As an act of oratory, Hilary Benn's speech was indeed brilliant. It possessed all the characteristics of a great political speech: vague, lacking content but passionately delivered. In terms of contradicting the arguments of his critics, however, it achieved absolutely nothing. Benn failed to address his opposition's primary concerns - preventing the loss of innocent life and making Britain safer. These are major issues at the heart of this debate and Benn was unable to challenge them.
In August, a credible report suggested that 52 US airstrikes had taken 459 innocent lives - including the lives of 100 children. The US challenged this report. Like Britain, the US claims to choose targets carefully - focussing on oil fields and infrastructure, and avoiding civilian areas. Despite such claims, the US has certainly taken civilian lives, although the exact number is unclear. Britain will now follow their example. We will essentially kill innocent people to prevent ISIL from killing innocent people. This obvious inherent contradiction is a major issue for those against airstrikes and one that Benn failed to address.
Benn also failed to address concerns about national security. Some folks suggest that without airstrikes ISIL will grow stronger and pose a greater threat to Britain. Others argue that bombing ISIL will galvanise ISIL's supporters, encourage recruitment and increase the likeliness of terrorist attacks in the UK. This is a static argument that utterly divides the House of Commons.
There is no way of providing credible proof for either interpretation. The arguments are purely hypothetical. One could argue, for example, that Britain's role in the War on Terror hastened the attacks in London in 2005. One could equally argue that the bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq prevented further attacks by weakening our enemies. Both interpretations depend on a degree of logic. Paradoxically, both seem somehow accurate. In the context of the present debate, however, both arguments seem idealistic.
The notion that Britain can bomb its way to peace, or use airstrikes to destroy an ideology, is utterly fanciful. The suggestion that Britain's inaction will thwart terrorism is equally fanciful. What we do know, however, is that the first successful terrorist attack since 2013 came less than a week after we dropped our first bomb in Syria. This lends some credibility to the argument that bombing could lead to similar atrocities. It's obvious, however, that the attack could have taken place regardless of the decision to bomb.
Although these arguments are purely hypothetical, Benn could have offered constructive theories to suggest we are safer if we choose airstrikes. Benn indeed cited national security - as did pretty much every MP regardless of their decision - but, like other MPs, Benn's reference was largely superficial. Bombing to protect our national security isn't self-evident. Benn did not coherently explain how bombing protects Britain. Benn essentially relied on two assumptions: bombing will weaken ISIL - others, as mentioned, suggest it will strengthen ISIL - and that a weakened, but perhaps angrier ISIL are less of a threat to Britain.
I cannot argue with certainty that airstrikes will make Britain more prone to attacks. I cannot argue that deciding against airstrikes will make Britain safer. It seems there is no right answer to this hypothetical conundrum. Benn's assumptions do not challenge this ideal. Benn's speech essentially obviated this conundrum. Once again, Benn failed to address a major issue.
Folks across the political spectrum praised Benn's speech. It seems obvious to me, however, that Benn was unable to confront the concerns of those sceptical about airstrikes. Benn failed to address the issue of innocent deaths because of the inherent contradiction. He failed to address the problem of national security, as he used unjustifiable assumptions to argue on a purely hypothetical issue. Folks should indeed praise the delivery, but not the content of Benn's speech. It failed to contradict the argument from those opposed to airstrikes and it failed to further the argument supporting airstrikes. In an exceptionally eloquent and poetic way, Benn's speech achieved nothing.