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The Hilary Benn speech did not take place.

December 5, 2015


Baudrillard! thou shouldst be living at this hour!

Maybe it’s because I’ve been teaching a class on political oratory that I’ve had to hum and ha a bit before reacting to what we’re told was the Greatest Parliamentary Speech of the Twenty First Century the other day.

And I’ve decided that it didn’t happen.

In Baudrillardian terms, it didn’t “happen” because it was not a transformative event in real time.

Hilary Benn stood up and talked I grant you – and talked very well – but it doesn’t really belong in the annals of “oratory” as I understand it.  It’s better considered as part of a production of Julius Caesar.  The media has prescribed and prescripted Corbyn the role of hapless, naive Brutus, paying the fatal price for having allowing Mark Antony to say a few words after he (Brutus/Corbyn) has already said his bit.

But Mark Antony’s speech was transformative (or Shakespeare says it was).  It was a speech that persuaded people and changed the course of history.  Hilary Benn’s speech changed nothing.  The Tories had a majority.  They never lost their majority.  It is possible that Benn might have edged a few Labour members into a particular lobby – but not enough to affect any outcome.

Can we just award points for style though?  Well, it’s hard, because you are comparing apples with oranges.  I’d giving him points for acting.  The Tory benches were determined to applaud Benn’s speech as soon as they knew what it was going to be in favour of it.  The press were determined to laud it as soon as they were sure it was going to undermine Corbyn.  The stage was set.  What followed was pure theatre – but not political theatre.  Benn, it turns out, is a very good actor and he delivered his speech about as well as any actor playing Hilary Benn in a West End play could have done.  Simulacra of simulacra.

On the other hand, when a real actor – a very great actor – Glenda Jackson no less – stood up a couple of years ago to offer a note of bitter protest against a resolution to proclaim the late Margaret Thatcher’s consensual “greatness” – you got real political theatre – real anger meeting real opposition – something disruptive taking place in the here and now.

But it wasn’t political oratory – not as Aristotle or Quintilian would have recognised it – because it wasn’t seeking to persuade anyone – merely to confirm a particular mood.  The government benches were full of actors as well.  Their reaction to the speech was as scripted as the speech itself.  And the press reporting of the speech was almost part of the text as well – rather than commentary on the speech.  Press reporting of Benn was less political journalism than sleeve notes.

There are some potentially real things that happened.  It should be noted that despite being the leader that very few Labour MPs wanted – he still managed to persuade (not whip) two thirds of these suspicious MPs to vote against air strikes.  The media, of course, does not really want Benn as Labour leader – they want Benn breathing down the neck of the Labour Leader – they want a permanent Labour crisis.

But this has been the narrative for weeks and months now.  The answer is “Labour’s in Crisis” – now what’s the question?

Baudrillard would have enjoyed all of this and I miss him.

In a completely different (and indeed opposite) sense – the Oldham by-election did not take place either.

However – Havoc has indeed been cried.  And dogs of war have indeed been slipped.

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