Since 1999, Hilary Benn has been the Labour MP for Leeds Central. While some may know him primarily for being the son of Tony Benn – the standard-bearer for Labour’s left throughout the 1970s and 80s – Hilary is very much a politician in his own right, having served as Secretary for International Development under Blair, Environment Secretary under Brown and, most recently, Corbyn’s Shadow Foreign Secretary. I was very privileged to be able to interview him after a talk he gave at the University – hosted by Exeter’s Labour Students – in which he defended Britain’s membership of the EU and fielded questions on Syria and national security.
Benn shot to fame in the closing months of last year for his impassioned speech supporting the use of airstrikes in Syria. The power of his oratory was praised by many, and caused Telegraph journalist Dan Hodges to remark, “He did not just captivate the House, he inverted the House. Hilary Benn did not look like the Shadow Foreign Secretary. He did not look like the leader of the opposition. He looked like the prime minister.”
Unsurprisingly, Benn’s decision to back airstrikes was questioned by some listening to his talk and it became apparent that his resolve has not weakened since the vote last December. “Two weeks ago,” Benn responded, “I spoke to a Yezidi woman, Nadia Murad, in the House of Commons. She told us of how her family were murdered, all of the men in her village killed, and how she was sold into sexual slavery and raped repeatedly.” He urged his critics to realise that the Syria vote was not a case of “a virtuous position of refusing to bomb on one side and then a bunch of murderers on the other; there were consequences for doing nothing also”. As an opponent, Benn is clearly sharp and formidable. When a student argued that the blame for terrorism can be placed at the door of the West and British society, Benn retorted: “You tell me what social causes make you decapitate an 82-year old man.” However, Benn’s sharpness is matched by his graciousness, with him making a beeline for the aforementioned student after the talk, shaking his hand and thanking him for advancing such an articulate question.
“You tell me what social causes make you decapitate an 82-year old man”
When I got the chance to interview Hilary alone – in the back of a Land Rover Discovery, it was all very The Thick of It – I reminded him that, in 2013, the Labour Party – including Benn – voted against air strikes against President Assad in Syria, so I asked him if he still believes this was the right decision. “You need to go back and look at the Labour resolution we voted for in 2013,” Hilary responds. “It could have led to us taking military action in Syria, but it set certain conditions … being shown that the Assad government had been responsible for the chemical attack, the UN looking at it, etc. So there were various stages that had to be gone through and we voted for that motion, but it was defeated. We then voted against the government’s motion because it didn’t have all of the conditions that we’d attached in the Labour motion. People have slightly forgotten what was on the table at the time.”
The result of the 2015 election was a shock to pretty much everyone – not least the pollsters – and I asked Benn if he had any inkling that Labour would do as badly as they did, and what his recollections were of that night. He laughs in a way that says, “Oh God, don’t remind me”, and answers, “Well, I think, like everyone, I remember sitting at home and watching the exit poll appear on the screen … I think we were all expecting a hung parliament but it wasn’t to be.” He then begins ruminating on the defeat. “Why did we lose? I think principally because we were not trusted on the economy,” he declares. “I remember one particular conversation during the election. I knocked on a woman’s door and she said to me, ‘Ah, I voted for you in 2010’, and I thought, ‘Well, if you voted for us in 2010 we’re in here.’ She then continued: ‘But I’m not going to vote for you this time.’ I asked her why that was and she said, ‘In 2010 I voted Labour because I was afraid of what David Cameron would do to the economy. And this time I’m voting for David Cameron because I’m not sure about what you’d do to the economy.’”
Factions and labels are pervasive in the Labour Party, with seemingly everyone feeling the need to identify as a Blairite, Brownite or a Corbynite. I asked Hilary if these terms had any use, and he immediately started groaning. “No! I … urgh … Down with labels!” he exclaims. “You know why? Because … actually, what do they mean? I’ll tell you a story. We were voting to ban fox hunting, and I walked into the division lobby, and there was Teddy Taylor, who was regarded as a very right-wing Conservative MP. I said, ‘Teddy? I’m surprised to see you here!’ and he said ‘You know what, Hilary? I’d never really thought about fox hunting until I was invited to visit the local hunt in my constituency: it was the most disgusting thing I had ever seen. I resolved there and then to vote if I got the chance to stop it happening.’ Now, in that case, how did the label that people attach to Teddy Taylor tell us anything?” He observes, “I think labels get in the way of addressing the argument someone is making, the positions they are making, and are usually just used to say, ‘I don’t have to listen to the points they are making because they’re a ‘whatsit-ite’. Whatever colour it is, it’s not terribly helpful.”
In a similar vein, I mentioned to Hilary that I have friends who are thinking of leaving the Labour Party due to feeling utterly disconnected with it, and asked him why they should remain. “Because we’re a large family and although we have arguments in the Labour Party – indeed we’re rather good at them – what unites us is much, much more important than what may divide us at a particular time. I’ve been a member for coming up 45 years. And like loads of members, I’m Labour through-and-through. You could say I was born into the Labour Party, but I will certainly die in the Labour Party, and I’ve no intention of going anywhere else. So, my plea would be: ‘Stick with us. Join the debate. If you’ve got views express them! Become a delegate to conference, get elected as a councillor. Do your bit; play your part.’ That’s what I would say.”
“I’m Labour through-and-through”
As I mentioned, Hilary is the son of Tony Benn. During the 1980s, the split between the hard-left Bennite faction and the Labour Party’s right led to a decade of bloody infighting within the party, culminating in the eventual rise of Tony Blair and New Labour. One may well imagine that part of Hilary’s hatred of labels stems from the fact that he frequently had to assert he was “a Benn – not a Bennite”. In one of his diaries, Tony Benn relates that Peter Mandelson – a key architect of New Labour’s ascension – told Hilary that he must stop sounding so much like Tony when speaking if he wanted to succeed in the party. I put this to Hilary and asked if his heritage had helped or hindered his career.
Hilary laughs and comments wryly, “Well, all I will say about that conversation is that I didn’t pay any attention to what Peter Mandelson said, and as you can see it clearly did me a great deal of harm.” He continues, “I happened to grow up in a household where we would talk about, and were encouraged to have an interest in, what was happening in the world. I have memories of holding my parents’ hands when I was this small and marching along to some protest in Trafalgar Square. Then as you grow older you gradually become aware of why we’re campaigning against Apartheid or Franco in Spain, or whatever it was.”
Our conversation ends on a reflective note as we talk about his father. “Our principal responsibility as parents is to do two things. One is to love our children and the second is to encourage them. Both of my parents encouraged me, my two brothers and my sister enormously, in everything that we did.” He reminisces: “We laid my dad’s ashes to rest in September last year and his name, what he did and his dates are inscribed in stone under my mum’s. He said to us when he was dying: ‘I want you to put three other words on the bottom of my gravestone’ and the three words are: ‘He encouraged us’. Lots of people he met say he encouraged them in his political life … he certainly encouraged me.”