Interview: Hilary Benn

He's made no enemies on his way up but does this would-be deputy leader's inoffensive demeanour mask

As we settle down on the sofa, Hilary Benn launches straight into a story about a recent visit to South Africa, where the Department for International Development is supporting a Church of England-run project in Pretoria for people with HIV/Aids. "We followed a man called Victor around and he was pulling a plastic container full of food up and down the paths in between corrugated iron walls. We knocked on one door and an old lady opened it. She is living in a room, ten foot by ten, with a dirty curtain separating her living space from where she sleeps, and she was blind." Benn explains that Victor gave the blind lady an apple, two rolls and margarine, and that he calls on her most days of the week. The lady told the British dignitary that a man had offered to concrete over her earth floor for 50 rand but had run off with the money.

The bishop and local councillor accompanying Benn prom ised she would get her concrete floor. He draws this conclusion: "Things like that remind all of us why we do this and why a lot of the things that allegedly pass for politics cannot be compared to trying to help people change their lives." It is a classic politician's story, designed to show compassion mixed with a desire to make a practical difference.

Such a response, Benn says, is another expression of the phenomenon eating at the heart of politics: cynicism. His deputy leadership campaign, he claims, is an attempt to re-inject idealism into the Labour Party and a government whose confidence has been undermined by Iraq and cash for honours. "The thing that worries me more than anything else is losing faith in the capacity of politics to change things. I don't mean scepticism, criticism, querying, but I do mean cynicism." We suggest that Labour, with its culture of spin, is at least partly responsible. "The truth is, we are partly to blame, you [the media] are partly to blame, and the culture of excessive expectation followed by inevitable disappointment is to blame," he says. "People are yearning for a politics that tells it straight: that being in government is difficult, that there are tough decisions that we have to make sometimes."

Benn likes to use the phrase "politics is not shopping", and here his political philosophy, as well his voice, resemble his father's. "Politics is not about 'I'll have a bit of this and a bit of that and in about five years' time I might shop with someone else'. Politics is a process, and there has to be a continual conversation between those who govern and those who give their consent to be governed." The Labour leadership should listen more to the members, and the members should listen more to the public. But the only specific proposal he suggests is that the position of party chair should be elected.

Asked what unique qualities he will bring to the job of deputy, he is equally vague. "We need someone who is going to offer honest advice and ensure the voice of the party is heard inside the highest reaches of government. We need someone who's going to listen and is good at working with people. And whoever gets the job, the party has got to demonstrate we are passionate about social justice."

In fact, Benn is vague on just about every policy issue we raise. We ask him about his year as prisons minister. Does he take any responsibility for the overcrowding crisis? He ducks the question, saying that there is a fundamental problem with the public's view of the effectiveness of community punishments. Even in his area of greatest expertise - education - he has no hard policy ideas, or else he is keeping them even closer to his chest than the Chancellor does. He is a champion of comprehensive education, inspired by his mother, the campaigning left-wing educationalist Caroline Benn. Educated at Holland Park Comprehensive in west London, he became education chair at Ealing Council and later worked as special adviser to David Blunkett. It might seem reasonable to expect big new ideas, but he insists on speaking in abstractions. "Like a lot of things in life, in the end it's about getting the balance right - the balance between high expectation, the right support and resources - and making sure that you tap the potential enthusiasm of the next generation."

Foreign dilemmas

Benn has been tipped for the job of foreign secretary in a Gordon Brown cabinet and the Chancellor is known to be an admirer of his work at DfID. So, it seems only right to push him on Iraq and Iran, and the theory and practice of military intervention that have so divided the left.

Benn stands by his decision to back the war in Iraq, though he says he has never thought about anything harder in his life. "In the end I voted in the way I did because I thought it was the right thing to do. I respect those who take a different view. I think if you look back over the history of Iraq - all the resolutions breached, all the slaughter that Saddam was responsible for - one of the questions we have to ask ourselves as a world is: Why weren't we more effective at dealing with it earlier?" Iraq, he says, poses a broader question. "We haven't yet found, as a world, an effective means of protecting human beings who face that kind of treatment." He lists Darfur as the latest of many dilemmas, but points to the joint mission of the UN and African Union as a positive step. Benn talks repeatedly of the need to bolster multilateral institutions, but, like so many who supported the Iraq war, finds it hard to reconcile that view with the events of 2003 in which George Bush and Tony Blair ignored the actions of the very UN inspectors who represented multilateral engagement. He then addresses a point at the heart of the anti-war case - the inconsistency of the way the world applies international norms. "We are hypocritical and inconsistent about when we choose to act, but the fundamental uncomfortable question isn't going to go away, is it?"

So we attack Iraq, but what about that other member of the axis of evil, Iran? With the Americans going down a familiar route of producing "evidence" of malfeasance, and with the British government uncomfortably saying little to deter them, we ask Benn what chances of a US or Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear installations. "You'd have to ask them. I don't think that would be the right thing to do at all. That's my view. I can speak for myself, I can't speak for others."

His answer is curt, but revealing. His awkwardness grows as we press the point. So why would military strikes not be the right thing to do in this case, if it was right against Saddam? "One, because we've got a process in relation to sanctions. Two, because there's clearly a political debate going on in Iran and I'm a very strong believer in trying to resolve those issues by dialogue and debate." But what if the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb continues? Why not intervene? "Because I'm not in favour of military action against Iran."

We give him every opportunity to leave the door open for military action and ask again: Why not intervene? "Because I'm not in favour of it." But what is the difference between Iran in 2007 and Iraq in 2003? "I think we can resolve this in a different way, because of the politics in Iran. I think that's a very, very big difference."

Gordon Brown has let it be known that he wants to develop an independent British foreign policy. He could learn a lot from Benn's work at DfID, which has often been at odds with the Bush administration. On Aids and drugs, the US approach could not be more different from the British. The Americans, influenced by the Christian right, have pursued a policy of drug eradication coupled with sexual abstinence, even influencing the UN to limit funding for needle exchanges and programmes that combine sex education with distribution of condoms. Instead, he has followed a non-moralising, "harm reduction" approach. "You've got to talk about sex, however embarrassing it is. Human beings have sex and they shouldn't die because they have sex - you should make condoms available. And you have to get treatment to people and fight stigma and discrimination because that encourages people then to be open about how to fight the disease."

He is dismissive of the American way. "Abstinence-only programmes are fine if you want to abstain, but not everybody does. Men have sex with other men and we have to work with them. Some people pay for sex: you've got to work with prostitutes. Some people, heaven knows why, inject themselves with drugs: clean needle-exchange programmes reduce the likelihood that the HIV virus is going to be passed on. It's very clear and we've just got to be straight about it."

We ask Benn for his assessment of the Bush administration. "Pretty Republican," is all he will say. Does he agree with Peter Hain's view that it is the most right-wing in living memory? "I'm not going to comment on that." Why not? "Because I don't want to. What I would say is where we agree, we work together, and where we don't agree then we say what we think." On climate change, he says the UK has opposed US scepticism about the existence of global warming. He threatens to wrestle us to the ground (metaphorically speaking) if we can come up with "a world leader who has done more to argue the case for a global agreement to tackle climate change than the Prime Minister". "It is a caricature that America just has to say, 'Britain, we want to do the following' and we say, 'Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir.' It's just not true."

Hilary Benn came to parliament late, but his rise has been swift. He has made no enemies, and caused no offence. He has yet, however, to be fully tested. International Development is a good-news department. Now he is the bookies' joint fav ourite, with Alan Johnson, to succeed John Prescott as deputy prime minister. The public seems to buy his pitch that he is "a pretty straight guy". There's little reason to suggest that he would not do a good job, but if he could be persuaded to take the bold policies he developed at DfID into a wider international arena, Gordon Brown might start hoping that Benn will lose, so that he can make him foreign secretary.

Hilary Benn: The CV
Research by Sophie Pearce

Born 26 November 1953. Son of Tony and Caroline Benn
1979 Elected to Ealing Council
1983 and 1987 Unsuccessfully contests the Ealing North constituency
1986 Becomes youngest chair of Ealing's education committee
1997 Appointed special adviser to David Blunkett , Education Secretary
June 1999 Elected MP for Leeds Central. The turnout of 19.5 per cent is a postwar low
June 2001 Appointed under-secretary at the Department for International Development
May 2002 Appointed under-secretary at the Home Office
May 2003 Appointed minister of state for international development
October 2003 Promoted to Secretary of State for International Development
January 2004 George Monbiot accuses Benn's department of doing "more harm than good", for allegedly giving more "aid" to the Adam Smith Institute than to Liberia or Somalia
May 2005 Re-elected MP for Leeds Central
March 2006 Disowns parliamentary aide Ashok Kumar after Kumar calls for Tony Blair to stand down
September 2006 Withholds £50m payment to World Bank in protest at conditions attached to aid for poorer countries
October 2006 Announces candidacy for deputy leadership 25 years after his father, Tony, fought and lost the same contest

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran - Ready to attack

Photo: STEFAN BONESS/PANOS
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What Britain needs to understand about the profound and ancient divisions in Germany

As Angela Merkel campaigns for re-election, the balance of power in Europe is changing.

On 24 September, Angela Merkel will be re-elected chancellor of Germany and that, we might think, will be that. With Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron in control of the European project, populism will surely be vanquished and the old Franco-German core of the EU restored. Yet things are changing, and if western Europe wants Germany to keep singing “Ode to Joy” as enthusiastically as “Deutschlandlied”, it will have some work to do. Our Brexit negotiators need to see how important this is to Macron, to other European leaders and, above all, to thinking Germans.

For we may all soon miss the old, self-effacing Germany. Despite having such economic power, it always seemed to have no greater wish than to exist as part of a larger whole. Konrad Adenauer, its first postwar chancellor and founding father, made Westbindung (“binding to the West”) the heart of West German politics. Adenauer came from the deeply Catholic Rhineland, “amid the vineyards” as he put it, “where Germany’s windows are open to the West”. His instinctive cultural sympathy was with France, but he knew that West Germany’s existence depended on keeping America in Europe. France he courted out of profound conviction, the US out of clear-eyed necessity, and he was worried that after him this twin course might be abandoned. His demands for reassurance during his final year in office led to John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of 1963. Every West German knew about that, and about the Berlin Airlift: these became locations of national memory from which West Germany triangulated its sense of self.

There were some Germans for whom this was too much. Anti-Americanism was ingrained among West Germany’s hard left, the early Green Party and the tiny hard right. But even Germans who were suspicious of America had no fear of tying themselves closer to Europe. On the contrary, that was exactly what they wanted. The standard explanation of this is guilt. West Germans, in this argument, felt so remorseful about the horrors of the Second World War that they wanted to make amends. This idea fitted with others’ belief that Germany did indeed have much to feel guilty about.

A nuanced version of this held that the western Germans thought they had somehow “got away with it”, compared with their brethren in the east, who had felt the weight of Soviet vengeance: rape, pillage, occupation. Accordingly, Germany’s willingness to subsume itself so thoroughly, even as it footed the bills for the European Economic Community and later the European Union, was accepted with little gratitude, almost as an ongoing war debt repayment.

This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans. The most graphic illustration of this comes from Adenauer. In 1955, he privately informed the British that while he was obliged to act in public as though he wished for reunification, he intended to devote his remaining years to blocking it. In 1961, he secretly proposed to the Americans that they offer the Russians a swap: they and he should, he said, give up West Berlin in return for Thuringia (the region containing Leipzig and Weimar). He wanted, in effect, to make the River Elbe the eastern border of Germany.

Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. Beyond it lay the flat, grim Prussian heartlands, which until 1945 stretched into present-day Russia. This vast region was known to Germans as “Ostelbien” – East Elbia. Adenauer viewed the “unification” of Germany in 1871 as East Elbia’s annexation of the west. That’s why in 1919, as mayor of Cologne, and again in 1923, he tried to get Britain and France to back a breakaway western German state. Having failed, he is said to have muttered, “Here we go, Asia again,” and closed the blinds every time his train crossed east over the Elbe.

Prussia was a different country. The victorious Allies agreed. On 25 February 1947, they declared: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany… together with its central government and all its agencies are abolished.” The name Prussia was eradicated. The Prussian hegemony of 1871-1945, an anomaly in the two millennia of German history, was over.

If we understand this, we understand what West Germany really was and why it acted as it did; why the “reunification” of 1990 – or, at least, the way it was handled – was such a mistake; why we may all have to stop taking Germany quite so much for granted now that East Elbia is back; and why our Brexit negotiators are on a hiding to nothing if they believe that the Germans have no more urgent business to consider than their car exports to us. Far more important to liberal Germans is keeping safe the western soul of Germany.

***

West Germany was anything but an artificial construct. It was the historical Germany, being almost geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany. Julius Caesar named the land, together with its people, in 58 BC; 49 years later, Drusus, the greatest commander of the infant Roman empire, is said to have been supernaturally advised that after defeating every tribe he met in Germania, he should halt at the River Elbe. By 100 AD, Roman rule was shown by a fortified border, the Limes Germanicus. You can still walk large stretches of it; it encompasses most of the richest land in modern Germany and all of the great cities except Hamburg, Berlin and the 19th-century industrial monocultures of the Ruhr. Even these last were born as trading posts or forward bases within what archaeologists call the “market region” of Germania – the lands beyond the limes where commerce with the Roman empire defined the whole culture. Southern and western Germany’s cultural roots are almost as Roman as France’s.

But what about 9 AD and the destruction of three Roman legions by the German tribes under Arminius? There is a popular myth that this kept all Germany free and different. We owe this idea to Martin Luther and his supporters: Luther claimed from 1520 onwards to be a German, anti-Roman hero and identified himself with the newly rediscovered tale of Arminius. More decisively, the events of 9 AD were an obsession of later Prussian historians, who had an interest in claiming that the real Germany was one that was pure and un-Romanised. Yet the reverse is true. Under the Romans, then the Merovingians, then the Franks, the Rhine/Danube super-region of Germany remained politically and culturally a part of western Europe. After Charlemagne, a Rhineland German, “restored the Roman empire” (as his seals put it) in 800 AD, western Germany was the very centre of things. It was never a nation state, but always the key part of a greater whole, the Holy Roman empire.

Along the Elbe, things were different. Charlemagne extracted tribute from the pagan Slavs across the river, and his successors tried to build on this, but the German conquest and settlement of East Elbia only really began with the Wendish Crusade of 1147, the northern arm of the Second Crusade. Three centuries later, the entire region was still hotly disputed by Balts and Slavs, with German supremacy threatened by major defeats at Tannenberg (1410) and in the Hussite Wars (1419-34).

Long-contested frontier lands breed a special kind of society. The German incomers cowed the natives, such as the pagan Pruscie from whom they ultimately borrowed their name, through brute force. Where they couldn’t, they had to make armed deals with local elites. In this new sort-of-Germany, the Junkers, an aggressive landowning caste, lorded it over the Slavs and Balts – as well as poorer Germans, who knew that the locals would cut their throats if the Junker castles fell, so were loyal and subservient to their masters. East Prussia remained like this within living memory.

In 1525, Prussia named itself and declared itself the first Protestant state. From then on, it had absolute rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty, backed by a quiescent Lutheran state church. The Junkers swore loyalty in return for exclusive access to all officer-level jobs in the army and the administration. By the mid-18th century, Voltaire quipped that while other states had armies, the Prussian army had a state. The overriding strategic concern of Prussia was always with the east. In his 1758-59 campaigns, Frederick the Great was shocked to find the Russians extremely hard to beat. He bequeathed to his successors a policy of keeping the tsars onside. Partitioning Poland between them was the sticking plaster that masked this Russian-Prussian rivalry, right until 1941.

This thoroughly east-facing power was, by the normal standards of European statehood – history, social structures, religion, geography – a different country from the Rhineland, Swabia or Bavaria. It defeated them all in 1866, laying the ground for the “unification” of 1871. The Prussian empire (for that is what it was) could now enlist the wealth, industry and manpower of Germany in pursuit of its ancient goal: hegemony over north-eastern Europe. By 1887, the future imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was already musing on how to destroy Russia “for a generation”, cleanse Prussia of its Poles, set up a puppet Ukrainian state and take the Prussian armies to the banks of the Volga. This is the bloody Prussian – not German – thread that leads directly to the Nazi onslaught of 1941. In 1945, that centuries-long struggle was settled, in almost inconceivable violence. Half of East Elbia was ruthlessly stripped of Germans and handed over to Poles or Russians; the rump became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a mere satrap of the Red Army.

So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different. Take the voting patterns: from 1871 to 1933, East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right. The Prussian Conservative Party under the empire, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority. Small wonder that Adenauer didn’t want East Elbia back and was secretly delighted to have it safely fenced off behind the Iron Curtain.

***

West Germany (1949-90) – Germany shorn of Prussia – was, then, no historical fluke, and nor was the supra­national way it acted. This was the real Germany. But the hasty reunification of 1990 (there was no referendum or election on the issue) changed things. Why should the inhabitants of the former GDR, rather than Poles and Czechs, get immediate access to the wealth and benefits of the West? Because they were Germans. With that, the chancellor Helmut Kohl embraced the notion that being German overrode all considerations of social, economic or historical difference. He also subliminally revived the idea, common to the Second Empire and the Third Reich, that East Elbia was special and needed subsidising by the rich west of Germany. The director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, resigned in 1991 over this abandoning of economic sanity for political nationalism.

Since 1990, the former East Germany has received more than €2trn from the old West Germany, for a fast-ageing, shrinking and disproportionately male population of only 16 million, including Berlin. That’s the equivalent of a Greek bailout every year since 1990, and as a straight gift, not a loan. This represents a huge shift in financial priorities, overshadowing Germany’s annual net EU budget contribution (currently €15.5bn). In 1990, Kohl promised that western German aid would soon turn the new states into “blooming” areas, but they have become, instead, proof that age-old differences resist even the most gigantic subsidies.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of voters in East Elbia have declared over the past two years that at the general election, they intend to support either Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Ukip), Die Linke (heirs to the old East German Communist Party) or the all but openly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (the NPD, currently represented in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament). Though theoretical enemies, these three parties are united by cultural affinities: all despise economic liberalism, oppose Nato and the EU and want closer relations with Russia.

East Elbia no longer has the population to swing the entire German electorate of more than 61 million but many liberal western Germans are nervous. They recoil at the sight of anti-asylum-seeker attacks, which are proportionally far more common in East Elbia than in the west, or when they see Merkel heckled by right-wingers. They call East Elbia Dunkeldeutschland (“Dark Germany”) and joke bitterly that if Britain can have a Brexit, why can’t the old East Germans, whom they lump together under the name of Saxons, have a “Säxit”? But it’s no laughing matter. They know there are those only too aware of any anti-western drift in Germany and eager to give succour to it.

Alexander Saldostanov, the rabid leader of Russia’s “Night Wolves” bikers and a public friend of Vladimir Putin, recently told Germany’s bestselling daily, Bild, that he dreams of a grand union between Germany and Russia: “We have so much in common. You simply have to free yourself at last from America, that scourge of humanity. Together, we can, should and must take power.”

There’s no danger of that, but there is a sense in which eastern Europe is, to Germans, no longer “the other”. It’s the place whence natural gas flows from Russia, where labour is cheap but skilled and where the people are keen to work with Germany on setting up new sites of joint national memory. From Kaliningrad to Prague, museums and projects are springing up in which the horrors of the past are neither denied nor used as ammunition in today’s negotiations. In eastern Europe, perhaps because Russia is so close, the Germans are rarely made to feel guilty for their grandfathers’ sins. Meanwhile in the west, from Greece to Britain, people can’t resist mentioning the war whenever the Germans don’t act as desired.

***

Germany’s resources are not infinite. Nor is the patience of the 40 per cent of Germans who “have net worths of essentially zero”, as Die Welt reported last year – largely because German home ownership rates are the lowest in the EU. They are disproportionately concentrated in the old east, the region that never had supranational, western European connections. From them come ever-louder voices saying that Germany’s EU contribution is too high. And with Britain out, the maths will look even worse to such voters. If south-western Germany’s taxes have to keep bailing out the country’s east, while also helping out the old and new EU lands, what is left for, say, the post-industrial Ruhr, which has financial and social problems of its own? There are tough choices ahead, and it’s not hard to imagine a day when Germany decides to aim its subsidies and investments where they seem most welcome. The old idea of Mitteleuropa – a multi-ethnic, German-centred Middle Europe, neither of the West nor of the East – no longer seems so antiquarian. Nothing would gladden Putin’s heart more.

So, yes, Merkel will win the election and will have a chance to revive the EU’s Franco-­German core. Yet the relative strengths of France and Germany are different now. As for their leaders, while Adenauer was a devoted Catholic Rhinelander, Merkel is a Lutheran vicar’s daughter from the east. Bonn was physically close to Paris, Brussels, The Hague, even London; Berlin is closer to Prague and Warsaw.

With Donald Trump’s wavering on Nato and his noisy anti-German protectionism, along with Brexit, the West may no longer seem vital to Germany’s future. During Merkel’s election debate with her main challenger, Martin Schulz, on 3 September, Brexit was not even mentioned. The old EU core will have to work to keep Germany anchored, resisting any new call from the east. Macron and German liberals know that; that’s why there will be no Franco-German split over Brexit just to sell us a few more Audis. The sooner David Davis and Liam Fox realise that the Germans have far bigger issues to deal with, the better.

James Hawes is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany” (Old Street Publishing)

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran - Ready to attack