30 April 2015

Why the UK General Election matters for the United States


Do Americans care about the upcoming British General Election? Does it matter in Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles whether Ed Miliband or David Cameron is in Downing Street, or if Labour forms a coalition government with the SNP, or the Tories get a majority? Judging by the almost complete absence of media coverage on this side of the Atlantic, it is safe to say that the British elections have hardly captured the imagination of the American public. Aside from a few snippets in the highbrow New York Times and Washington Post, there has been little in the way of US analysis of events across the Pond, and the main cable news networks have so far ignored it. Ordinary Americans are fascinated with the Royal Family, but far less so with the political debate in Westminster, at least outside of the Washington Beltway

There are exceptions, of course – the Syria intervention debate in the House of Commons in 2013, and the Prime Minister’s statements last year on the growing ISIS threat are recent examples. But British politics today simply doesn’t spark the kind of attention it used to when Margaret Thatcher bestrode the world stage with Ronald Reagan at her side, or when Tony Blair stood shoulder to shoulder with George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Contrast the dearth of US media interest in British politics with the intense UK focus on the American presidential elections, which is already evident, with British newspapers running profiles of the leading presidential contenders, 18 months before Americans go to the polls in November 2016. The British press has traditionally maintained a feverish interest in US politics, so much so that stories appearing in UK newspapers with large online readerships, such as The Daily Telegraph, Guardian or The Daily Mail, are frequently filtered in to the US news cycle through websites such as the Drudge Report or RealClear Politics. It rarely works the other way around.

Despite the lack of US media interest thus far, next week’s British General Election will have a direct impact upon the United States and US interests in Europe and across the world. Labour leader Ed Miliband is hardly a household name in Middle America (nor for that matter is David Cameron), but it is important to the United States where the next prime minister stands on key issues impacting the US. There is still a great deal of uncertainty on the US side with regard to how a new British government will implement foreign policy, not least because discussion of foreign and defence policy has largely been relegated to the sidelines of the UK election debate.

It will not have gone unnoticed in Washington, however, that the Anglo-American Special Relationship is referenced in just one of the policy manifestos released by the major political parties (the Conservatives). Significantly, the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists make barely any mention of the United States or NATO in their policy documents, with a heavy emphasis instead on ties to the European Union. It should also be noted that when it comes to foreign policy, Ed Miliband remains largely an enigma, with little to offer in terms of an overarching vision for Britain’s place in the world, just days away from potentially taking the reins at Downing Street.

Great Britain’s role vis-a-vis America remains unique and vital. While the Obama administration has paid less attention to the Special Relationship than its predecessors, the alliance remains very much in place on many levels, including unrivaled defence and intelligence cooperation between London and Washington, large-scale trade and investment, powerful diplomatic partnerships, and deep-rooted cultural and educational ties. Britain isn’t just any country to the United States – it is unquestionably America’s closest friend and ally, a status that many nations aspire to, but which Britain continues to command. As Margaret Thatcher once put it, in a speech to the Chicago Council of Global Affairs soon after she left office:

Whatever people say, the special relationship does exist, it does count and it must continue, because the United States needs friends in the lonely task of world leadership. More than any other country, Britain shares America’s passionate commitment to democracy and willingness to stand and fight for it. You can cut through all the verbiage and obfuscation. It’s really as simple as that.”

Foreign policy has hardly featured in the 2015 General Election campaign, but you can be certain that it will weigh heavily on the list of priorities for the next British prime minister. The Iranian nuclear crisis, mounting Russian aggression in Ukraine, the growing threat posed by ISIS and Islamist terrorism in the Middle East, Africa and Europe, as well as the spectre of economic turmoil in Greece and the Eurozone, are all major issues that will face the new British government, whether it is led by a single party or a coalition.

Britain may no longer be a superpower, but it is a world power with global military, economic and diplomatic reach.  As the world’s fifth largest economy, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and a nuclear power, Britain continues to punch well above its weight in terms of territory and population size. It is in America’s interests to have a stable United Kingdom that remains firmly committed to NATO and the transatlantic alliance, sound economic management, a strong nuclear deterrent, and a robust level of defence spending.  An inward-looking Britain that scales back its defences, reduces its international commitments, and is less powerful economically can only weaken the United States on the world stage.

The international stakes of the 2015 UK election are high. Washington will be looking closely at the outcome, which may have a significant effect on Britain’s approach towards a range of international issues, as well as British willingness to lead alongside the United States in confronting a range of challenges. Whoever leads Britain after May 7th should remember that Britain is at its strongest when it stands with the United States, and its Anglosphere allies, a lesson and legacy bequeathed by Sir Winston Churchill in the dark days of World War Two. As Churchill’s example reminds us, a world without Anglo-American leadership would indeed be a dark and dangerous place.

Nile Gardiner is the Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.