Notes From the Margins…

Mr Benn Goes Bombing

  • December 03, 2015
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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.







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  1. Richard Carter

    3rd Dec 2015 - 11:55 am

    Right about Benn’s speech, which was very strong on *why* IS/ISIL/Daesh need to be defeated (leaving out the cheap comparison with the International Brigades in Spain) but extraordinarily weak on *how* it’s to be done, as, not surprisingly, were all the other pro-bombing speeches. And now we read that the “defence” secretary is saying that we’re going to be bombing Syria for years! So it’s definitely not going to be all over by Christmas….

    And although I’ve not read/heard all of the speeches from yesterday, the ones I have seen make no reference to the problem of finding appropriate targets at which to send our bombs. For example, the other day a missile strike took out “a machine gun position.” I don’t know what missile was used, but the Brimstone (the probable choice) costs over £100,000 a pop, quite apart from the costs of flying the damn plane there and back. Hardly cost-effective, one would think, though no doubt great news for the arms manufacturers.

  2. Chris

    3rd Dec 2015 - 3:05 pm

    Excellent appraisal which deserves a wider readership, but sadly will, in all probability, not get it…

  3. Pen Wilcock

    3rd Dec 2015 - 4:41 pm

    Well said; thank you.

  4. JP

    4th Dec 2015 - 8:27 pm

    “international jihad takes the form of solidarity with oppressed Muslims”

    The most numerous victims of jihadi violence, i.e. other Muslims, surely agree with this…

    • Matt

      5th Dec 2015 - 12:54 am

      I will try to be polite here, despite your spectacular and possibly wilful misreading of what I’m saying. I refer in my piece to the ‘movement that ultimately spawned Daesh’. I mention specific countries such as Afghanistan and Chechnya, where Muslims went to fight because they interpreted/reinvented the jihadist obligation to fight on behalf of oppressed Muslims as a new form of pan-Muslim internationalism. You may remember that Thatcher and Reagan had no problem with this once, as long as jihadists were fighting Russians. So the jihad has not always been Daesh, OK. ‘Ultimately spawned’. And recognising that aspect of jihad does not mean that I put it on the same level as the Int. Brigades, or that I think it’s good, OK? Thank you and goodnight.

      • Feanor

        5th Dec 2015 - 8:26 am

        Your strong reaction to JP’s relatively mild comment is interesting. Are you already aware how your paragraph combining ISIL to the Red Brigades is going to cause controversy?
        I, unlike many when reading a piece that goes against their views, try to be charitable about what the writer is trying to say: taking the worst possible interpretation isn’t honest, fair or useful. But in this case I’m afraid to say that the worst interpretation is the face value one; the reader has to mentally dig to see what it is you’re trying to say. And most won’t; most aren’t. This piece, now it’s been posted on StW’s website, is now doing the rounds as an example of how nuts – and pro-Islamist – StW are, with your paragraph as the main example.
        Can I, coming from the opposite side of the fence, urge you to re-word that paragraph? In its current form the suggestion is that ISIL have a moral closeness to the International Brigades. Not only that, but they have more of a closeness than do the other Syrian groups opposed to both ISIL and Assad. We all know about these groups; many who are pro intervention feel that these groups, like the International Brigades, deserve our support. By not mentioning this in your dismissal of Cameron’s coalition the crazy interpretation of your paragraph is given strength.
        We’re not going to agree with on the broader matter at hand but I hope you can see where I’m coming from. If not, then if the early signs of this going viral gain traction, I expect this will do immense damage to your and StW’s position.

        • Matt

          5th Dec 2015 - 11:12 am

          Thanks for your considered remarks Kieran, which I do take seriously. I assume you mean the International Brigades BTW. My ‘strong reaction’, as you put it, came when I returned home last night find a welter of hostile twitter comments that had entirely misinterpreted what I said. So JP’s sarcasm seemed like a continuation of the same assault. No I did not think what I was saying was especially controversial. I don’t even say that ISIL has a moral closeness to the International Brigades (see my rebuttal today). I refer very clearly to the international movement ‘that ultimately spawned it’ as a form of pan-Islamic solidarity and internationalism. That observation seems to me entirely uncontroversial, and I wrote it not in order to be clever or make a big Internet splash, but to draw attention to an aspect of the global jihad that is often ignored, but which is nevertheless crucial to the whole phenomenon. I don’t think my meaning was that obscure or enigmatic. Readers should ‘mentally dig’ before reacting, as you appear to have tried to do. It seems to me perfectly 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’, including members of the groups that you suggest might ‘deserve our support.’ Personally, I don’t support them, but if I was making a ‘moral’ comparison between Daesh and the Int Brigades, why would I say in the same piece that Daesh is a ‘savage and dangerous movement that needs to be defeated?’

          As for your suggestion that I re-word the paragraph – I’m not really convinced that I should react to hysterical and politically-motivated smears (not from you), and I think that if I did, then the likes of Hodges would be able to gloat that I was hiding some ‘shameful’ views, which I don’t in fact, hold.

          • Feanor

            5th Dec 2015 - 7:09 pm

            Thanks likewise for hearing me out. It’s refreshing to be able to have such an exchange on the internet with someone who comes from a different standpoint as me – especially since I did not see your rebuttal until after I’d posted my reply.
            In an ideal world, perhaps readers should have to mentally dig. But if a paragraph’s true meaning, in context, is mostly only apparent to the readers who agree with you and that such lengthy posts as your rebuttal are necessary to clarify that you’re not making a point people think you’re making then I disagree that the problem is with the reader.
            I also don’t think it’s the case that all – even most – of those who’ve taken exception to the paragraph you’ve written are guilty of hysterical and politically-motivated smearing; many I’ve come across just aren’t that type. I think that in context, doubling down and refusing to re-word is a mistake. I see your concern that your opponents would take that as hiding something – but I don’t see why, if the reword/clarification was done sufficiently openly. What looks far more fishy is that your piece has disappeared from StW’s website.
            On the point you were making itself, I’m still not sure what purpose it served. Tom Holland’s response was “Actually, @STWuk, the jihadist movement is closer to the spirit of internationalism & solidarity that drove crusades.” I realise this isn’t your point – and I’ve tried to clarify this to him – but it shows the breadth and calibre of audience that’s misunderstood you.
            Anyway, I hope I’m not over-labouring this; I appreciate how receptive you were of my first post. I think it’s important though because I think that the increasing rupture within the liberal/left coalition is causing considerable damage and will cause vastly more if left unchecked – and, often, I think that the problem is more one of misunderstood terminology and framing of arguments than fundamental disagreements.

          • Matt

            5th Dec 2015 - 7:59 pm

            All good points once again. I saw that STW removed the piece from their main page. That’s their decision. They only repost my blogs after all. I agree I could have developed my point more in my piece, but it would have made it too long so I didn’t. I’m not going to reword it because I don’t feel the piece is anything to apologise for, and I’ve published a rebuttal, so anyone with a real interest in this issue can find out where I stand. It’s not being stubborn, it’s just that sometimes you have to stand by what you’ve said, unless you make a massive factual inaccuracy, regardless of whether people like it or not. As to why make the point? Well i think the ‘internationalism/solidarity with oppressed Muslims’ idea is a crucial component of the transnational jihad that is often ignored when we ask ‘why do people do these things?’ By ‘things’ don’t mean murdering kids in Paris or raping Yazidi girls by the way-I mean those who fight the Russian army in Grozny, the Serbs in Bosnia, the Indian army in Kashmir, or Assad in Syria etc

            You can’t understand the motivational power of jihad, it seems to me, without understanding the heroic narratives that surround this ‘Islamic international brigade.’ Given that Benn brought it up for totally dishonest reasons, this seemed a good place to mention it.

            I agree with you about this ‘left-liberal divide’ – partly the result of the liberal interventionist refusal to accept the catastrophic consequences of the wars they’ve supported, in my opinion.

          • Feanor

            6th Dec 2015 - 2:10 pm

            Yeah, I see that you were responding to those using the International Brigades as a comparison, rather than making the comparison yourself – but unfortunately that’s exactly what’s been lost by many readers.

            Just to respond, though, to your reply about the liberal-left divide (I had meant, incidentally, a divide within the liberal-left, rather than a divide between liberals and left-wingers; maybe that was clear, I just want to be sure.). Your assessment seems to rely on a rather broad brush; I’m unsure whether you’re including the 2003 Iraq invasion in that. If so, then I can’t think of any still alive who supported it and who don’t acknowledge its role in the current mess (the only one I can think of is the late Hitch). It’s such an outlier of folly that I don’t think it’s useful in forming analysis of other interventions. Maybe you’re referring to other conflicts though.

          • Matt

            6th Dec 2015 - 5:56 pm

            Well it has been ‘lost’, that’s for sure, to the point when I’m supposed to have ‘praised’ Daesh – an accusation that would be laughable to anyone who has any familiarity with my writing. But your intelligent observations notwithstanding, this dismal episode demonstrates to me how people will read what they want to read, or rather how they will draw meaning depending on the context. As I said elsewhere, no one complained about this post till STW posted on their website, even though it had got thousands of hits beforehand. The ‘meaning’ that was imposed upon took its strength from ‘meanings’ already attached to STW and Corbyn. As for the ‘liberal-left’, well without knowing more about you I can’t be sure exactly where you’re coming from. My comment didn’t just apply to the Iraq war, but I really don’t believe that it has become the ‘outlier of folly’ that you suggest. It hasn’t really dented the appetite for ‘interventions’ even amongst some members of the liberal-left (Libya? Syria?). And despite Cameron’s apparent caution last week, the ease with which the Br pol establishment appears ready to leap into equally strategically incoherent interventions on the basis of Benn’s ‘fascism’ narrative suggests that the memory of that ‘folly’ is not the ‘outlier’ it ought to be.

          • Feanor

            6th Dec 2015 - 8:18 pm

            Indeed; but the tendency to interpret things as you describe is unfortunately integral in human communication and human nature; we all do it, which is why we need to be so careful to guard against non-willful misinterpretation. Just look at how people misinterpret Sam Harris (although I think much of that is more wilful than not).

            You may have a point about readiness “to leap into equally strategically incoherent interventions”. But from the other side of the fence, I (and, I think others who think similarly) see a lot of people appearing to argue that any intervention is wrong because Iraq. This, I think, is the nub of the disagreement within the liberal-left on this issue. One can make a subtle argument about strategic incoherence – if anything, I think the current intervention is less strategically coherent than Iraq was. But the moral, military and geopolitical case is entirely different – and when one gets the feeling that someone/a group would be against any sort of military intervention under pretty much any conceivable circumstances then their ability to persuade those who think we have a moral imperative to intervene when it’s needed is heavily undermined. What I think is needed is an honest broad discussion on the case for intervention and the hypothetical scenarios in which it would or would not be justified.

  5. Mark Batty

    5th Dec 2015 - 12:21 am

    Awesome critical writing, will look out for more stuff by you sir

  6. steve merrell

    5th Dec 2015 - 9:24 am

    well said matt, plus i’m glad of your response, post from left unity doing the rounds on fb which i thought had completely misinterpreted your piece regards the international brigade, the post refers to stwc, so i thought the guy was perhaps not familiar with your work, if he was i’m sure he wouldn’t have come to that conclusion, unless, like you say, willful. very possibly.

  7. There might be some truth in this … « Samizdata

    8th Dec 2015 - 5:24 pm

    […] from its website. The whole piece can be still found on the website of Matt Carr, its author, here. A fuller version of the controversial quote […]

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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