As Britain’s general election approaches, opinion polling suggests that the outcome is too close to call. But most polls in April have given the Labour Party a slender lead over its main rival, the Conservative Party, led by the incumbent prime minister, David Cameron.
If that advantage holds through May 7, Labour’s leader, the 45-year-old Ed Miliband, could claim a considerable accomplishment: The last leader to return an opposition party to power after just one term out of government was Margaret Thatcher, in 1979.
Mr. Miliband has been demonized as “Red Ed” by the right-wing press for daring to stand up to corporate interests and advocate higher taxes on the wealthy. In reality, in time-honored Labour tradition, he is a mainstream social democrat.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story, especially on foreign policy. A Miliband premiership could have big implications for the decades-long trans-Atlantic alliance. Mr. Miliband could become the first British prime minister in a generation willing to stand up to the United States and chart a distinctive path.
Staking out a different position was one of his first acts after defeating his older brother, David, the former foreign secretary who had backed the invasion of Iraq, in the party leadership election in 2010. Pointedly declaring the war “wrong,” Mr. Miliband said, “Our alliance with America is incredibly important to us, but we must always remember that our values must shape the alliances that we form and any military action that we take.”
Most British politicians are obsessed with the “special relationship” — a phrase coined by Winston Churchill in 1946 — even if their American counterparts are cooler on it. There is an apocryphal story about Churchill’s visit to the White House in 1941 in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived at Churchill’s room unannounced only to discover the British prime minister naked after taking a bath. The president, embarrassed, tried to leave, but Churchill declared: “The prime minister of Great Britain has nothing to conceal from the president of the United States.”
The special relationship phase of the trans-Atlantic alliance reached its zenith in the 1980s, with Margaret Thatcher hailing Ronald Reagan as a “truly great American hero,” while he complimented her as “the best man in England.” In recent years, Tony Blair hugged Bill Clinton close, and George W. Bush closer still — following the American leader into Afghanistan and Iraq.
On paper, Mr. Miliband should be apt to continue the tradition. He has more ties to America than any prime minister, perhaps, since Churchill. As a child, Mr. Miliband attended school in Boston, while his father, Ralph, a Marxist political scientist, was lecturing at local universities. Taken to Fenway Park, young Ed became a lifelong fan of the Red Sox — despite his father’s regarding baseball as “two and a half hours of mind-destroying boredom.”
In 2002, Mr. Miliband took a sabbatical from his job as a Treasury adviser to teach economics at Harvard. He cites Robert F. Kennedy as his political hero, and as leader, he hired Barack Obama’s election guru, David Axelrod, to advise Labour’s campaign.
But here begins the paradox of the Miliband brand of Atlanticism: Americanophile he is, America’s poodle he is not. “The U.S. has a special place in Ed’s heart,” one of his closest advisers, Stewart Wood, told me. “The relationship must remain strong and close, but it should be a relationship aimed at strengthening multilateralism, not as an alternative to it.”
While Mr. Miliband is an admirer of Mr. Obama, he has diverged frequently, and at times sharply, from the policies of the president.
Take Syria. In August 2013, as Mr. Obama and Mr. Cameron prepared to launch airstrikes against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, in response to a chemical attack on civilians in Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, Mr. Miliband refused to support military action in a vote in the House of Commons. Arguing against a new “rush to war” and insisting that “the lessons of Iraq” be heeded, the Labour leader inflicted a humiliating parliamentary defeat on Mr. Cameron.
It was said to be the first time since 1782 that a prime minister had lost a vote on military action. Mr. Cameron’s failure to win support for military action against Mr. Assad unquestionably changed the political calculus also for Mr. Obama. He reversed course, proposing to go to Congress for approval of airstrikes, and finally, when that looked dubious, abandoned any military intervention.
It should be noted that Mr. Miliband is not antiwar across the board. In 2011, he backed NATO’s bombing of Libya, and he supports America’s airstrikes against the Islamic State.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, however, Mr. Miliband condemned the Israeli incursion into Gaza last summer, whereas Mr. Obama called mildly for an end to hostilities. In October, Mr. Miliband led 191 Labour members of Parliament as they voted for a motion calling for recognition of “the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel,” again defeating the government — and in marked contrast to the Obama administration’s steady opposition to the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood at the United Nations.
Mr. Miliband’s recent bounce in the polls has rattled opponents who tried to dismiss him before as a naïf and a lightweight. One senior Tory minister has warned that Mr. Miliband would “put our country’s security at risk”; another suggested that he would be Vladimir V. Putin’s choice for Britain’s prime minister. In fact, when he was asked directly in a recent television interview whether he was tough enough to face down Russia’s president, Mr. Miliband invoked the 2013 Syria vote. “I think standing up to the leader of the free world shows a certain toughness,” he replied.
Distinct from his Tory opposite number and both his Labour predecessors, Mr. Blair and Gordon Brown, Mr. Miliband made the correct call on Iraq, the biggest geopolitical fiasco of our time. The key point is that he isn’t afraid to challenge the foreign policy establishment, even the president of the United States.
Election Day beckons. British voters may for the first time elect a leader who is a passionate baseball fan — and also, at last, a prime minister who has the special relationship in correct perspective.
Mehdi Hasan is a presenter for Al Jazeera English and a co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader.