From the wailing and rending of garments following David Miliband's resignation as an MP this week, you could be forgiven for expecting a state funeral to be held in the coming days. If this is how we're going to treat someone who was never Prime Minister, never Leader of the Opposition, and held one of the three great offices of state for less than three years, then Malcolm Rifkind will be absolutely delighted. Perhaps it's time to put things in a bit of perspective.
Historians will recall two key policy judgements from New Labour's period in office. First, the decision to maintain the neoliberal economic model of the previous government, which led directly to the worst financial crash in living memory and to Britain remaining one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. Second, the decision to launch a war on Iraq in breach of the UN Charter, with catastrophic humanitarian consequences. In neither case does Miliband have an impressive story to tell.
There is little evidence to suggest that Miliband spent his twenty years in Labour policy circles arguing against the neoliberal model and in favour of more sensible alternatives. In a New Statesman article last year setting out seven policy priorities for Labour, not one concerned the regulation of the financial industry to avoid further crises. Nor were there any concrete proposals (as opposed to some cursory, prevaricating waffle) for tackling economic inequality, despite its now well understood role in producing not only a range of social ills, but also the frenzy of speculation at the top and explosion of private debt at the bottom that were key causes of the 2008 crash. In the historical context of the moment, these omissions verge on the bizarre.
Miliband's article adopted the tired New Labour refrain that dissenters to the left are dwelling in an ideological comfort zone, denouncing them as "Reassurance Labour". Yet ironically - while he furrows his brow, steels his gaze, and tells hard truths to the dinner ladies, nurses and teachers that make up the labour movement - he implicitly provides reassurance to bankers and the super-rich that tackling their anti-social behaviour is not a subject to which he has given any serious thought. Rather than critically examining the dominant neoliberal consensus and challenging the formidable vested interests it serves, Miliband apparently prefers to prattle on at length about public sector reform and the evils of the big state, as though it were still 2004 and nothing much had happened in the interim. For a British politician, this is the very definition of a comfort zone: flabby, detached and complacent.
On Iraq, Miliband's non-apology in the 2010 leadership race was to say that if he'd known then what he knows now about weapons of mass destruction then he would not have supported the war. This is feeble stuff.
Robin Cook was able to say at the time that "Iraq probably has no WMD in the commonly understood sense of the term", and millions of people around the world were able to weigh the various issues in the balance, come to the correct conclusion, and actively oppose the war. More fundamentally, the idea that Saddam's crippled state posed any substantive threat to history's greatest military power, and its numerous allies, was scarcely a credible one. It was however abundantly clear - as the security services warned the Labour government - that invading Iraq would exacerbate the terrorist threat to Britain. And so it proved on 7 July 2005.
During the 2010 hustings, Miliband even made the surreal claim that the war had been necessary to "uphold the will of the international community", despite the fact that the US and UK were unable to secure international support, the war was plainly in violation of the UN Charter, and the foreign policy of the Bush administration was characterised by its swaggering contempt for rule-based multilateralism. Once again, the steely demeanour of a man purporting to tell it like it is becomes a signifier of irony, rather than credibility.
Miliband's time in the Foreign Office fares little better. Even an otherwise fawning Guardian editorial this week acknowledged that he remains "tarnished by his role in defending extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects", or to put it in more straightforward English, the subcontracted kidnapping and torture of people neither tried nor convicted of any crime in a court of law. He cynically obstructed the Chagossian people from returning to the homeland that Whitehall had ejected them from in the 1960s, to make way for a US military base. And he continued Britain's policy of supporting some of the worst tyrannies in the world, particularly in the Middle East. Less than a year after he left office, security forces armed and trained by the UK were engaged in the violent crushing of a peaceful pro-democracy movement in Bahrain. Not exactly the legacy of a great liberal humanitarian.
Despite supporting a war on Iraq that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, devastated a society, and created four million refugees, Miliband now takes up a post as head of the International Rescue Committee. As Michiel Hofman of Médecins Sans Frontières warns, the appointment will only undermine the crucial ability of aid agencies to present themselves as neutral actors in war zones. It may be axiomatic for Westminster villagers that our politicians are benign forces of humanitarianism, but the practical reality that aid workers have to deal with is that many people in other parts of the world see things very differently.
The more aid agencies look like extensions of states involved militarily in conflict zones, the harder it is for them to negotiate with warring parties and ensure the provision of aid to people who desperately need it. Miliband appears to have given this as much serious consideration as the other major issues he has faced in his career. The adulation of the past week tells us more about the quality of political discourse in Britain than it does about the man himself.
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