|Tony, Emily and Hilary|
Alex Salmond, among others, has indulged in some pretty hateful unpleasantness in the wake of the vote to bomb Daesh in Syria last night, claiming that Tony Benn would be spinning in his grave at his son Hilary's support for airstrikes.
Salmond told LBC:
‘I’ll tell you this. His father, whose speech I heard in the Iraq debate all these years ago, would be birling in his grave hearing a speech in favour of a Tory prime minister wanting to take the country to war. That’s just a reality.’
Quite understandably, it has provoked Emily Benn, Tony’s granddaughter and Hilary’s niece, who has demanded the former SNP leader retracts his comments. She tweeted:
‘Mr Salmond, Your comments are both deeply offensive and simply untrue. I hope you reflect and retract them.’
And inevitably, for her efforts, Emily Benn was included in further abuse with some commentators calling the shadow foreign secretary a ‘murderer’ and ‘disgrace’ who should be expelled from Labour.
It strikes me that Alex Salmond cannot be a very good judge of character. He must have met Tony Benn on dozens of occasions and yet seems not to be aware of how immensely proud he was of his son and his progress in the Labour Party.
If Mr Salmond had wanted some hints as to what the late Mr Benn would have made of his son’s speech last night, he could have taken some direction from Tony Benn’s own words in his Diaries when the 2003 invasion of Iraq was on the agenda and the two Benns had very differing views.
For example this is an entry from Wednesday, October 17, 2002:
Turned on the seven o’clock news. Hilary was on – his first appearance as a minister, with a difficult brief, because the aid agencies have called for a pause in the bombing of Afghanistan to get the food in, and Claire Short and Blair have turned it down. Poor Hilary had to defend them, but he was very competent. He said the aid is coming in anyway, and obviously we all hope for the best.’
And as Blair was pushing Britain towards the invasion of Iraq, on March 17, 2003, Benn wrote:
‘Hilary rang me up tonight to talk about Iraq. I told him, say what you really think, that’s the right thing to do. Say what you really think to people because you’re not in the Cabinet. I was touched that he should have thought of ringing me. I think that possibly will have helped him, but he said he might ring me later tonight.’
And then on the day of the actual vote, March 18, 2003, Tony Benn’s entry said:
‘Well, at ten o’clock there was the vote. I haven’t got all the figures, they’ll all be in the records, but about 140 Labour MPs revolted, which was eighteen more than last time, and a majority of backbench MPs, but the Government won overwhelmingly. Then on the second vote against the Government resolution, the Government had a bigger majority. That means the war is authorised by the House of Commons.
‘Hilary obviously had to vote with the Government, and there you are.’
The vote on bombing Syria was nothing like as significant as the invasion of Iraq and yet Tony Benn managed to write just twelve words on his son's voting to support the conflict with no hint of fury or sense of betrayal whatsoever.
Evidence of Tony Benn's immense pride in his son was also palpable when the veteran Labour MP introduced his son to the House of Commons in 1999. As Hilary Benn took the oath of allegiance to the Queen, Tony, sitting on his usual backbench seat, wept with pride. The Telegraph reported it thus:
'as the young man's voice resonated through the Chamber, the veteran parliamentarian, who under all the brimstone is actually a grand old softie, blinked back the tears until they could no longer be kept at bay.'
The writer added that it was 'as charming a moment as we have had for some time'.
And finally, Alex Salmond could always have recollected what Tony Benn - that great anti-Fascist who never failed to 'have a purpose firm' - had called his memoirs; Dare to be a Daniel. I fear, though, the sentiments of that hymn may be lost on the SNP for dissenting voices seem not to be allowed therein. Without exception all SNP MPs voted against bombing Syria, without question or deviation.
Alex Salmond has issued a clarifying statement. Unsurprisingly, he didn't apologise at all. This is what he said:
‘ “Birling in your grave” is a well-known Scottish idiom, which means a deceased person would be enormously surprised by the current turn of events. I think it is a fair comment that Tony Benn would have been astonished to hear his son make a pro-war speech in favour of a Tory Prime Minister’s war plans. There was certainly no disrespect meant to Tony Benn, who I held on the highest regard. Not least of which because of his passionate anti-war speeches – for which I was present. The labour Party would be better employed demanding an apology from the Prime Minister for calling their own party leader a “terrorist sympathiser”.’
I'm assured by a Scottish friend his definition of 'birling' is questionable to say the least.