It was 9.30 pm on Wednesday, December 2, 2015. In the winter dark the River Thames swirled its ancient way past the Palace of Westminster as Big Ben signaled the passage of time from high in the Elizabeth Tower as it has since 1859.
In the great chamber of the House of Commons on the banks of the Thames some 90 meters below the clock tower a long, often raucous, sometimes bitter, debate was grumbling to its close. Before the day ended 620 Members of Parliament would vote on the issue of continuing air strikes against ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Hansard records 9.30 as the precise minute when Hilary Benn, son of late Labour Party stalwart and sparkling orator Tony Benn, stood to speak. The House fell silent as he stepped to the Despatch Box, the final speaker winding up the debate. Having been Labour’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and being an accomplished orator in his own right, his closing speech was expected to command attention.
The half hour chimes of Big Ben had barely faded when Hilary signaled where his support would be when the vote was taken. His leader, Jeremy Corbyn, newly elected head of the Labour Party, was already firmly on record as an opponent of any military action in the Iraq-Syria conflict zone. Benn thanked the Speaker for granting him the floor but said before he got to the core of the debate he had a message for Prime Minister David Cameron.
The Chamber waited as the PM responded with a faint flicker of a smile and a quick word to a colleague. And Hilary Benn in clear, stern voice said: “Although my right honourable friend the Leader of the Opposition and I will walk into different division lobbies tonight, I am proud to speak from the same Despatch Box as him. My right honourable friend is not a terrorist sympathizer, he is an honest, a principled, a decent and a good man and I think the Prime Minister must now regret what he said yesterday and his failure to do what he should have done today – which is simply to say ‘I am sorry.’” Cameron, who had indeed earlier used abusive and condemning language, did not apologize, but he did lose his potential happy-face. He now knew he had Benn’s vote to continue, even expand, military action, but he also knew he was being taught a lesson on how to disagree with someone on grave and important matters without having to resort to insults and derogatory language.
It is a lesson all elected politicians would do well to learn.
I’m not going to waste any more of your time with my selected quotes from Hilary Benn’s speech which, according to the UK’s current (Conservative Party) Secretary of State for Foreign affairs “will go down as one of the truly great speeches made in the House of Commons.” I just urge to take a look and listen at:
http://www.theguardian.com/politics/video/2015/dec/03/hilary-benn-airstrikes-vote-speech-full-must-confront-isis-evil-video and draw your own conclusions.
One, of many, things to consider if you do take a look and listen – as you should: You will never have seen or heard actions like it in any of our Canadian parliaments, provincial or federal, where MLAs and MPs are taught party loyalty is more important that sincerity and truth; and where any party member with the courage or temerity to challenge and reject a tame “follow the leader” role would be immediately termed a maverick – or worse- – and banished from caucus.
Some years ago chatting with the late Garde Gardom about Canada’s tame backbenchers and “I’m the boss” party leaders, and how we lacked the democratic ability of the mother of parliaments to not just accept internal criticism but actually encourage it and Garde said: “Yes, but you have to understand we’ve only been at it for a couple of hundred years or so. They have a few thousand under their belt so we have a little way to go.” True, but there’s no harm in dreaming – and how wonderful to see that spirit still exists across the pond.
If you’re hesitant about screening a political debate because you just don’t have time – relax. Hilary Benn’s start as noted by Hansard at the top of this piece was 9.30 pm. He finished at 9.44 – to a standing ovation and cheers from both sides of the House.
Go ahead, click on the link, whether you agree or not, you’ll find his 14 minute oration challenging and see in inaction a parliamentarian not afraid to be different.If you like it, send the link to your MLA or MP with a note suggesting the example wouldn’t be a bad one to follow; and if you lean towards pacificism – you will find, as I did, a strong challenge to long held beliefs.