How will history remember Ed Miliband? I don’t blame you if you haven’t given this question much thought. Ed Miliband doesn’t give the impression of being a has been, he gives the impression of being a never was. And yet appearances can be deceptive, and Miliband’s impact on world politics has been significant. He deserves to be remembered by history, though not for especially positive reasons.
In his period as Labour leader, from 2010 to 2015, Ed Miliband did two things of truly global significance. The first was losing the 2015 General Election. This paved the way for Britain’s 2016 Brexit vote which, for better or worse, has been a profound shock to the Western political order. Miliband polled consistently below his party, and almost certainly pulled down its share of the vote. The Conservatives came out of the 2015 with a working majority of just 12, meaning that a relatively small improvement in Labour’s performance would have produced a hung Parliament. I think it’s highly likely that, had David Miliband led Labour on a centrist platform in 2015, the Tories would not have got an absolute majority. Thus the referendum, which the then Tory leadership never wanted, wouldn’t have taken place.
But Ed Miliband played a key role in an earlier, and probably even more important, series of events. In 2013, following a series of chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime, he prevented Western military intervention in the Syrian civil war. And by prevented I mean that, had he not acted as he did, Western bombs would have fallen on Syrian regime targets. In August 2013 Syrian Government forces deployed the nerve agent sarin against targets to the East of Damascus. This was merely the latest in a perpetual series of regime atrocities, but significantly it crossed Obama’s famed ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons. This ‘red line’ will be remembered by history as having been drawn with extremely thin pencil.
In response to the attack America, France and Britain prepared a military intervention, to defend the international consensus against the use of chemical weapons and possibly try and bring the Syrian conflict to some form of resolution. But Cameron was blocked by the UK Parliament, by Miliband’s Labour MPs and around 30 Tory rebels, losing the requisite vote by 285-272. In consequence pressure grew in America for Congress to take a vote and President Obama, whose foreign policy priority was generally to avoid doing anything at all, stalled. Russia then intervened to protect its Mediterranean ally, resulting in an unsatisfactory deal which removed some of Syria’s chemical weapons whilst allowing the conventional slaughter to continue.
I’m aware that, at this point, I may well have raised Ed Miliband in your estimation. Thanks to Iraq isolationism is fashionable, whilst interventionism is the geeky kid with braces sitting at the front of the bus. An unfortunate view has come to dominate the left, and gained some credence on the right, that Western military interventions inevitably make situations worse. I disagree. In 2013 the United Nations high commissioner for human rights estimated that, to May of that year, the war had claimed around 92,000 lives. This sounds appalling, because of course it is, but since then the conflict has intensified and the butchers bill skyrocketed. The exact figure is debated, but the UN’s special envoy for Syria estimated in April 2016 that by this point the war had claimed 400,000 lives.
Western intervention would have killed a lot of people, and wouldn’t have ended the civil war. But it might have made the situation containable. Assad could have been persuaded that outright victory was impossible, the moderate opposition (who still just about existed as a significant force in 2013) could have been strengthened and direct Russian intervention would have been prevented. In such a scenario it’s possible, just about, to imagine some kind of deal between regime and opposition elements. Not a perfect deal by any means, and it wouldn’t have completely halted the conflict, but it could have prevented Syria’s development into the 21st century’s greatest butcher’s yard. Such a deal could also have averted or reduced the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on Europe, the post-war event which has done most to revitalise the European radical right.
It’s probably now too late. I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t think direct military intervention remains a viable option. Since direct Russian military involvement began in September 2015 the risks of provoking a greater conflict are now too great, whilst the opposition is now dominated by head chopping Islamists. I recommend reading accounts from inside Assad’s prisons, or from the most recent Syrian chemical attack and pondering what, had the West had a bit more courage, might have been.
When thinking of Labour leaders whose actions have caused enormous suffering in the Middle East, we should remember Ed Miliband along with Tony Blair. It’s extraordinary how the latter is held to account vastly more than the former. Inaction can be just as deadly as action, and a well-placed pacifist can cause as many deaths as some of the most ardent warmongers. Indeed if you’re a sadist, and desire to do as much damage to the human race as possible, your best bet may well be to take leadership of a major Western country and then do absolutely nothing. I can’t help wondering if Syria will be remembered as a victim of Western inaction, along with the likes of Rwanda and 1930’s Spain, which will stain our reputation far more than the failed war in Iraq.