Few people are as courageous as a politician who is out of a job and a long way from the next one. When relieved of the demands of governing, with all its attending compromises and necessary half-measures, politicians find the pluck to simply speak their minds. Take Ed Miliband, for example. Mr. Miliband is the new leader of Britain’s Labour Party, elected last week following a fratricidal leadership race between himself and his older brother David, the former Foreign Secretary under Gordon Brown. In his first address to his recently defeated party, Mr. Miliband offered an unequivocal denunciation of the Iraq War. He said U.N. weapons inspectors were not given enough time in 2003 before coalition troops invaded. He then asserted that the way in which Britain decided to go to war led to "a catastrophic loss of trust in Labour.”
Were this 2003 then Mr. Miliband’s speech might have been a profile in courage. He claims, of course, that he opposed the war at the time, but that is hard to know since he was not yet an M.P. and was in fact living in the U.S. Anyway, coming as it does some seven years after the event, the speech appears at first to be little more than tossing some red meat to his party’s anti-American lions. Yet there’s something else to this as well. By denouncing the U.K.’s complicity in America’s crime, Mr. Miliband has questioned the so-called ‘special relationship’—the unparalleled military and intelligence cooperation between the U.K. and the U.S. that has permitted Britain to punch above its weight in the international ring long after she ceased to be a major independent power.
Mr Miliband’s speech, therefore, is significant, because the “special relationship” was a dogma of Britain’s Cold War consensus. That consensus is now breaking down. There are a number of reasons for this, including a Labour party that sees more ideological kinsmen in Europe than in the U.S. and a public that is tired of being America’s poodle and has grown increasingly comfortable with the idea of the country having a more limited global reach. Mainly, however, the consensus is breaking down because of money. Britain is in tough shape economically; the government’s deficit is among the biggest in Europe and represents an uncomfortably sizable chunk GDP. The recession still lingers and the demand for social services only increases. The Defence budget, accordingly, is on the block.
Traditionally, one might expect that a government led by the Conservatives would leave the defence budget alone, but the Tories can also read the spreadsheets and they are not the sole masters of the government. The Tories are in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who have always been sceptical about big defence outlays. The result is that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, is expected to announce deep and dramatic cuts in Britain’s defence appropriations. The Secretary for Defence, Liam Fox, has indicated in a leaked memo that the proposals currently circulating around the government will all have “drastic” consequences, compromising Britain’s ability to make even a modest contribution in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Britain’s nuclear deterrent is also up for grabs. It’s even possible that in five years Britain will be unable to mount even a Falklands-style campaign.
All of this, of course, has both Washington and London worried. The relationship, after all, is only “special” if it can be consummated. The only person not worried at the moment might be Ed Miliband. Then again it will be a long time before he has to make the tough choices.