Hilary Benn has played a central role in the Brexit process since Theresa May set up the Select Committee for Exiting the European Union, which Benn chaired. Benn was invited by LUU Economics Society to talk to students about his experience working on Brexit and serving as an MP for over 20 years
On Wednesday 27th November, Leeds University Economics Society invited Rt. Hon Hilary Benn into the university to answer questions from students on Brexit and the state of British politics.
The event was not a rally for the Labour Party, nor was it an endorsement of their policies, but a chance to get a real insight into the key issues that have been at the heart of the Brexit debate.
Benn is standing for Labour in Leeds Central in the upcoming election on December 12th and has represented the constituency for the last 20 years.
Benn has held a number of important roles in government across these years, including serving as the Secretary of State for International Development under Tony Blair and perhaps most notably chairing the Select Committee for Exiting the European Union.
Hilary Benn was instrumental in the passing of the European Union (withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019 through the commons, informally known as the Benn act, which forced Boris Johnson to request a further Brexit extension.
Benn started by talking about his role chairing the select committee, which was specifically tasked with scrutinising the Brexit process.
“An early recommendation that we made was that there would need to be a transitional period between our leaving the European Union and when a future arrangement was reached. That was very controversial at the time”.
Mr Benn then went on to explain that the Benn act was a product of parliamentarians across all parties, with the primary aim of “preventing Boris Johnson from taking the UK out of the European Union without an agreement on Brexit, on the 31st October”
When asked about the dangers of a no-deal Brexit, Mr Benn had a particularly strong response:
“If you were thinking of building a manufacturing facility to make things and export them around the European Union, the one country you would not invest in is the United Kingdom. Why? Because the obvious question is, so what’s our future economic relationship going to be with our biggest, newest and most important trading partners? Answer – we haven’t got a clue. Far from getting Brexit done, we haven’t even begun Brexit. It hasn’t even begun! We haven’t started negotiating what a future relationship might be like”.
Later, Mr Benn said that “I think for too long we have been a prisoner of short-termism”, citing the 2008 financial crisis as an example of how one can easily focus on the benefits of the short-term and in doing so ignore the signs of danger in the long term.
Whilst there was not enough time to discuss climate change in full detail, Mr Benn said that the issue of climate change and protecting the environment “changes everything” and will make the problems that we are dealing with in politics right now seem “very small”.
Benn highlighted the importance of the issue of the Irish border and the need to keep frictionless movement between the two countries after Brexit.
Whilst there are not currently any checks on the border, Benn reminded an audience, most of whom were too young to remember, that it was not always this way.
“40 years ago it would’ve been very different. Check points, customs posts, police station, army barracks, watch towers, murder”, bringing back the importance of the Good Friday Agreement and why this issue has been such a talking point in Brexit debate.
Before the EU referendum Benn said that if the British people voted to leave, that’s it, they’re going.
Immediately after the referendum, Benn said that we have to accept the decision of the result and he promised to follow through on Brexit during the 2017 elections. Now Benn, and the Labour party, are calling for a second referendum on Brexit.
Mr Benn was challenged on this and was asked whether he felt that this change in position and that of other MPs has led to a distrust in politicians.
In his response, Benn argued that in 2017 the labour party set out the terms on which they would be prepared to approve a deal and these terms involved a close relationship with the single market amongst other characteristics of a Brexit deal, rather than approving Boris Johnson’s deal or risking a no-deal Brexit.
He then went on to say “let’s be honest about brexit. The referendum said we were going to leave, but it was never clear about how. The truth is there are a whole different series of possible Brexits… with hindsight, was it wise that such a complex, hugely important decision was reduced to such a straight binary question when nobody knew what kind of future relationship was going to be sought?”.
Benn continued ask rhetorical questions back to the audience in an attempt to defend his position.
“Do the British people have the right to change their minds?”
“To what extent does Brexit still represent the will of the British people?”
Finally, a question was raised about the spreading of disinformation and what can be do it combat the spread of fake news, to which Benn made the following remarks:
“I think that the thing we’re having most difficulty with is social media, the cyber world and Facebook”.
In his opinion there needed to be more regulation on the spending limit for parties to advertise on social media platforms. Benn also went on to say that he felt that children should be taught to question politics and news at an early age to improve their “political literacy”, so that people can better differentiate between truth and lies.
Throughout the session, Hilary Benn wasn’t shy about expressing how difficult work in politics at the highest level can be.
However, to all young people thinking about going into politics his message was clear: “go for it, please, we need good people to stand for elective office”.
Image: [Leeds Economics Society]