence.’

The morality of inaction can stare you full in the face – if you take the time to look, he suggests. ‘When I sat opposite one of those Yazidi young women in the Commons four months ago, and she told … a complete stranger how her mum was murdered, she was taken, raped, enslaved, and eventually managed to escape … I think we have a moral responsibility to help. It’s not been assisted, however, by some voices who have deliberately tried to suggest that what’s happened in Aleppo is somehow the consequence of the decision the House of Commons took on the second of December.

‘After that shocking picture of that boy covered in dust … in the unreal world that is Twitter, lots of people said, “Are you happy? This is what you voted for.” Therefore, eventually, I responded and said, “It’s absolutely shocking. Have you contacted the Russian and Syrian embassies to ask why they did this?”

‘It is uncomfortable, and it is difficult, but the alternative is to say, “I’m really sorry your mum was murdered. I’m really sorry you’re being taken and raped. I’m really sorry all of these things are happening, but it’s not really my problem. Good luck.” Now, I don’t think that is good enough. It isn’t. The reason I’m passionate about [the UN] is because it is the body that should be taking the lead.’

The second piece of big Benn news was his bid to chair the new ‘Brexit’ select committee. No easy task in any sense, but certainly all the more so when both government and opposition are unclear in their respective stances about what Brexit should look like. He diplomatically observes that ‘there’s certainly a lack of clarity’ over Labour’s position, particularly in the light of Jeremy Corbyn’s view that we should retain freedom of movement of people but not other pillars of the single market – perhaps the polar opposite of where public opinion lies on this question.

Benn is clear that, ‘We should do our darnedest to remain as much in the single market as we can’, but immediately reminds us that ‘the British people clearly voted for some controls on European migration’. Nor is there any going back on the decision. While he would prefer the prime minister did not activate Article 50 alone, he maintains that, ‘we lost the referendum, and we have to accept the result. That’s not popular with everyone who was part of the 48 per cent, but we are democrats’.

The risks in the lead-up to leaving, never mind life on the outside, are real – the UK could be ejected before it is ready, he warns. ‘The thing about pressing the Article 50 button is: it’s like you get into the revolving door. You’re in one quarter. Twenty-seven other member states are in the other. It’s going round and round and round, and you’re having a negotiation, but at the end, after two years, someone says, “Right, two years are up, do we all agree to keep going round and negotiating?” Unless all 27 in that quarter over there say, “Yep!” and someone says “Sorry, UK!” Boop! The button gets pressed, and we’re ejected out of the revolving door with whatever we have or haven’t agreed at that point.’

The Leavers’ claims that it would all be a ‘doddle’ will soon be exposed, he says. But Benn further notes: ‘I’d also make this point – in the quieter moments, the European Union, for all they say publicly, I’m sure will be saying to themselves privately, “How did we manage to lose this incredibly important country?”’

Much of the heavy-lifting will allegedly fall to Theresa May. Yet she stumbled at her own – self-imposed – hurdle of grammar schools. ‘For all their talk about “Grammar schools are popular”, why did the comprehensive revolution take root? Why was Margaret Thatcher the prime minister who closed a huge number of grammar schools? Because selection at 11 is fantastically unpopular’, Benn says.

‘We are still dealing, as a society, with the legacy, all those years later, of a divided education system … What do we need, as young people in life?’ With shades of his father’s hoped-for epitaph – ‘He encouraged us’ – Benn answers: ‘Love, care, and encouragement. Now, how do you encourage people to attain? … Labour’s policy was the opposite of that: the creation of the Open University. People said at the time, “Are you mad? Are you crazy? People with no qualifications, doing degrees? This is outrageous!” Look at the number of people who’ve proudly graduated from the Open University. Why? Because we gave people encouragement and the opportunity.’

The former international development secretary has said in the past that he is ‘a Benn, not a Bennite’, though he did, of course, once stand on a Bennite manifesto – not a happy experience, as he recalls. ‘The first time I stood for parliament, in 1983, in Ealing North, it was a campaign that was fantastically supported by a very, very enthusiastic party membership. I’ve never had so many doors literally slammed in my face in my life’.

He rails against the ‘burning injustice’ of the ‘bedroom tax’, calling it ‘immoral, spiteful’ and is visibly frustrated at Labour’s lack of power to reverse the punitive measure. ‘If we don’t win elections, then we can’t do anything’, he states, although what seems obvious still appears to have too little traction more generally in the Labour party.

Policies alone appear not to be the answer, either. Benn sings the praises of ‘bringing [rail] franchises back into the public sector … having spent five years travelling on publicly run East Coast trains, it was very successful’, a position many across the labour movement would back including, presumably, rail trade union leaders – yet it is an anti-westernism which appears to galvanise them more than anything else. Which is all the more a shame because the connections Benn makes between insecurity at home and abroad are ones the Labour party should be actively studying and debating – with the aim of fulfilling its founding purpose of winning power to make the changes so many want to see.

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