Sunday, 1 September 2013

A new-found voice sends a message across the oceans

When the voiceless find a voice, how powerfully they sometimes speak.

Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party and therefore of the official opposition in Britain, became practically the invisible man over the summer. That left the government free to set the agenda, despite being one of the weakest and cruellest I’ve seen:

  • several hundred thousand children have been plunged into poverty 
  • 30 people a week are dying of disease after being ruled fit for work and therefore ineligible for benefits 
  • it has emerged that even as a tentative economic recovery gets underway, many on poor wages are finding permanent full time positions being replaced by insecure, part-time jobs, something also happening in the US.

Many voices began to clamour for Miliband to emerge from the shadows and speak out, including my own (not the most influential perhaps, but I’m pleased it was among them). Now he’s suddenly found the power of speech, and the effect has been astounding.

He told David Cameron that no, he wouldn’t be supporting the government’s enthusiasm to join a US missile strike on Syria.

Many have criticised Miliband for taking that position, but their arguments all seem to be about stature in the world, Britain’s as well as the US’s, and far less about the substance of the argument. Just what good would those missile strikes do?

  • Would they stop President Assad massacring his people? It seems unlikely. 
  • Would they even stop him doing it with chemical weapons? Even that seems improbable, unless the stated aim of ‘degrading’ his weapon stocks meant blowing them up, which sounds pretty reckless. 
  • Would they make the West any safer? By infuriating Russia and helping a rebellion in which Al Qaida plays a major role, it’s hard to see how that would be the outcome.
Miliband’s position led to Cameron losing a vote in Parliament to take part in the strikes, as a result of which it now seems Britain won’t. Cameron is furious, and Downing Street taken to calling Miliband names – really, stuff of the ‘expletive undeleted’ kind. The Tories seem rattled.

Proportionate? Targeted on chemical weapons? Effective
Many thought not and now they won't be taking part
Now President Obama too is going to seek Congressional approval for military action. That’s particularly telling. The Constitution vests the power to declare war in the Congress, not the presidency (Article 1, Section 8). But Presidents have got around that restriction for decades by taking ‘military action’ without declaring war. Now Obama’s setting a precedent that even for such limited initiatives, Congress must be consulted.

That’s what’s happened in Britain too. Britain is less democratic about waging war than the US: the government can use military force on its authority, exercising ‘royal prerogative’, the rights of the monarch, delegated to it. But on this side of the Atlantic, too, the precedent has been set of consulting the legislative first.

The pity, of course, is that though involving the US House of Representatives is great in principle, in practice it’s depressing, given the appalling bunch who now control it. Cameron has accused Miliband of playing politics, when actually he’s just doing politics at last. If you want to see playing at politics, you need to look at the US Tea Party: nothing the government does can be good, everything it attempts must be opposed, however wise or necessary it may be.

So Obama has a fight on his hands. Again, in principle, it’s great to see him doing battle for his beliefs at last; in practice, it’s a pity he’s chosen such a bad issue – the questionable use of missile strikes against Syria. Why couldn’t it have been healthcare or, given what’s happening in the employment market, proper jobs?

But in Britain, it’s great to see that Miliband has found a voice at last. Now we need him to keep using it, not to settle back into his previous torpor and let the government ride all over him again, as the government will certainly try to do. For instance, Prime Minister’s questions are going to be a rough ride this week.

Miliband needs to keep his nerve, to stay calm, and to keep landing the punches, with quiet, obstinate, powerful determination.

That’ll take him to office and drive out our current appalling government. Let’s hope he has the staying power to do the job.

As for Obama: well, he’s got his work cut out for him. He needs to find a strength of which he’s shown scant sign so far.

And then he needs to find a better cause, one which deserves the investment of such effort.


Faith A. Colburn, Author said...

I agree with your argument about Obama's issue, but his foreign policy stance was the reason I caucused against him in '08. Both he and Hillary are big supporters of a "bomb the hell out of them and ask questions later" policy. Hence bombing in Pakistan, Yemen, and I don't know where else. (I should read more of those leaks.) Both said so during the '08 campaign.

David Beeson said...

You're wise, Faith. I was hoping for better from him; I was even thinking that Hilary might have been a better bet; but maybe both would have the lure of those big deadly weapons too hard to resist.