Hilary Benn Has Shown Us the Beauty of Democracy and a Future for Labour

As a pimply youth I owned a cassette (Look it up, Generation Y) called Great Parliamentary Speeches. It started with those first proceedings broadcast live on radio in 1978, included Michael Foot’s inspiring response to the Falklands invasion, Gerald Kaufman’s reaction to the Brighton bomb, Macmillan’s “selling the family silver” speech, Mrs Thatcher's bravura finale as prime minister, and ended with Margaret Beckett’s tribute to the late John Smith.

In the twenty-one years since I am not sure how many speeches we could add to that collection. Maybe Robin Cook’s speech before the Iraq War. Perhaps Blair’s final performance as PM. Maybe Cameron’s polished response to the Hillsborough inquiry. Watching the marathon debate on whether to extend air strikes to Syria, I doubted we would hear anything worthy of inclusion in a second volume.

While Jeremy Corbyn’s rambling, incoherent speech was the worst performance from the dispatch box I have seen, Cameron’s rather foolish comments about “terrorist sympathisers” dominated the first few hours. The remarks turned a debate about the pros and cons of a military intervention into a parade of outraged grievance. It was not the prime minister’s finest hour - nor his critics.

However, something changed. Former ministers David Davis, Margaret Beckett and Alan Johnson gave passionate speeches against and for intervention. Whereas Cameron and Corbyn had failed to rise to the occasion, others did.

Then Hilary Benn stood up.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary’s speech was simply electrifying. He was respectful, persuasive, brave. He combined knowledge and grit with a quiet charisma. I remembered those speeches I had listened to. This was as good as any of them. Better maybe. I was watching one of the finest parliamentary speeches of all time. Benn spoke of a Labour tradition that with all the hype of Corbyn’s rise has been forgotten: of a party which helped set up the United Nations to uphold internationalist principles, a party which does not walk on by and ignore the suffering of the most vulnerable wherever they are; a party that loathes violence but acts responsibly to stop it; a party with values but which puts people before ideology.

Did he shift any votes? Probably very few. However, his words allowed Labour interventionists to vote with their heads held high.

difference need not engender vitriolic hatred; our intricate identities exist on different levels

As he sat down, the chamber erupted into rare applause. Benn was congratulated by members across the chamber, not just Labour MPs and not just those who agreed with him. There was one man who was not applauding: his boss, Jeremy Corbyn.

How little those angry trolls who criticised him for traducing his father’s legacy knew the former Cabinet minister. Very far from perfect, Tony Benn had an understanding that respect forms a crucial part of democracy. He counted Edward Heath and David Davis among his friends and attended the funeral of Enoch Powell despite criticism; he also cried when his son made his first contribution in the Commons, despite their political differences. Benn had many critics but most acknowledge his manners. Had the former Cabinet minister been in the chamber I suspect he too would have risen to applaud his son. Of course, he would not have voted in the same lobby but that is not the point.

When we elect our members of parliament we ask them to represent us and use their judgement to make decisions on vastly labyrinthine issues. The respect Hilary Benn showed for the democratic paradigm and the consideration he, in turn, received demonstrates the mysterious beauty of democracy: that difference need not engender vitriolic hatred; our intricate identities exist on different levels not just the ideological - we belong to many tribes at the same time: there is division but we also find commonality.


For all the talk Corbyn’s “kinder, gentler politics” simply has not happened. Labour’s debate about Syrian air strikes descended into farce and acrimony. There were faults on both sides but the leader - or at the very least his office - is responsible for much of it. By giving a free vote Corbyn angered his base, but by doing so only at gunpoint he did not please his internal critics either. Typically, he ended up with the worst of worlds. Often held up as better than some of his followers, his behaviour has exposed the limits of his intolerant politics. Had Blair, or any other Labour leader, conducted themselves in a similar fashion to justify a political position Corbyn would have quite rightly condemned them.

Jeremy Corbyn himself looked visibly smaller as Benn spoke. He is now finished. The Labour leader is not just diminished, he is politically dead. The only question is whether it is the Labour party or the electorate who bury him.

Because Benn’s speech was more than merely a good parliamentary performance or an example of brave leadership: he managed to speak a language that was uncompromising, emotionally literate and idealistic. All but the most blinkered could see that, for the first time since the general election, someone other than Corbyn could use words such as solidarity and mean them. In fifteen minutes Hilary Benn broke the monopoly the Corbynistas have held on idealism.

Are you ready for Hilary? Perhaps not. But I have finally become a Bennite.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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