Ed Miliband is constantly under-estimated. He is not as charismatic as Blair, but he is principled in a way that Blair was not, and in politics that is priceless. He is also brave while Blair was not. Blair opted to define himself by taking on his own party and by deferentially siding with those with power, whether big business executives and bankers in Britain or the US president internationally whether Clinton as a Democrat or GW Bush as a Republican – the ideology didn’t matter, it was the shouldering up to power. Ed Miliband by contrast has shown a steely courage in taking on those with power where there is clearly the right thing to do – Murdoch over BSkyB, the police over phone-hacking, the media over requiring a statutory underpinning for any post-Leveson settlement, opposing the cutback in benefits by facing down the Tory canard over strivers versus shirkers, and now in resisting the stampede towards an in-out referendum on British membership of the EU.
The real mark of a political leader is the readiness to court unpopularity when principle demands it. Ed Miliband has that quality in a way that no other leader since Thatcher has shown – neither Major, Blair, Brown, and certainly not Cameron who has transformed flip-flop into an art form. Everyone can see that his speech yesterday was to suit the requirements of his own deeply split party, not the interests of Britain. The brazenness, and yet also the fickleness, of a party leader who can tell his audience that he wants ‘heart and soul’ to stay in the EU, yet is prepared to put his country at risk of an apocalyptic political and economic decline in self-imposed isolation, all to shore up his shaky hold over a government irrevocably fractured, must surely represent a supreme example of putting party before country. The temptation for Miliband to follow suit, as anti-EU sentiment reaches a new high and most of the (Tory) media lionise Cameron for his recklessness, was enormous. But he resisted, and he was right. Romney found out that appeasing his Republican Tea Party extremists was insatiable, and ultimately self-destructive.
Miliband was right not to go along with the crowd, including the Blairite rump in his own party who always plump for the safety of short-term popularity over the long slog of principled strategy. He was right for a welter of reasons. Business, investment and growth will all be set back by an uncertainty lasting 5 years. The other 26 members of the EU, angry at Britain’s constant exceptionalism, are extremely unlikely to grant concessions of any significance. The perception of Britain in the eyes of the US, China, Russia, and the big emerging economies will be hugely diminished. And all this even before the real, overpowering case for staying in has even begun to be made which, along with prolonged austerity, NHS privatisation, and the assault on welfare, could turn the 2015 election into a judgement on Tory ideological extremism. Shades of the US.