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: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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