The Tony Benn legacy

One of my earliest blog posts, written shortly after he had died, was about Tony Benn. He was one of the few politicians I particularly admired even if I didn’t always agree with him. As I reflect, reasons for this admiration was that here was what seems sometimes to be a rare breed, for he was a conviction (as opposed to career) politician and it was standing up for and acting out his beliefs that led him into politics, yet not using his position for personal gain (if anything he lost out for espousing unpopular causes). I liked the respectful and self-effacing way he approached not just politics but life generally, putting family at the fore, and for his relentless pursuit of truth.

I got thinking along these lines because of the speech his son, Hilary, delivered at yesterday’s mammoth Commons debate on whether the UK should authorise air strikes in Syria. There were many good speeches made, laying out the various arguments and detailing many of the pertinent considerations, but the outstanding one, and many besides me are of this view, was that made by Hilary Benn. There is nothing new about children following their parents into a career in politics but before yesterday I hadn’t given Hilary much consideration, even though he was the Shadow Foreign Secretary.

Ironically, the position Hilary argued, to support airstrikes was one that I could imagine his father, one of whose catch phrases was “jaw, jaw, not war, war”, might have argued against, and it was clearly at odds with his leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Seeing some clips of the two together and of Hilary paying tribute to his father, and the clear affection that existed between the two, this should not come as a surprise, for Tony encouraged Hilary to adopt, argue and stand by his principles, come what may, and above all to develop good character. As a father of a teenage son that shows a degree of independent thought that may not entirely coincide with my own, I could think of no greater legacy than what Tony gave to Hilary, and one any father might want for their son, and which was no better illustrated than in the speech that he delivered yesterday.

Like many looking on yesterday’s proceedings, it was with a degree of consternation given the multitudinous issues that needed to be taken into consideration and the nigh impossibility of us (the UK), or anyone else come to that, of resolving all those issues without the hand of God. I thought long and hard and studied the evidence, yet without coming down with a strong view one way or the other on how I would vote if I were in a position to do so. When I earlier blogged on the matter, I was of the view that I would vote against the motion because too many questions remained unanswered but like any right thinking person saw the defeat of the evil which is called ISIS (Daesh) as an urgent priority. Little did I think that the speech of one person might change my mind, but that was the effect of Hilary Benn’s speech, not only his mastery of the details of what is going on but answering fairly convincingly why bombing is needed and why it would be effective. Clearly, because of the cheering, and despite the disgust some have expressed, others concurred with and were relieved by the views that were so articulately expressed and were also impressed by the leadership and grasp of the issues that was on show and, like his father, he demonstrated the courage of his convictions and capability to exercise independent thought.

Not all saw it in this way, and there has been a considerable outcry including that of betrayal by many, a few of which I would regard as friends, feeling more bombing to be counter-productive and immoral. But Hilary did what his father did even if coming to a different view, argue based on the facts and according to his convictions, and with good grace. Some made the point he is a future Labour leader in the making, being of the view the writing is on the wall for Jeremy Corbyn who is seen to be floundering. Others have conceded the presentation was superb but the substance wasn’t. Some have even said that the speech was made with intent to undermine the leader, noting an earlier anti-war stance, and mount his own claims. Far be it from me to argue one way or another on such delicate questions but, for the first time perhaps, I saw a future Prime Minister in the making, and I have no doubt that his father would have been proud of the way he conducted himself.

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