News | Published April 09 2019

Hilary Benn interview: A country that shuts the door to the world has no future

Amid the turbulence in Westminster, The Parliamentary Review’s Thomas Wilson sat down with Hilary Benn to get a sense of where he thinks politics is headed.

Hilary Benn is a busy man. As chair of the Brexit select committee, and a senior voice on the Labour backbenches, he has an historic role to play in Britain’s departure from the European Union. I was therefore keen to waste no time. Eager to avoid delay, I hurried through a bustling mass of chanting Remain protestors and bemused tourists until finally reaching Parliament’s door.

Just as I go to put my phone on silent, it rings. “Thomas, hi, this is Hilary. We are due to meet at 12, yes?”

“Hi Hilary – indeed we are. I’m at the Commons reception now.”

Anticipating his arrival, I start moving toward the Shadow Cabinet Block – until, that is, I hear him say “Oh I thought we were doing this in Portcullis House. I do apologise.”

Five minutes and another security scan later, I finally meet him. But now, instead of the soft and solemn surroundings of parliament, we are in the much peppier Portcullis House. It’s no secret he looks like his father, but the resemblance seems even starker in the flesh. Also like his father, he emits a radiant charm.

The Labour Party is a broad church, there are different strands of opinion.

This resemblance, however, dissipates somewhat when we discuss his political views. While Tony Benn was a lifelong Eurosceptic and darling of the Party’s left wing, his son has charted his own path. His career in politics has, to a large extent, been characterised by a kind of political independence. Both from his father and, at present, the Labour leadership. About the Parliamentary Labour Party, he said “We are a broad church [and] there are different strands of opinion.” Indeed, at one point in his career, this split existed even within the front bench of which he was part.

It’s his stance on international politics, though, that most sets him apart. Today, many – both left and right – believe Britain’s only legitimate sphere of influence is within its own territory. Benn is unconvinced of this approach: “We are one interdependent world, and the people who live on the other side of the globe are our neighbours … What happens [around the world], matters for us.”

He continued, albeit this time I gathered he was speaking more to the current political climate: “There is no future for any country with an approach that says, ‘Shut the door, close the curtains, into bed, pull up the bedcovers, hope the rest of the world tomorrow will go away.’ – it won’t. We have to work with others to deal with the challenges that we face.”

Assuming a more serious countenance than before, he reminded me that, despite differences within the party, there was much that bound Labour together – namely its great achievements in power, chief among them being the establishment of the NHS. Just naming it was enough to arouse his enthusiasm: “Absolutely revolutionary, radical, wonderful!” The passion he displayed here was the sort that can’t be feigned. Without doubt, the man is Labour to the bone.

Having sat with him for a while, a few features stuck out. Firstly, his voice. More specifically, the volume at which he speaks – one gains the unmistakable impression that this is a person who thrives in loud chambers. Secondly, his facial expressions: Pauses for thought and visible moments of contemplation give off the unmistakable impression that this is a person who not only thinks a lot but cares a lot too.

This latter impression was one with basis in fact, as he was all too keen to get into details. When I asked what his broader ambitions were for his constituency of Leeds Central, he waxed lyrical, delving into increasingly finer detail the longer we spoke.

I would say social care is the biggest challenge we face as a society.

“My single biggest hope is that all of the citizens of Leeds Central are able to benefit from the prosperity that the City creates. And that is not the case at the moment.” He was particularly concerned about the gap between rich and poor – a gap which he says is just as much a feature of Leeds as it is nationally. “SMEs are a really important part of dealing with this.”

“What are you doing to reach out to the community?” This, he tells me, is the question he asks the businesses he meets, both large and small. In giving an example of what businesses can do, he cited as an example Asda’s new store in Middleton, Leeds. He spoke of the local council’s collaboration with them to promote local employment opportunities, which, in this instance, entailed the council agreeing to assist local people to fill in their online application forms. The result of this, he said, was that “a goodly portion of the full and part-time jobs went to people locally”.

This “coming together of interests,” as he called it, sits at the heart of his political approach to business. Along these lines, he continued – this time on the topic of apprenticeships. He said that many businesses struggle to take on apprentices due to economic turbulence. To overcome this, he raised the idea of pooling risk, whereby the council, not the employer, would take responsibility for the apprentice and the corresponding paperwork.

I’ll admit that I was surprised at the extent of his willingness to speak in terms of real policy rather than – what politicians often do – speaking in general terms. This was him in his element.

A similar scheme, he said, could apply to small businesses run by only one person. For such people, a personal emergency could destroy not only the business but the person’s livelihood. One solution, he said, would be to pool risk in such a way that someone could fulfil the vacancy in the event of an emergency, allowing the business to continue functioning.

On the topic of health and social care, I was once again impressed with his detailed knowledge of the sector. “I would say social care is the biggest challenge we face as a society", he began, before looking at me and adding, “you're currently a young man, but we all get old.”

In the course of speaking to him about this subject, he revealed a certain tendency towards big-picture thinking. For example, he explained to me that acute admissions, social care and mental health are all contiguous, adding that we need a system that integrates these different aspects of care. He also discussed, in remarkable detail, the potential of various technologies to revolutionise the sector – again, I should emphasise, with a level of passion unusual for a personal conversation. Again and again he made it clear: he’s in politics because he cares.

Both he and I were looking with increasing trepidation at our watches. But just as soon as our time was up, his phone rang. In mutual acknowledgment, we saw this as a serendipitous way to end the conversation. “On that note,” we both quipped with a smile, and ended our conversation. Our encounter ended just as it had begun: with a ringtone – a noise he’s probably hearing a lot more of nowadays.

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Authored by

Thomas Wilson
Political Editor
April 09 2019

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