An evening with Hilary Benn

BY TOM LANSDELL

“We are hypocritical, we are inconsistent, but my argument is always this: Just because you can’t do the right thing everywhere, has never struck me as a really good argument as to why you shouldn’t try to do the right thing somewhere where you can.”

On Friday evening, Hilary Benn talked to York students on a range of topics including Brexit, foreign policy and the future of the Labour Party in the first PolSoc speaker event of the year.

Having become the new chair of the Brexit Commons Committee last month, discussion naturally began with Brexit. Benn gave his take on why people voted to “Leave” on 23rd June, positing that the result could not be reduced to one factor: “immigration/migration, loss, change, inequality, sovereignty and a vote against the status quo – It was all of those things.”

When host Dr Jim Buller questioned whether the tone and message of the Remain campaign was right, Benn gave a defence of the campaign, but he did acknowledge that although “the positive case was made, whether it got covered or conveyed is another matter.”

Discussion then turned to what Britain could hope to get out of Brexit negotiations. Benn highlighted the need for transitional arrangements given the complexities surrounding disentanglement. He asked:

“What’s going to happen to students from the EU, who are studying here, are they going to be treated as home students or overseas students? What’s going to happen to the Erasmus programme? What’s going to happen to horizon 2020? Academic collaboration? That’s just in your sector alone.”

As to what he wanted from negotiations, he hoped that Britain would be able to keep in place many of what he saw as the beneficial arrangements that the EU offers, most notably in terms of anti-terrorism and security. He criticised the government’s lack of transparency, stating that “the frustration at the moment is that the government isn’t even saying what its plan is apart from: we want to get the best deal; we want a bespoke deal.”

Having famously given an impassioned speech in the Commons last December which called for the extension of airstrikes against Daesh to Iraq, Buller asked Benn what his view was on recent developments in the conflict. Benn described the situation as a “bloody mess” and stood by the position he took a year ago, saying of Daesh that “there’s nothing to negotiate with them about… they need to be defeated”.

In light of Benn’s dismissal from the Shadow Cabinet in June, discussion, as expected, moved on to the future of the Labour Party. Benn praised Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to “enthuse the membership”, but on how well he was fulfilling his responsibility to “command the confidence of the team you lead in parliament”, Benn said: “draw your attention to the events of the summer and the vote in the PLP”.

Benn was then further grilled on the direction of the Labour Party by members of the audience, specifically being asked about “Labour’s failure to talk to its northern heartlands”, whether Labour was “failing the country” in its inability to provide effective opposition and if the return of Tony Blair was good for Labour. On the divisions within Labour, Benn said:

“It’s perfectly possible to hold the view that one or the other would be a better leader and it doesn’t mean that you have to have to call someone who doesn’t support one of them a “Red Tory” or a “Blairite” or any one of a number of epithets that have been hurled in the direction of certain people including myself. And I must confess I find it a bit much when someone who has probably been in the Labour Party for about three and a half minutes tells someone who has devoted their entire life you’re in the wrong party: “You’re a Tory”. I am not a Tory, and I’m not going to be called a “Red Tory”. Respect. A bit of respect for each other. That’s the first point I would make.”

The evening concluded with questions on the influence of his parents and his other political heroes. Benn paid tribute to the work of Clement Attlee for the creation of the NHS and welfare state; and Harold Wilson for his socially liberalising reforms. He also emphasised that even though he and his father did disagree on some issues, the “love and encouragement” that he showed as well as the principle to “stand up for what you think, say what you believe” was what had the most profound influence on him, rather than any particular ideological prescription.

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