Britain once again stands firm against fascism

Paul Trewhela says the threat posed by Islamic jihad is the defining issue of our time

The call against fascism in the British House of Commons

Yesterday saw one of the most magnificent days in the history of parliamentary democracy in the British House of Commons at Westminster. (The pathetic farce of the National Assembly in Cape Town makes one ashamed to make comparisons).

Fascism - more precisely, Islamic Fascism - was defined in this mother of parliaments as the defining issue of our lives, in the issue of global war.

The downing of a passenger jet with Russian tourists over the desert of Egyptian Sinai, the mass slaughter of ordinary Shia Muslims citizens in both Beirut and Baghdad, the wipe-out of young people at a Friday night rock concert in Paris, 19 people massacred at a hotel in Bamako in Mali a few days later - this is the daily catalogue of atrocity in which people in no country are safe, and it was this global fascism which concentrated the mind with precision when the Shadow Foreign Minister of the opposition British Labour Party, Hillary Benn, spoke with a stirring eloquence bringing tears to the eyes of MPs last night.

The motion, proposed by the governing Conservative Party, was to extend the bombing by British planes from Iraq to neighbouring Syria of the Sunni jihadist Islamic Caliphate, which now controls a huge area in the Middle East, and whose influence extends to almost any major city in Europe, reaching down to the slaughter of civilians in Kenya.

After a day-long debate, nearly one third of British Labour MPs voted with Hillary Benn to support the motion, against their newly elected leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The motion was decisively passed. 

Benn - son of the late former Labour leader, Tony Benn - told the House it had a "clear and unambiguous UN resolution. The UN is asking us to do something - it is asking us to do something now, to act in Syria and Iraq. It was a Labour government that helped to found the UN at the end of the Second World War. We wanted the nations of the world working together to deal with threats to international peace and security. Daesh [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] is unquestionably that.”

He then went on: "As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have and we never should walk by on the other side of the road. And we are here faced by fascists.

"Not just their calculating brutality but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this Chamber tonight and all of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt, they hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt, they hold our democracy – the rules by which we will make our decision tonight – in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated.

"And it is why as we have heard tonight how socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria and that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for this motion tonight.” 

Three senior British Labour Party leaders - Hillary Benn, Alan Johnson and Margaret Beckett, all former government ministers - made by far the best and most moving speeches of the day.

Their speeches in support of the Conservative motion, upheld in the final vote by nearly 70 Labour MPs including more than one-third of the Shadow Cabinet, recalled the crucial three days in May 1940, when Winston Churchill depended crucially on the future Labour prime minister, Clem Attlee, and his Labour colleague, Arthur Greenwood, to convince the Tory wartime cabinet to stand boldly alone against Hitler, after the French government had surrendered - trounced in battle by the Nazi war machine, which was racing to the French coast to surround the British troops at Dunkirk. The future of South Africa, like that of Britain, and the world, was decided in those three days by the Labour stance against fascism.

Crucifixions, the beheading of captives, the sex enslavement of young women and the slaughter of women judged too old and unattractive for sex, the throwing of gay men from the rooftops and the killing of any and every person perceived to be not an upholder of their own murderous ideology: these are the issues of our day, which have revived the spirit of the Triple Alliance against Nazism of the United States, Russia and Britain in the Second World War.

This suggests the final end of the Cold War, and a search for agreement between former enemies on values held in common in defence of parliamentary democracy, national independence, the equality of women, secular government and modernity. These are the basic values enshrined in the Freedom Charter and the South African Constitution.

In its own language, this was implicitly the same spirit in which the South African Communist Party announced its support for Russia on 25 November, after Turkish jets shot down a Russian fighter plane at Turkey's border alongside Syria, resulting in the shooting dead of the Russian pilot by Syrian Islamists shouting "Allahu Akbar!" while he was parachuting to the ground.

As the SACP stated, Russian warships and fighter jets had been "firing missiles and launching raids in Syria's territory - targeted at the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS).

"ISIS has been terrorising people, among others in Syria in the Middle East. It has committed thousands of the most brutal killings humanity has ever encountered in history. ISIS must be stopped and dismantled! It must not be protected!"

Just as the SACP's statement last month marked an important political indicator in relation to the menace of Islamic jihad spreading south in Africa - from Tunisia on the shores of the Mediterranean, through Mali, Chad and Nigeria in West Africa and through Sudan and Somalia south into Kenya in East Africa - so the call for solidarity against fascism made by Hillary Benn in the House of Commons will help to focus minds in South Africa.

It is a call that will resonate. It touches the most powerful theme in South Africa's political culture.