Tomorrow I’m out all day. This afternoon someone’s coming to see me about their family funeral. So it’s imperative that I write my sermon for Sunday this morning – because today’s Friday.
But I can’t settle to it because something is nagging at my mind. Whatever happened to Hilary Benn?
It’s not the speech he made that bothers me so much – it’s the apparent U-turn.
On November 15th, a fortnight before the Syria vote in the House of Commons, he gave an interview to the Independent newspaper, in which he expressed his views carefully and in full. You can read what he said here but, to give you the general idea, one of his remarks about Syria was this: “The most useful contribution we can make is to support as a nation the peace talks that have started. That is the single most important thing we can do.”
So far as we knew, that was his stance, his opinion.
As the Shadow Foreign Secretary, it cannot be the case that the interview he gave The Independent caught him on the hop – it is not possible that the opinion he expressed reflected the un-considered stance of a man who didn’t know much about the topic. It must have been dominating his thinking in the last few weeks just as it has been dominated the thinking of all people who care about national life and international politics.
So what happened?
On the night of the Syria debate, 3oth November, Hilary Benn had the job of summing up for the opposition.
The speech he gave has been hailed with enthusiastic plaudits, though in truth its merits were almost entirely vested in rhetorical performance rather than in useful content.
The sentiments it expressed echoed faithfully the Conservative stance. It was a surprising summing up for the Opposition.
But it was a barnstorming speech, full of plenty of the old rabble-rousers, and he will undoubtedly bear responsibility for having given the United Kingdom a hefty shove in the direction of the bombing of Syria. And his speech was modeled upon the one Tony Blair gave, that took us into war with Iraq – see The Canary’s analysis here.
So – what happened to Hilary Benn between the fifteenth and the thirtieth of November?
Do we simply have a Shadow Foreign Secretary with so loose a grasp of the international situation that he can think one thing one moment and then two weeks later think the precise opposite, when nothing has substantially changed? The tragedy in Paris happened on the seventeenth of November of course – but, though sickening, that of itself should not be determinant of foreign policy regarding the best approach to a situation we already knew existed.
It’s preparing my Sunday sermon that has made me think about it. I’ve been a preacher for decades, and I know well how long it takes to craft a really good address. You don’t do it on the spur of the moment. You write it, you re-draft it, you think hard about it. And, most important of all, from the day you know you have to do it, you begin the interior work of preparation. In the case of a sermon, you read the biblical material set for the day, you consider the context in which that is written and its links with the whole of the Bible and the Christian tradition, and you think through the connections that has with present-day faith and believing – both for the congregation who will hear you, and for wider society. This takes ages. The sermon I will write this morning, I have been turning over in my mind for two weeks.
It will be heard only by one congregation of ordinary Methodists in our unexceptional seaside town here on the south coast of England.
If I were the Shadow Foreign Secretary tasked with summing up for my party, in a House of Commons debate that could result in an outcome that took my country (in austerity measures) to war, caused bombs to be dropped that would certainly result in civilian deaths, and inevitably incited terrorist reprisal, I would certainly give such a speech as much consideration as I would give the preparation of a sermon to a small church’s routine worship on the second Sunday of Advent.
It was known that Hilary Benn had changed his mind, of course. Before the debate, he’d made clear he was in favour of air strikes, and would say so from the back benches if not left free to say so from the front bench.
How could a man so completely reverse his thinking like that?
His speech was admired. Corbyn had the wise argument, but Benn had the rhetorical style. Clapping and cheering, the pro-war MPs won the day. The planes with their bombs were ready on the runway.
Today I read on Facebook words of a volunteer on Lesvos, doing what she can to help in the camp of refugees from war-torn Syria. She said she kept bursting into tears, listening at 2am to the bombers flying over.
As my daughter Grace said on Facebook after the vote – “I’m so sorry, little Syrian children playing in the rubble.”
What can Hilary Benn have been thinking of? He was right in mid-November. War is not the way. Violence begets nothing but violence. As every good parent knows, hitting children for hitting children is useless. You have to model something different.