Perhaps the biggest surprise was not the conviction and eloquence with which the mild-mannered Shadow Foreign Secretary and Leeds Central MP spoke, but the stirring nature of his heartfelt oratory. It was all the more impactful because the passionate urgency of its delivery was so out of character.
The fallout remains to be seen – many within Labour now regard Mr Benn as a potential saviour, perhaps the only individual with the gravitas that it needs, while some associates of under-fire leader Jeremy Corbyn will regard this intervention as an act of treachery as step up their endeavours oust those MPs who put their conscience before the party and chose to endorse the Government’s airstrikes against Daesh / Islamic State.
As Mr Benn appealed to his party to search out its soul and stand up to fascism, those senior Shadow Cabinet colleagues who took a contrary view – Mr Corbyn and Andy Burnham included – sat glum-faced, arms-folded, as they listened to this voice of defiance from within their own ranks give the speech of his life.
Their facial expressions said it all; this is a party now at war with itself and John McDonnell, the outspoken Shadow Chancellor, was at his acerbic worst when he declined to endorse Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s fulsome tribute and said – cuttingly – that it was the best speech since Tony Blair made the case for the Iraq war in 2003.
Like it or not, Mr McDonnell might still be proven right. Many, myself included, have deep misgivings about Britain becoming embroiled, still further, in the festering Middle East – history will be the judge of Wednesday’s vote – but this should not detract from the courage that Mr Benn showed when he turned on his own leader. To me, this was, possibly, the most courageous speech by a senior Labour figure since Neil Kinnock tore into the party’s hard-left in 1985.
Like Mr Kinnock whose oratory rose to the occasion 30 years ago, Mr Benn did likewise because he had already taken the difficult decision by opting to influence the debate from within the Shadow Cabinet rather than walking away from the front option. If he’d taken the easier course open to him, Mr Benn’s name would not have been trending on Twitter ahead of Hilary Clinton amongst others.
It also helped that Mr Benn was able to command the attention of the Commons because he was so withering, at the outset, of the Prime Minister’s refusal to apologise for describing Mr Corbyn, and others, as “a terrorist sympathiser”.
Mr Benn’s words are worth repeating: “He is not a terrorist sympathiser. He is an honest, principled, decent and good man, and I think the Prime Minister must now regret what he said...and his failure to do what he should have done today, which is simply to say ‘I am sorry’.” This was sufficient to make the Conservative leader blush fleetingly with embarrassment.
Perhaps this is the most critical point of all – politics would be far better served if more MPs were as civilised, and sincere, as Mr Benn who went on to acknowledge that RAF bombing missions in neighbouring Iraq had, in fact, halted the advance of Daesh. Humility is an under-estimated trait in politics, hence why Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman was more plausible and logical than those Tory ministers whose modus operandi has always been more tribal.
This passage was compelling: “It has been argued in the debate that airstrikes achieve nothing. Not so: the House should look at how Daesh’s forward march has been halted in Iraq. It will remember that 14 months ago, people were saying that it was almost at the gates of Baghdad, which is why we voted to respond to the Iraqi government’s request for help to defeat it. Its military capacity and freedom of movement have been put under pressure.
“Ask the Kurds about Sinjar and Kobane. Of course, airstrikes alone will not defeat Daesh, but they make a difference, because they give it a hard time, making it more difficult for it to expand its territory. I share the concerns that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian casualties. However, unlike Daesh, none of us today acts with the intent to harm civilians. Rather, we act to protect civilians from Daesh, which targets innocent people.”
And then there was Mr Benn’s call-to-arms to his own party and his history: “As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have and we never should walk by on the other side of the road.”
These words had even more resonance because they were spoken at the end of a 10 and a half hour debate. Spontaneous and from the heart, they could not be rehearsed because Mr Benn’s duty, as Shadow Foreign Secretary, was to sum up the arguments for and against military intervention in front of a packed Commons. The thoughts were scribbled down as others spoke.
I, for one, do not believe that this was a pitch for the Labour leadership – Mr Benn has always struck me as a politician who lacks ambition or the Machiavellian traits of his late father Tony.
But there is one certainty: Labour will be pressing the self-destruct button if it turns its fire on a politician as decent, and honourable, as Hilary Benn whose quiet statesmanship is so at odds with the bellicose leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
For, even if people don’t agree with Mr Benn on Syria, or any other issue, he has earned the right to be respected. The same cannot be said of Mr Corbyn.