Paul Pillar

The Americanization of British Politics

The victory of 40-year-old Ed Miliband in the contest for leadership of Britain's Labour Party evokes several aspects--none of them particularly good--of American politics and how the United States chooses its leaders.  Given that Miliband's principal opponent in the leadership contest was his older brother David, the former foreign secretary, one such aspect is the dynastic quality of so much of presidential politics in the United States.  As the names Kennedy, Bush, or Clinton remind us, being the brother, son, or spouse of a president is one of the biggest boosts one could hope to get in being taken seriously as presidential timber.  An irony is that supposedly egalitarian America has displayed much more of this dynastic quality in national politics in recent decades than has Britain, where class distinctions and a landed aristocracy long had much more political importance than they ever did in the United States.  Perhaps a further irony is that the Miliband brothers have no connection with that aristocracy but instead are sons of an immigrant Marxist intellectual.

A more significant pattern of American politics in recent times that Ed Miliband's win will foster in the United Kingdom is increased partisan divisiveness.  Ed was clearly a candidate of the left, while David identified with the more centrist politics of Tony Blair's "New Labour" reformulation of the party's image.  Although the new party leader, the day after his victory, was trying to mute his "Red Ed" image and to start appealing to centrist voters, there unquestionably will be a sharper divide on important issues with the governing coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats than there would be if the older Miliband brother had become Labour's leader.  In the near term the biggest differences will be over the coalition's fiscal austerity program.  But foreign policy, including issues of concern to the United States, also will feel the effects of a sharper partisan split.  

An even more fundamental reversion by Britain to a recent American pattern concerns the method by which top leaders are chosen, and what sorts of heads of government, in terms of background and experience, the method tends to yield.  Over the past several decades the United States has moved to a form of retail politics with serial primaries and endless campaigns that favors campaigners over statesmen.  Past experience and responsibility for national affairs count much less than they once did.  This trend could be defended as being more democratic than the alternatives.  But as George Will observes in his most recent column, "Certainly the democratization has not correlated with dramatic improvements in the caliber of nominees."

This has been an area where until recently, Britain's system of cabinet government could plausibly claim to offer a superior method of selecting top leaders.  The front benches of the major parties have been the sources of prime ministers, who come into office with the valuable combination of electoral experience and the responsibility for an important segment of national affairs as a senior minister or, when in opposition, a shadow minister.  Foreign affairs in particular was well integrated into this part of national politics.  The job of foreign secretary--the position that David Miliband held until the last election--has most often been the member of the government considered second only to the prime minister in prestige and clout.  A good many prime ministers and party leaders have been foreign secretary, either before or after occupying the top job.  (The current foreign secretary, William Hague, is a former leader of the Conservative Party.)  

It once was like that in the United States, too.  The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth presidents of the United States all had been secretaries of state, with three of those moving directly from that job to the presidency.  That pattern long ago faded into history.  President Obama's appointment of a senior elected politician and presidential possibility in his own party, Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state partly echoes those older days but is noteworthy mainly as an exception to more recent habits.

And now Britain has become more like the United States of recent years.  Ed Miliband is not long removed from being the kind of young, ambitious political wonk who in Washington might be a chief of staff or policy planner for some department head.  He was first elected to parliament only five years ago, and was made a minister (for the second-tier post of energy and climate change) three years ago.  He clearly is very intelligent and politically adept, and if he ever becomes prime minister he might, for all any of us know, turn out to be an inspired statesman.  He has attained the leadership of the Labour Party, however, not because of proven statesmanship but because in the party's version of retail politics he skillfully appealed to the labor unions, who constitute a key part of Labour's base (and are allotted one-third of the voting strength in choosing the party leader).  There are many things in the American system of government worth emulating, but the evolution over the past half century of how Americans pick their presidents is not one of them.