Hannah McGill: Hilary Benn’s behaviour is the norm

It's unlikely that Tony Benn would be surprised by his son's enthusiasm for bombing. Picture: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
It's unlikely that Tony Benn would be surprised by his son's enthusiasm for bombing. Picture: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
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DO YOU model your politics on those of your parents?

Or grit your teeth in their company to avoid certain subjects coming up? One might question a number of aspects of the much-vaunted speech made by Hilary Benn MP at the conclusion of last week’s debate on air strikes in Syria – not least what factors have caused him to drop the anti-bombing, pro-peace talks stance he held a few short weeks ago. Many have chosen to focus, however, on the clash between the content of Benn’s speech, and the anti-war sentiments attributed to his late father, Tony Benn. Benn senior, said Alex Salmond, would be “birling in his grave”; Lindsay German of the Stop the War coalition, of which Tony Benn was a president, proclaimed herself “ashamed” of Hilary’s stance.

It’s unlikely that Tony would be surprised by his son’s enthusiasm for bombing, newfound though it appears to be – he was still around, after all, when Hilary voted in favour of the 2003 Iraq war and the 2011 intervention in Libya. Nor was Tony himself a thoroughgoing pacifist: he was in the RAF during the Second World War, and told an interviewer in 2009: “I believe in the right of self-defence.” What’s odder about these comments is the assumption that father and son should naturally share the same views. Tell that to Michael Portillo, whose father was a left-wing refugee from Franco’s Spain, but who still became a right-wing Tory capable of claiming on occasion that all foreigners are corrupt or that refugees should be sent back where they came from. Or David Miliband, Blairite son of a Marxist academic. Or Martin Sheen, the Catholic liberal Democrat environmentalist who somehow gave the world the complex moral entity that is Charlie Sheen… If these people have the right to be regarded as separate decision-making entities from those with whom they share genes, why doesn’t Hilary Benn? The alternative would seem to be an odd situation in which we all checked our parents’ views before coming to decisions about significant matters and deliberately quelled any opposing instincts in ourselves.

The assumption has long been that parental politics provide a direct and key influence on our own. Recent research, however, has suggested that this isn’t a simple matter of aping what we saw or heard at home. Kids raised in households where politics is discussed are more likely to be politically aware, but also to expose themselves to differing viewpoints, which they are then disproportionately likely to embrace. This all makes Hilary Benn’s political distance from his father the norm rather than an aberration – and raises the intriguing possibility of a degree of unconscious rebellion in even our most sincere convictions. You might think you’ve reached your own conclusions on the issues of the day, but the teenager in you is still bucking your parents’ boring old values. The only way, then, to ensure a chance of your kids aligning with you on the important stuff is… not to talk about politics at all.