Hilary Benn’s recent Commons speech has received many plaudits, and also a few cautionary comments regarding its essential obviousness. Is this what it’s come to that a basic outline of how bad ISIS are is regarded as shining political rhetoric in the remains of the Labour Party? All the same, it was a necessary moment.
Here, in a real flight of eloquence from 167 years ago, in Principles of Political Economy, is John Stuart Mill:
“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice, — is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.”
Which seems pretty clear. In a week where ISIS are promulgating killing Down’s Syndrome kids, amongst other things, opponents of military action – however principled in theory – begin to look more and more like Mill’s ‘miserable creatures’, likewise those such as Obama, who adopt a studied indifference and occupy themselves with ludicrous displacement activity. Mill and his wife are described as follows:
they lived in a society where bold and adventurous individuals were becoming all too rare. Critics have sometimes thought that Mill was frightened by the prospect of a mass democracy in which working-class opinion would be oppressive and perhaps violent. The truth is that Mill was frightened by middle-class conformism much more than by anything to be looked for from an enfranchised working class.
That was written in the middle of the 19th century, and it’s exactly what we face now.