THE BLOG

On Principles, Changed Minds, and Hilary Benn

01/12/2015 16:48 GMT | Updated 01/12/2016 10:12 GMT

If it were not a matter of life and death for so many innocent people - in Syria and potentially here too - I might look forward to the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn and Hilary Benn articulating contrary views from the Labour front bench tomorrow. I might even applaud a Labour Party putting its democratic principles so openly into practice, allowing for difference and dissent in the service of thorough debate.

But tomorrow's vote is a matter of life and death. Thousands will die if, as expected, it is won by the government. Thousands more will be injured, bereaved or displaced. During the next 24 hours, many of us here in the UK will ask MPs to vote against the government. We know that Jeremy Corbyn will speak for a clear majority of Labour members and a growing number of people outside the Labour party. Hilary Benn will speak in favour of the government proposal, very likely delivering the votes David Cameron needs.

On the Today programme, Benn has defended the idea that "people of principle" may arrive at different solutions to the threat posed by Isis. We cannot argue with such a broad, abstract statement, but we can usefully add to it. We can remind Benn that a person of principle also knows how to change his mind if/when it becomes abundantly clear that such a change is the moral and productive thing to do. The proposal to bomb was formulated in haste; it now requires more measured and critical appraisal. Indeed, public opinion may well be turning on this question already, as numerous commentators and military experts point out the obvious flaws in the proposal. Cameron's case is weakening by the hour, which is precisely why he has refused Jeremy Corbyn's call for a two-day debate.

The rush to war following the Paris attacks should give pause to Benn and all other MPs who came out too early in favour of military action and who plan to vote Yes tomorrow. Paris is part of the larger, terrible legacy of Iraq. To bomb is to confirm that we have learned nothing from past mistakes.

In sum, we can press Hilary Benn to change his position - on principle. Time is running short, so we need every means at our disposal: letters, petitions, people on the streets, and the use of social media. I wrote my own letter this morning and, along with other arguments, posed the following simple questions:

How can you agree to an action that will result in the deaths of innocent people - when all other avenues have not been exhausted? How do you live with that?

How will you explain the heightened threat to our own streets that will surely follow upon this action?

Simple indeed, but questions that should be asked repeatedly in these discussions. In between, there are important issues to raise concerning the lack of logic and detail in the government's proposal to bomb. We must point out that there is no long term plan, no recognition that in bombing, we will (yet again) override the right to self-determination of people in the region, thereby making their futures (and our own) far less safe. Our intervention will be seen as an ill-conceived extension of the disastrous "war on terror," one waged on false evidence and incoherent objectives. We will be held responsible for the suffering caused, the lack of a long term plan, and the proliferation of future terror groups.

We might remind Mr Benn that instead of pursuing all possible non-military solutions to the threat of Isis, Yes-voters are supporting the hubristic actions of a Prime Minister keen to assert his authority following his earlier Commons defeat on Syria. David Cameron has provided no convincing rationale for bombing, no plan or evidence that it will, to borrow an old cliché, make the world a better place. A cliché is an idea that has lost its meaning through overuse. Perhaps in this case, we should reclaim its meaning, bring it back as an important measure of how we question our leaders when they make decisions on our behalf.

Finally, we might tell Hilary Benn that a change of mind - even at this late hour - could change votes and prevent the terrible violence that we are about to unleash. Let's ask him, on behalf of all who are gravely at risk from our bombs - in Syria and here at home - to speak passionately alongside Jeremy Corbyn tomorrow.

He might wish to tell us how a principled man came to change his mind.