6 Feb 2016

Hilary Benn on seeing the light on Europe

Hilary Benn was a researcher in the No campaign in the 1975 referendum on the Common Market.

Like most on the left, he saw the Common Market as a support network for big bosses. His father, Tony Benn, carried that view to the grave. Hilary Benn, like most on the left, had a conversion.

In 1975, Harold Wilson held the referendum to manage a party in which his position, an unenthusiastic Yes, was in the minority. In his Cabinet, amongst his MPs and in the wider party and the trade union movement, they wanted out.

Hilary Benn tells Channel 4 News that the seminal moment in the conversion of the left was the 1988 appearance by socialist European Commission President, Jacques Delors, at the TUC Conference in Bournemouth.

Mr Delors offered worker protections just as Margaret Thatcher was winding them down in UK law. He was a light across the Channel in the Labour movement’s darkest hour.

Hilary Benn says that’s still a big part of the reason for wanting to stay in, but denies that’s almost an admission that the left doesn’t think it can win over the British population to such left-of-centre policies.

But Hilary Benn also thinks that the original foundations of the Common Market, a post-war alliance that makes war “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible” are as important as ever.

He talks about how the death of his father has altered his perspective on this, and reflects on the uncle he never knew, Tony Benn’s elder brother, Michael, a decorated RAF pilot who died in the Second World War.

Not all the left have made the same political journey as Hilary Benn and the bulk of the Labour Party.

His own party leader spent the leadership contest last year refusing to rule out voting for Out.

Last Autumn, a pincer movement that included Hilary Benn along with the then Shadow Europe Minister Pat McFadden plus the former Home Secretary Alan Johnson, eventually got Mr Corbyn to commit fully to Labour backing the Remain campaign.

One participant in that process compared it to “nailing jelly.”

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