It sounds like a Frankie Boyle line: The citizens of Raqqa are rejoicing at a distraction from beheadings and crucifixions – yet another country is sending jets to bomb us.
And as British tornadoes at last hit the correct type of military targets – oil facilities from which the medieval terrorists get their income – how many Syrian families are grieving the loss of operators and service engineers at those plants? Because they aren’t run by men in black body suits and Kalashnikovs but rather by the same innocent workers we’re supposed to be protecting.
The dilemmas, eh? Moral dubiety abounded in the Commons as MPs wrestled with conscience and loyalty, although, to be fair, it’s in the job description. And there was scant introspection from Hilary Benn, new hero of the British Right, whose moral certainty put a cap on the Westminster talk-a-thon. It surprised me because he has always come over as a mild man, a bit diffident, and not really the alpha male Big Beast. I once shared a joke with him where his willingness to laugh with a journalist was unstuffy and refreshing. Maybe he was still in those days in the shadow of dad, hardly a surprise. And the same father, studiously polite, nevertheless exuded an air of hauteur with a reporter. He expected your attention and respect as he took out his own teabag to put in the cup of boiling water provided and ostentatiously laid his own tape recorder beside yours. He recorded every interview he ever did for the memoirs. Somewhere in that massive archive is my voice, probably sounding reverential.
In this Commons theatre Tony’s son finally came into his own, claiming his place in the pantheon of Historic Speeches, whatever one’s view of its meaning. That his position on this issue is almost certainly diametrically opposite to this father’s theoretical view is an academic point. But it must surely have crossed the mind of many when they recalled not just Tony’s natural leanings but his epic anti-war speech in the Commons before the Iraq debacle. I was puzzled by the virulence of attacks on George Kerevan who was tweeting about this along the lines of Tony spinning in his grave. Disgusting, said Jackson Carlaw. Shameful, said Blair McDougall. Tony’s granddaughter (Labour politician) Emma was cross too. But surely comparing in this way is a natural process that all such families go through and it doesn’t stop at death. John Maxton was unfavourably compared to Jimmy. Tory Adrian Shinwell had to laugh off jibes about his Red Clydside uncle Manny. If, heaven forfend, Fergus Ewing ever defected to Labour, would not journalists write about Winnie’s despair?
I admit as a journalist that, were it possible, I would slyly put to a (resurrected) Tony that he must be secretly proud of his son whatever his policy misgivings and I have no doubt the truth would appear in his face, if not his words. But all this faux indignation, please…If you want tasteless, look no further than the bullish, infantile cheering and clapping that greeted Benn. It was a scene from Oh! What a Lovely War 2015.
It may be of course that Labour are desperately trying to cover tracks here in defending Benn. His peroration was the apotheosis but the whole 10-hour debate was a symphony of despair for Labour. Memories of Iraq which still haunt them hung over the chamber, a sizeable rebellion that represented so much more than a vote on this one issue was a cartoon for Corbyn’s leadership and the inability of Labour to redefine itself post GE2015 was grotesquely exposed. The 66 will be remembered. You know they will. They weren’t enough to swing the vote, nothing like it, but the internal invective will ensure they become the anti-Corbynistas whose every move – and reselection – will be targeted.
Labour sources began the week by implying there was nothing wrong with disagreement and that it symbolised the actuality out in the country. There is something in this but I suggest Neil Findlay, Simon Pia and others were as interested in preparing the ground for party division on Syria as they were in democratic discourse. Nevertheless, I’ve never been comfortable with a party whip system operating on matters of conscience. If an MP can’t exercise a conscience, what is the point of electing him? I appreciate the SNP members met and all agreed, rather than were obliged, to vote one way but what did they agree to? In effect they understood the political importance of a collective No vote. And they offered a sensible amendment. But, if it were agreed all could decide individually without prejudice, would not one of the 54 have been tempted to support Yes on the basis it is a relatively simple extension of an existing war; that a Scot was beheaded by the enemy and the public mood will change further if, as is expected, there is an attack on UK soil? The trouble here is that they were commanded before entering the Commons to obey the whip at any cost because loyalty was all. As a result a universal position looks pre-arranged rather than honestly made. Having said that, I can’t think of an individual who was likely to demur from voting against. And, it has to be said, with the SNP, you get what you see.
And there’s now a clear divide between Scotland’s MPs and the rest of the country which creates another break with the Union feeding into people’s sense of political estrangement. (We could see something similar in the Euro referendum, or at least the Celtic nations voting differently from England, as the National Centre for Social Research says today). I liked the way some voices on Twitter took offence at the idea that Nationalists were exploiting the bombing issue to the benefit of independence. Eh…two points. Not being part of the UK means not being part of the UK’s wars – unless we choose to. If a majority of Scots – seven out of 10 – and ninety per cent of our MPs are against something but we get it anyway, that’s the case for independence in a nutshell. Secondly, the Prime Minister couldn’t be playing politics with this issue, could he? We’re not just joining the big boys club with the bombs, are we? And we’re really going to destroy ISIS with just an aerial campaign. Is that right? He wasn’t pursuing it part to wreck Labour, I’m sure. No naked politics here. Not even Margaret Beckett saying we couldn’t let down our French allies in their hour of need – the same allies who said No to joining the coalition of the willing after 9/11. Politics, eh.
As Frankie Boyle might say: You can’t clap a point of order in the Commons but you can give a standing ovation to a war cry.by