Apology in order for outburst which does no credit to former First Minister nor to the memory of a Labour maverick
Alex Salmond has always been the type of politician who would happily cross the street for a good argument. But like all combative personalities he has a habit of overstepping the mark. It happened again yesterday as he attacked the Labour foreign affairs spokesman, Hilary Benn, over the Syrian airstrikes issue, by invoking the memory of Benn’s late father. Salmond’s criticism followed a rousing Commons speech made by Benn jnr in favour of action which won applause from the Tory benches and supportive Labour MSPs – and unusually met with wider acclaim outside the Westminster village. Perhaps it was this which irked Salmond and prompted him to claim Tony Benn, a giant of the Labour movement, would have been “birling in his grave” over the approach taken by his son. The remark followed a similar comment by Nationalist MP George Kerevan on social media in the immediate aftermath of the eventual vote in favour of airstrikes.
Such emotive language was wholly inappropriate for the Benn family, which only lost its patriarch last year. The anger expressed by granddaughter Emily is something the former SNP leader would do well to take heed.
More importantly, the idea that Hilary Benn, a respected politician in his own right and former UK cabinet minister for international development, should have to mirror his father’s every political viewpoint is plainly ridiculous. It flies in the face of one of Benn snr’s favourite political mantras and the title of his early memoirs: Dare to be a Daniel. Just as Daniel, in the biblical tale, braved and survived a night in a den of lions rather than renounce his faith, so Benn snr believed in standing up for one’s political beliefs in the face of the fiercest opposition.
Certainly Tony Benn was an outspoken critic of Tony Blair’s military ventures in his latter years, opposing military strikes in Kosovo as well as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. His seminal speech in 1992, pointing out the double standards of the UK’s approach in the Middle East, is testament to the prominent role he came to play in the Stop the War coalition. But Benn was nothing if not a maverick and it is presumptuous of anyone to boldly assert where Benn snr would have stood on this issue. No two sets of circumstances are ever the same. But we could be fairly confident that Benn snr would not have resorted to this level of insult over a political difference in a free vote.
It contrasts with the altogether more measured approach of Salmond’s replacement Nicola Sturgeon. She had set out an “honest difference of opinion” with the UK government’s approach and said yesterday only that she was “deeply troubled” by the military action.
It is not the first time Salmond’s impulsive approach has landed him in trouble. His bizarre declaration that he admired “certain aspects” of Vladimir Putin’s leadership did few favours for the Yes side during the referendum campaign.
Perhaps the former First Minister was simply swept up in the febrile atmosphere which seems to have taken hold at Westminster this week. MPs have received threats and images of dead babies over their support for airstrikes. Whatever prompted his outburst, Salmond should now reflect on his comments and apologise to the Benn family.