Joyce McMillan: Voice of opposition has failed us

Hilary Benn's speech was received with  delighted applause by Conservative MPs. Picture: Getty
Hilary Benn's speech was received with delighted applause by Conservative MPs. Picture: Getty
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The lack of any united stand in the airstrikes debate has left Labour looking increasingly divided, writes Joyce McMillan

It’s division time on Wednesday evening, in the House of Commons; and Tory MPs are clustering around the new hero of the hour, asking him to sign their order papers. The man in question is the Labour Party’s shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, whose summing-up speech in favour of bombing in Syria has just been received with an unprecedented round of cheers and applause in the chamber.

In terms of content, it was actually a fairly undistinguished speech, although passionately delivered; a single paragraph of serious argument about the role of western air strikes in helping to halt the advance of IS or Daesh in Iraq, surrounded by a cloud of distressingly vague generalisations, from both current establishment thinking and Labour history, about the importance of fighting fascism. Of course, the Commons debate was not about whether we should fight fascism, but about whether dropping bombs on northern Syria would materially assist that fight.

Yet Hilary Benn’s overblown historical rhetoric – which included a particularly breathtaking analogy with the International Brigades who fought in Spain in the 1930s – was just what pro-bombing MPs wanted to hear. And it came, naturally enough, as particularly sweet music to the ears of Tory MPs, in that it not only highlighted the current savage divisions within the Labour Party, but was delivered by the son of that great standard-bearer of the anti-war British left, the late Tony Benn. The sight of them breaking into delighted applause over his call for bombing was not edifying; but in the political pressure-cooker of Westminster, it was completely predictable.

About the military action to which the UK, as a nation, has now committed itself, there are many things worth saying, if we wish to keep the whole sorry situation in Syria in perspective. In the first place, it’s worth noting that our allies seem in fact to have been much less concerned about our decision than we were led to believe; eight Tornado bombers more or less will not make or break the western effort in Syria, and the British political class urgently needs to adopt a more mature and realistic attitude to our role in the world.

Secondly, we should consider the truth that if it had not been for the lethal attacks in Paris on 13 November, the House of Commons would not have been debating this issue at this time at all. Attacks like the 12 November assault which killed more than 40 people in Beirut, or hundreds of deaths inflicted by the same fundamentalist forces in the cities of Iraq, do not move us to change our policy.

Yet one attack in a western city does move us; and what’s more, moves us to take a form of action we would not even consider, if those civilians likely to die as “collateral damage” to the bombing were British, American or French. And it’s that unexamined hierarchy of sympathy and humanity – that profound, unthinking double standard about which lives matter and which do not – that surely acts as the most effective recruiting sergeant for every kind of anti-western fundamentalism, in the west and far beyond.

Then thirdly, whatever else we are doing in this matter, we should be clear that 99 per cent of us here in Britain are not remotely “going to war” in the sense that our parents or grandparents did in 1939, or for that matter in 1936, when brave individuals left for Spain, to become the ultimate “boots on the ground” in a bitterly-fought war against fascism.

What we are doing, by contrast, is settling down to what is becoming the routine spectacle of 21st-century warfare, where small groups of British servicemen and women take part in military action far away, while we continue with our lives as normal, give or take some distressing images on the television news.

On Sunday night an enthralling session at Edinburgh Castle by a company called Theatre of War highlighted the huge pressure this kind of warfare places on the tiny minority who go into action on our behalf, and on their families; and we should never forget that they often pay, through their own pain and trauma, for our society’s profound confusion about whether it really wants to fight for its values, or just to watch others fighting from the comfort of the sofa.

And then finally, we have the not unimportant question of the long-term political implications of Wednesday’s Commons debate, which seemed to mark a defining moment of schism in the Labour Party.

In allowing Labour MPs a free vote, Jeremy Corbyn may have felt that he was striking a blow for a new and more adult form of politics – treating them as elected representatives with a duty to make up their own minds, rather than party hacks to be whipped into the lobbies.

In the end though – and despite Mr Corbyn’s success in winning majority support among his MPs and shadow cabinet – Wednesday night’s events marked a clear defeat for any idea of a “new” politics. Instead, the disciplined ranks of the anti-bombing SNP looked good and even statesmanlike in the cockpit of Westminster, while the Labour Party looked a mess; worse, like the SNP during last year’s referendum campaign, the pro-Corbyn elements of the Labour Party are now being smeared by association with a few online loudmouths who have apparently been sending rude texts and emails to Blairite MPs, threatening them with deselection.

It is, of course, more than ridiculous to hear Westminster MPs complaining of “bullying” by vocal constituents, in a parliament whose internal whipping system has historically been based almost entirely on fairly crude forms of strong-arming and blackmail. Some bullies, it seems, are much more acceptable than others.

On Wednesday, though, in the national theatre of the Commons chamber, Mr Corbyn failed to find a way of making his new narrative work, for any but his most devoted admirers.

And once again, a nation that desperately needs a strong, principled, and sensible opposition was left apparently without one - except, of course, the SNP, ever more open to question on its policies in Scotland, but now playing an undisputed blinder at Westminster; while the Labour Party stares into what looks increasingly like a final abyss of division, bitterness, and disarray.