Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour and the ‘special relationship’

No area of the last Labour government’s foreign policy created deeper divisions among progressives than Tony Blair’s willingness to stand shoulder to shoulder with President Bush. How to use and maintain No 10’s privileged access to the White House was, in many ways, the defining decision of the Blair premiership. Prime Minister Miliband, however, will face a very different set of dilemmas: how to operate in a Washington in which Britain’s pull has significantly diminished, and how to deal with a US administration that is war-weary, fiscally constrained, and looking beyond the Atlantic era towards a rising Asia.

Tony Blair’s own reckoning with the tensions inherent in the ‘special relationship’ was clear: the reputational costs of being associated with an unpopular US administration and the opposition of much of the Labour party were prices worth paying for a position of unique influence with the world’s pre-eminent power. That calculation was criticised by those who believed the trade-off was not worth it, those who believed that this influence was not exploited well, and those who believed that we never had that much of it anyway. There can be no doubt though that the Atlanticism of 1997 and beyond marked a profound shift in Labour politics.

New Labour’s big beasts came of political age at a time when the international left’s perspective on America was dominated by Vietnam, Henry Kissinger, and Latin American coups. When that generation was first elected to parliament in 1983, the Labour party was committed to beginning negotiations for the removal of US-controlled cruise missiles from British soil ‘within days’ of the Conservatives leaving office. But while there was still plenty of anti-Americanism on the left by the time Tony Blair took office, it wasn’t to be found anywhere near the top of the Labour party. Indeed, at the height of the Third Way, the partnership between New Labour and the man from Arkansas CLP went well beyond agreement on matters of international security and, for a time, Atlanticism, pro-Europeanism and progressive politics seemed readily reconcilable. 9/11 and  Iraq  would make that a great deal harder, but mainstream Labour opinion generally assumed that the transition to President Obama would mark the resumption of the closest of ties between Labour and our sister Democrats.

The reality was more complex. Having seen the man they believed to be their dream president elected, Europeans quickly found that they were dealing with a leader who was less focused on traditional Atlantic allies and values-based foreign policy than his predecessors. The winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was a relief but the restraint and pragmatism that European leaders had looked forward to was a less comfortable experience when it meant a rebalancing of American resources away from an EU in economic crisis and a Middle East in political crisis towards the booming economies and rising powers of Asia. Not only was Europe no longer geostrategically central for Washington, but in an era of reduced Pentagon budgets it would also be expected to take on more of the burden for conflicts like Libya. Even more uncomfortably, it soon became clear that President Obama would maintain, and even extend, important Bush-era national security programs from targeted killings to mass surveillance. While general public enthusiasm for Obama meant he did not attract the same European opposition that George Bush would have faced had he dramatically escalated the numbers of US drone strikes, there has been a growing realisation that, when it comes to counterterrorism and homeland defence, US policy has more elements of continuity than change.

For the UK, the shift in the status of the relationship has been even sharper. The gratuitous damage the Conservatives have already done to Britain’s relationship with Europe has left the UK, as Douglas Alexander has warned, in the worst of both worlds: adrift from Brussels and, as a result, with much less clout in Washington. The huge EU-US transatlantic trade deal, the TTIP, is being negotiated amid uncertainty about whether Britain will even remain in the EU, vividly demonstrating to the United States that it can no longer count on the UK as a reliable, like-minded advocate within a union that it would like to see strengthened rather than undermined. At the same time, Tory defence cuts are rendering the UK a less attractive military partner at precisely the moment when the United States is looking for its allies to take on further responsibilities. Cameron’s early ‘solid not slavish’ point-scoring description of the relationship revealed a leader prepared to distance himself from the Blair-Brown era at the expense of a serious political commitment to continue its influence.

While core transatlantic ties remain – intelligence cooperation, deep investment entanglements, and unique nuclear ties – Ed Miliband will find himself dealing with a bilateral relationship that has been reduced to its essentials and a United States that is significantly rebalancing its global role. The safest political option would be to maintain the slow downward drift in the partnership, minimising the risks of internal criticism and avoiding the danger of being mocked for being deluded in thinking that the UK should seek a ‘special’ status in Washington again. The most comfortable route, however, is unlikely to be the most effective one for a government that wants progressive policies with impact.

Miliband’s real American dilemma, therefore, will be whether he is willing to take concrete steps to reverse the dynamic of diminished influence, and carve out a relationship that is attuned to the new era in US foreign policy. The choices facing the next Labour government over its position in the EU and over its capacity to stage military interventions, which we outlined earlier in this series of columns, are central. A Britain that can exercise leadership in Europe again, and a British military that is capable of taking on greater security burdens – including with European partners – will also have far more weight in Washington. This extends well beyond the traditional geographical focus of Europe’s neighbourhood and the greater Middle East: as US officials have urged, partnership with Washington as it navigates the new strategic dynamics in Asia would provide the basis for transatlantic cooperation in a pacific age. But that would require looking at the region through a less mercantilist prism than the present Conservative government.

Ed Miliband’s second high-stakes choice will be when and how to weigh in on areas of disagreement, such as the rules governing drone strikes and the continued detention of Shaker Aamer in Guantanamo Bay. The two sides’ close security and intelligence cooperation do still give the UK some level of influence here. In Iraq, for instance, British caveats over the handover of detainees into the black prison system by its own special forces was one of the catalysts for a shift in US government policy. As the UK faces court cases over its intelligence support to US drone strikes in Pakistan, should the next Labour government take a clearer stance on what it views as acceptable parameters on targeting? We will return to the intrinsic progressive dilemmas presented by these policies in a future piece on counterterrorism, but there would be clear risks in being seen to take an oppositional stance on the use of tools and technologies that US political leaders see as highly effective, even if they are the subject of growing debate.

There is no doubt that Labour’s incoming prime minister and foreign secretary – both scholars of US politics, and products of its higher education system – have a deep love for America and admiration for its capacity to act as a progressive force. The question is whether they have greater ambitions for the relationship than managed decline.

Questions to discuss:

1)   Under what conditions has the UK been able to enjoy a privileged relationship with the United States in the past? Will they be there in the future?

2)   On which elements of Obama’s foreign policy strategy are we most closely in accord – and looking to bolster – and where do we have our greatest reservations?

3)   What price should we be willing to pay for influence in terms of acquiescing to US policies with which progressives are uncomfortable?


Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international progressive organisations on strategy. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill. Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF. He tweets @ajwsmall


Photo: David Patrick

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Kirsty McNeill and Andrew Small

Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international progressive organisations on strategy. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill. Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He tweets @ajwsmall


  • There are, obviously, pluses and minuses in connection with the UK’s relationship with the USA.

    Major minuses are the malign influence the USA has had on UK economic policy (with the financial crisis being a by-product, brought about by badly regulated “free” (!) markets); on the activities of the media (pushing public opinion in a virulently right-wing direction); the over-shadowing of the concept of Social Europe and the near-abolition of the concept of public service (with increased inequality and the impending demise of the NHS as visible manifestations); the list is endless.

    A plus is all the cute things people can spend their money on in the shops.

    People in the USA are beginning to realise that the State does have a role to play, but American democracy does not give those people much of a voice. In Britain, it is more muddled and, between elections, the British people don’t matter much. The prevailing mindset is still “privatise the lot” without much intelligence being exercised about what the common good might be.

    The pendulum swings left-right…. The Third Way was botched. A new synthesis is needed.

  • Ed Milliband will win on behalf of LABOUR supporters in 2015GE. He has, optimistically, another 15 years in office for himself IF he gets his more erratic supporters to toe the Party line and read from the same hymn sheet and stop shooting eachother’s toes off for pity’ sake. Plenty of time to sort out our USA brothers [and sisters]. They love us. Who is bothered whether they do, anyway?
    Sort out your flock at home, Ed. Under the circumstances [the flak he is receiving from both sides of the Party line] I think Ed’ Milliband is doing a fine job for us who support LABOUR at the grass roots level. Its tough at the top, its worse in the gutter. Stay on top Ed, for ALL our sakes !

  • “While core transatlantic ties remain – intelligence cooperation, deep
    investment entanglements, and unique nuclear ties”

    I don’t know what the ‘deep investments mean’ but the other three are the ‘real’ special relationship to which may be added ‘bases’ …. ‘spooks nukes and bases’

    At the moment the media are enjoying themselves with the spooks connections.

    The major alliance is of course NATO which has taken on ‘ extra theatre roles at the US ‘request’. That is why UK forces are in Afghanistan.

    These were all created by a Labour Government and Ernie Bevan fixed them. Of course they have been modified since (perhaps most significantly ‘the nukes’)

  • I am not sure why any one in Labour should seriously want a PR style announcement a week (only to be cancelled a fortnight later) like the Cameron Euro policy (pro tem) mentioned in the article .

    Grandstanding fuhrer type ‘leadership’ either european or transatlantic models tend to be mocked or feared in Britain rightly so. The USA might like it though.

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