‘Once more unto the breach’ – On Hilary Benn and Fighting Wars with Words

IMG-20150308-WA0003 (3)A guest post from Nadya Ali. Nadya is a Teaching Fellow in Politics and IR at the University of Reading. Her thesis was written on the topic of UK counter-terrorism and it’s role in the governance of the domestic Muslim population. Her research interests include gendered understandings of political violence and postcolonial approaches in IR. She is also a convenor of the BISA Critical Studies on Terrorism Working Group.

Shadow Home Secretary Hilary Benn has emerged as the unlikely oratory hero through his speech to the House of Commons during the debate on whether to carry out airstrikes in Syria. It has been hailed as ‘extraordinary’ and as one “that will go down as one of the truly great speeches made in this House of Commons”. Benn has been described as ‘the mouse that roared’ and now even as a potential leadership candidate. The effusive coverage of the speech comes in the aftermath of the successful vote which enables the extension of British airstrikes targeting Islamic State (IS) from Iraq into Syria. Leaving aside the context of internal Labour party politics, Benn’s words have a resonance and political utility that extend far beyond the party. Despite the plaudits and unlike Shakespeare’s Henry V, Benn did not deliver a great speech but simply the right speech.

His dramatic moment in the House of Commons was the culmination of the successful move to, once more, mobilise British military capability as part of the ‘War on Terror’. According to one journalist the speech was written while the debate took place with Benn sitting on the front bench. This was no doubt intended as a compliment but it needn’t be: everything he said was could have been lifted out of the ‘War on Terror Handbook of Justifications to Fight Wars’, if indeed it existed. Since 9/11 Western leaders have deployed the same set of claims about particular actors, states and terrorist organisations to make the case for military interventions. Benn ticked all the relevant boxes; he talked suitably about the ‘fascist’ threat of IS, of ‘our values’ and the necessity to use further violence.

In their 2007 volume, Adam Hodges and Chad Nilep state: “In response to events like those of 9/11, language formulates the questions and frames the response […] Language, entwined with power, frames and positions the response.”[1] Benn’s words, his framing of the problem, were entirely cognisant of dominant War on Terror discourses regarding the issue of Islamic extremism and the necessity to use violence in order to fight it. Take for example the decision to refer to IS as ‘Daesh’ to undermine their legitimacy. They were also frequently referred to as a ‘death cult’ during the debate which was done in order to undermine their claims to political legitimacy and more importantly strip them of the pretensions to statehood. The physical control of territory, a monopoly on the use of violence and the development of a complex tax system does not a state make. Following on from this, Benn described ‘Daesh’ as fascists with a superiority complex who resemble the unholy triad of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini making them ‘an evil that must be confronted’.

The comparison of IS to emblematic figures of fascism is no accident. Richard Jackson analysed how following the attacks on 9/11, Bush construed the event as a new Pearl Harbour, an event which precipitated American entry into WWII.[2] Similarly, then, 9/11 was framed as a declaration of war which required a like for like response facilitating the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, Blair referred to a newspaper editorial which championed the appeasement policy of Chamberlain as evidence for why Britain should use military force this time. Within this framework there can be no political negotiations or settlements of the kind advocated by Corbyn to limit the threat of IS but only war. Indeed, David Cameron warned the Conservative Committee 1922 before the airstrike debate, “You should not be walking through the lobbies with Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”.

The drawing of such sharp distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is strongly reminiscent of George Bush’s belief that ‘either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’. The conflicts of the War on Terror have in part been facilitated through the production of national and civilisational identities. IS is a death cult which indulges in the murder of gay men, Yazidi women, and charity workers. Britain is tolerant and decent and for these reasons IS ‘hold us in contempt’. Benn goes onto argue, “They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt.” Again, this strongly recalls Bush in 2001: “They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

The drawing of civilisational battle lines has been at the heart of the on-going military, social and cultural interventions of the War on Terror. ‘They hate us for what we are and not for what we do’. This depiction of Islamic jihadi organisations allows for the convenient erasure of the historical and contemporary context of Western interventions within the Middle East, Africa and South East Asia. What has happened in the last 14 years since the War on Terror was declared? The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq did not result in the creation of liberal democracies but continued insecurity and (violent) contest over who rules and how. Since the overthrow of Gadhafi and the persistent political instability which occurred as a result, Libya has in fact attracted a significant IS presence. The Syrian civil war and the spread of IS, itself an outgrowth of al-Qaeda’s insurgencies against coalition forces in Iraq, has laid waste to lives, infrastructure and post-WWI political settlements. This is not to mention the peripheral theatres of war where Western states interests are deeply vested and often where they intervene without so much as a whisper from the national press: Yemen, Somalia, Mali, and Pakistan. The appalling loss of life – or ‘collateral damage’ – inflicted by ten years of the War on Terror and barely acknowledged was calculated to be at least 1.3 million people by the Washington DC-based organisation Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The role of interventionist Western states, in particular of Britain, is therefore much more complicated and morally suspect then Benn’s speech would suggest. Thus, when he claims: “The question which confronts us in a very, very complex conflict is at its heart very simple” one is reminded of George Orwell’s words in ‘Politics and the English Language’. He wrote, “Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”[3] The only aspect of Benn’s speech that was ‘extraordinary’ was that fourteen years after the last ill-judged invasion premised on the defeating evil and bringing change to the benighted people of Iraq, 397 MP’s were persuaded, yet again, to do the same for Syria.

[1] Adam Hodges and Chad Nilep (2007) Discourse, War and Terrorism, (John Benjamins Publishing Company: Amsterdam/Philadelphia)

[2] Richard Jackson (2005) Writing the War on Terror, (Manchester University Press: Manchester)

[3] George Orwell (2010) Politics and the English Language, (Penguin: London)

3 thoughts on “‘Once more unto the breach’ – On Hilary Benn and Fighting Wars with Words

  1. A good piece, but you haven’t mentioned Hilary Benn’s motives in making that remarkably misjudged speech, that he aimed to bring out the UKIP vote against his own party, and unseat his own leader, Jeremy Corbyn, at his first electoral test in the Oldham by-election. Hilary Benn is one of the minority Parliamentary Labour Party MPs opposed to the new Labour Party leader, who has the support of 250000 members against the Prime Minister’s bombing of Syria. Corbyn gave the PLP a free vote, some would say, to give figures like Benn enough rope to hang themselves, and that’s exactly what the hapless Benn did.

    The mainstream media claimed UKIP’s support was running at a massive 38% prior to Dec 4, when Benn made his fateful speech. It was predicted to be a gain from Labour, in their northern heartland. UKIP are an anti-EU, anti-immigration party who have one MP, and 47000 members. Analysts and commentators predicted Corbyn would resign by the weekend as a result, with Benn running for leader. It wasn’t to be.

    With the apparent surge in UKIP, Benn seized his moment to push for leader, using emotive language, and repeating ISIS atrocities, as if no one had heard of the terrorists, and their horrific acts. As if the situation needed heating up any more. But he also chose the same language used by some to describe Islam the religion, and Muslims that they are “fascistic”. It isn’t, and they aren’t, and in adopting this non-Labour party language, he incurred the wrath and ridicule of the membership, compounded when Labour swept to victory in Oldham on Dec 4, improving their vote, and confounding media analysts. It was a great moment for democracy, and for social networking, where many, contrary to the mainstream media, predicted that Labour would sweep to victory in Oldham, and that UKIP would come nowhere, which is exactly what happened.


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