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21 March 2011

Miliband embraces liberal interventionism

Labour leader says an inability to “do everything” is not an excuse to do nothing.

By George Eaton

The intervention in Libya is an important test of Ed Miliband’s leadership as well as David Cameron’s. Besides his condemnation of the Iraq war, the Labour leader has had little to say on foreign affairs. Today, in an impressive response to Cameron’s Commons statement, Miliband fleshed out his position.

He confirmed Labour’s bipartisan support for military action and argued that the three key criteria for intervention had been met. “It is a just cause, with a feasible mission and it has international support,” he said. He cited the west’s failure to support the Republican side during the Spanish civil war, a historic analogy that resonates with Labour MPs, and said that inaction in Libya would similarly “revolt the conscience” of the world.

Challenged by the Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn on the problem of “double standards”, Miliband echoed Cameron (and Blair) and said that an inability to “do everything” is not an excuse to do nothing. He urged the House to accept that foreign policy must always be an uneasy combination of “principle and pragmatism”. Drawing an implicit contrast with Iraq, he described this as an “important moment for multilateralism”.

In his peroration, he explained how his parents’ experience had informed his position. He said:

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In my maiden speech in this House I said I would reflect the humanity and solidarity shown to my family more than 60 years ago. These are the kinds of things we say in maiden speeches. But if they are to be meaningful, we need to follow them through in deeds, not just words. That is why I will be voting for this motion tonight. It is why I urge this whole House to support this motion.

One firm conclusion from the debate is that the “responsibility to protect” concept has outlived the Iraq war. Ming Campbell was one of several MPs to cite Tony Blair’s Chicago speech on liberal interventionism in support of the action. Today, Miliband made it clear that he intends to honour that tradition.