David Miliband has become something of a peripatetic political being. For large parts of the parliamentary year he simply disappears and people begin to ask the ‘what’s he up to now?’ question they asked of Gordon Brown. But suddenly, almost ex nihilo, he appears again and begins a flurry of speaking engagements, interviews and articles all to do, supposedly, with a political cause he has aligned himself to. The cause that prompted him to speak at the Cambridge Union and at other universities, for example, was the campaign for the Living Wage, a wage meant to cover the costs of life that the current minimum wage does not and one which the Cambridge newspaper ‘Varsity’ recently revealed was not being extended to large numbers of low-earning workers within our multi-billion pound University.
That was the pretext—and a very worthy pretext at that—but with a man who was the pioneer of the New Labour vision in 1997, former Foreign Secretary and closely defeated Labour leader, it was never going to be the main topic for discussion. Indeed the Living Wage campaign only received a small plug at the talk’s end. Instead, Miliband’s conversation, both with Andrew Gamble, Head of POLIS at Cambridge, and the studio audience, centred on foreign affairs.
One would have expected, therefore, an unapologetic Blairite vision of the world from the man whom many believe was the closest thing Tony Blair had to a protégé—forget Cameron opportunistically labelling himself ‘the heir to Blair’. Yet the elder Miliband played a far subtler game than mimicry.
Certainly, he had inherited the former Prime Minister’s eagerness for America to be involved in other nations’ affairs (something which is anathema to the old left who see that country as a bullish, neo-colonial world policeman), saying to an American who queried what was wrong with U.S. disengagement that it was very concerning because only America has the financial resources and will power to cause large, lasting change in the world. With a clear tone of resignation he remarked that the land of the free seemed destined to spend the next six or so years looking to its own domestic issues and withdrawing gradually from the troubles in the wider world. Is this old or new rhetoric? Language about America using its might for good, a need to look beyond domestic concerns and eschewing a hasty withdrawal from international leadership not only seemed highly Blairite but even copies themes George W. Bush flagged up in his 2000 inauguration address. Surely, then, one could ask whether Miliband is merely the espouser of the old neo-con interventionist agenda that so captivated Blair.
Not so. When questioned on Iran and its role in the ‘Arab Spring’ he acknowledged that the Islamic Republic had been a ‘bit part’ player, furiously trying to prop up Syria, its only serious ally in the region, and that it needed to undergo a process of internal change both to make it less of a threat to the wider world and to better meet the growing democratic aspirations of its people. However, he was unequivocal in disavowing the use of a missile strike, something the Bush administration pondered. Tony Blair remains apparently open to as well. Miliband said that ‘the only thing that would be worse than the US striking Iran would be if Israel struck Iran… and then there would be a conflagration in that region’. He instead advocates for the use of soft power to engender a gradual process of change. One example he likes mentioning is the independent news channel he established for Iranians so they have a clearer picture of what their government is actually doing and what the world looks like beyond the anti-Western rhetoric. He also deplored the UK government’s decision to close the Iranian embassy, calling it ‘a sad day for diplomacy’ and saying that it was another step preventing Iran from being given a peaceful exit option from its increasingly confrontational stance with the West. In many ways he sounded more akin to Lord Alton lecturing on how best to bring about peace in the Korean Peninsula than any neo-con wishing to merely contain or disarm Iran.
It was this theme of soft power, not simply force, that informed his vision for how to build strong co-operation with countries traditionally suspicious of the West. China, for example, ‘had everything to gain by opening up to the world’ and although it sounded a tad like a Cameron cliché, one supposes he was hinting at a reciprocal arrangement: China’s acceptance of free trade will offer opportunity and prosperity to all its citizens yet will equally be a sort of glasnost period where civic consciousness grows together with economic prosperity, and will thus engender reforms to the currently ossified and authoritarian Chinese state. The optimism about China was highly reminiscent of a speech given by Vince Cable to a group of Liberal Democrats in London in 2009, which clashed sharply with Tony Blair’s approach that largely ignore the country and its internal human rights/social issues. The Middle East came first. Perhaps now in 2012, with a China that by 2027 according to Goldman Sachs could completely overtake the US economy, the need for positive engagement with the People’s Republic is more pressing than it was in Blair’s day. Pre-financial crisis, American hegemony seemed assured for at least another half-century.
Yet where David Miliband may have differed most from his former boss is in his support for Islamist political parties like those who have sprung up in newly emancipated Egypt and may be on the rise in Libya too. The Bush and Blair governments tacitly supported Mubarak’s Egypt and Sharif’s Pakistan, although they were both essentially restrictive military dictatorships, seen as a less evil bulwark against radical Islam. By contrast, Miliband saw the democratisation of radical Islam as a positive thing, illustrating a gradual movement towards a more moderate stance. He mentioned that ten years ago a radical Islamist in Egypt would not have joined a political party that vowed to fight fairly in a democratic election and competed for women’s votes and secular interests. They would have more likely joined Al-Qaeda in Africa. The former Foreign Secretary also cited the story of how a woman during the uprising in Egypt had said that as a devout Muslim she believed in the dignity of the individual, and that also meant respecting the dignity of her neighbour who may not be a Muslim. The anecdote, one might suppose, was intended to illustrate how the desire to be free from repression and the realisation of full human dignity that comes with it transcends gender and religious creeds. This bolstered Miliband’s faith that democratic Islamist parties would adhere to this liberal ideal.
It wasn’t all foreign policy, though. Of course there was the usual question about his younger brother’s leadership of the Labour Party which the elder brother managed to brush off with his usual line (repeated at the last party conference) that ‘Ed’s leading the party in the way he thinks is best’. But Miliband also raised the very interesting topic of why the centre-left was losing elections across Europe, a topic he raised a year ago on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, and one to which he posited a number of answers: the right were seen as more dependable economically during a fiscal downturn; the right have embraced social liberalism and moved to the centre whilst the financial crisis has caused once centre-left parties to drift to the hard left. He also suggested that, perhaps, the left is no longer seen as the reformers and defenders of the state and are now merely the latter. This loses elections.
Were some of these veiled criticisms of the direction his brother was taking his country’s own centre-left party? Probably. His speech to the Union did coincide with his article written in the ‘New Statesman’ calling for Labour to adopt a ‘clear strategy’.
Overall, judging by the rapturous applause he received, Miliband was in sublime form: dynamic, incisive, intelligent (a man who can quote the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia and apply it to the current foreign policy debate between those who oppose liberal interventionism based on the principle of nation state sovereignty and those who support it based on the natural rights of individuals superseding that sovereignty certainly deserves this accolade) and even at times funny. He joked when he, by chance, picked two Americans in a row: ‘I’m not just picking Americans I promise… oh, you’re all Americans’. Admittedly, some claimed he was overly intellectual, even slightly arrogant and lacked the ‘common touch’ of Blair. But these are arguably superficialities to what was, in the final analysis, not a regurgitation of the foreign policy agenda that dominated the Bush-Blair years but a wholly new vision based on engagement both with radical ideologies and wayward nations. Indeed, soft power can boost democratisation. Miliband seems to accept that the world in 2012 requires a more thoughtful and careful Western approach than did the world of 2002.
Darius Meehan is a Classicist at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, and a member of the Christ’s Politics Society.
Photography by Cambridge Union Society.