Ed Miliband’s speech at Chatham House in London on 24 April, in which he criticised David Cameron for presiding over a decline in Britain’s standing in the world and accused the government of mismanaging events in Libya since the 2011 intervention, sparked one of the most bitter spats in this election campaign. After months of silence on foreign matters, it was as if the Labour leader had crept up behind the Prime Minister with a rusty old blunderbuss, fired a blank, and left both of them covered in dust, fumbling around with their eyes closed.
Before this point, on the rare occasions when the matter of defence had been discussed, it was in the most superficial way – usually to paint a personality portrait. Exhibit one was Miliband’s declaration during the first televised leaders’ event, chaired by Jeremy Paxman, that he would be tough enough to confront Vladimir Putin. He made his assertion on the grounds that he had “stood up to the leader of the free world”, President Obama, in opposing military action against the Assad regime in Syria in summer 2013.
At the time, Obama was deeply reluctant to accede to anything but limited air strikes. He had already been cajoled into a tougher line by his secretary of state, John Kerry, but once “red lines” had been drawn, the thinking went, it was dangerous for international security to let others dance all over them. And so it has proved.
The Labour leader can’t have known the chain reaction he would have set off in Washington, DC – making Obama wobble and, for better or worse, leave Assad to his own devices. A different question is whether his version of events stands up to scrutiny. The impression in Downing Street was that Miliband had agreed to support the vote and it was only after he encountered the prospect of a significant backbench revolt within the Parliamentary Labour Party that his calculus changed. This would not be the first time that a leader decided not to face down his party on a vital matter. But to use the episode as a parable of bold leadership is to stretch the parameters of plausibility. What is more, if there was conviction behind the decision, we have yet to hear a convincing exposition of the case, or an alternative strategy. Britain’s illogical decision, taken a year later, to support air strikes against Islamic State (or Isis) in Iraq but not Syria was the latest instalment of our foreign policy by soundbite – in which all the main parties shared a portion of blame.
Something similar can be said of Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s desperate attempt to link the future of Trident to the character of Ed Miliband and Ed’s decision to stand for the leadership against his brother, David. According to Fallon, the Labour leader could not be trusted to preserve Britain’s nuclear deterrent, because he would do almost anything to win power. Fallon’s statement, and the reaction to it, followed the same cycle: a declaration of high-sounding nonsense and then a game of manufactured outrage played out in television studies. One might think the question of nuclear weapons required a little more depth.
The present debate over foreign policy is a phoney war but it obscures two fundamental truths that will be exposed in the near future. The first is that Labour is squeamish about the ugly nature of the international arena, and that its current world-view is neither coherent nor fully formed. The second is that the Conservative Party is vulnerable on defence and foreign policy.
Cameron has Blairite inclinations and had hoped to lead on a range of international issues – from Libya through Syria and Ukraine. Yet his tough talking has been matched only by the slashing of the defence budget, even as Russian jets buzz British airspace. The morale of the armed forces is at an all-time low. Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has yet to shake the perception that he is little more than a caretaker, a natural Treasury minister sent in to manage costs downwards. It is striking that Cameron failed to mention him as a potential future leader of the Conservatives.
There was a blow to be landed on the issue of Britain’s role in the world but Miliband failed to land it. His Chatham House speech could have been a serious critique of British foreign policy but it ended up looking like a cheap shot. It is forgotten now just how opportunistic Michael Howard appeared in the 2005 election when he called on Blair to resign because of his record in Iraq, despite leading a party that had supported the war. One is reminded, too, of the 1935 Labour party conference, when Ernest Bevin accused the pacifist party leader, George Lansbury, of “hawking [his] conscience around from body to body” as the world about him caught fire. As in the 1930s, we are moving into a different phase in international history, one that is more fluid and unpredictable, and our thin layers of protection are being stripped off piece by piece.
Foreign policy may not win votes or attract much serious interest during election campaigns but it feeds into the overall perception of competence and the quality of leadership. National security is something entrusted to political leaders. The electorate accepts that these matters are complicated and that it cannot know all the details. Yet it expects firmness, responsibility and a willingness to take difficult decisions, even at the expense of popularity.
That we failed to have a serious discussion about foreign policy during the campaign revealed much about our politics. One hopes that the current lack of seriousness about the world is merely a hiatus, and that the grown-ups will return again once silly season is over on 8 May. This may be wishful thinking.
John Bew is a historian and an NS contributing writer. He is working on a biography of Clement Attlee