With Blair, it’s Iraq. With David Cameron it’s that, for the paltriest of reasons, he called a referendum that had huge implications for the country and failed to win it. With David Miliband, it’s … what, exactly? He didn’t do anything. Something was done to him, most people say. Yet he is, all the same, cloaked in an event he can’t shake off. It is clearer than he is.
I am the only person I know who thought that Ed Miliband had a perfect right to stand against his brother for the Labour leadership. I did not see why family should be more important than policy. However, sibling rivalry has always attracted interest: the Bible is replete with examples we are not supposed to follow. Cain killed Abel. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, having first put him down a well. Jacob took advantage of Esau’s hunger to buy his birthright for a bowl of lentils, and then tricked him out of his father’s blessing, which meant his inheritance.
Ed was condemned, in suitably Biblical terms (“Judas”), and probably no more would have been heard of it had he lost the contest for the leadership, but he won. Five years later he lost the general election and was condemned again, but by that time his brother David had left Parliament and was in the USA heading the International Rescue Committee. There he has remained ever since, occasionally expressing an opinion on Labour politics but keeping a low profile.
His absence hasn’t done him any good here: it may be discretion, it may have been the only thing he could do, but it feels like hiding. Or sulking. He’s like a Prodigal Son who hasn’t been prodigal.
From time to time people say, in a slightly puzzled way, “Pity about David Miliband,” rather as if he had been run over by a tram while trying to stop a dogfight. The implication is that it’s a silly waste, we could do with him. He has experience, certainly: he was Tony Blair’s Policy Chief, then Secretary for the Environment, later Foreign Secretary under Gordon Brown. Well, he’s gone.
Or has he? A hard-hitting article appeared under his name in the Observer at the weekend. It says harsh things about May’s Brexit, urges a cross-party “fightback”, and demands a second vote between EU membership and whatever alternative is negotiated.
There has not, so far, been much fuss about it, so presumably it’s thought that nobody’s listening. It is August, after all. (Why did he choose August?) And he has been away for a long time. So perhaps he doesn’t count. Normally, it is not permitted to ask for a second vote on Europe. The Government’s position is that the people have spoken and they must never be allowed to speak again. To say otherwise is to invite demonisation as an anti-democrat.
It’s a very good article: clear, uncompromising and broadly-based. There are excellent reasons why the referendum result should not be accepted as the last word on the subject. I wrote about them on 8 March, www.foxoutinfront.com/the-will-of-the-people (see also foxoutinfront.com/say-you-like-it ), and won’t repeat them here. Of these many reasons, David Miliband focuses on only one, the most important one. It is, in his words, the campaign’s “complete… refusal to describe, never mind debate, what would replace the status quo.”
Miliband is deeply invested in the American political scene (he expected to be offered a high-ranking diplomatic post in the Administration if Clinton had become President*), and turns to America to illustrate his point about Europe. “Support for Obamacare is growing, dramatically, because the alternative has finally been spelled out… The case against the EU depends on avoiding a discussion of the alternative. It is the equivalent of voting to repeal Obamacare without knowing the replacement. It is a stitch-up.” (My italics.)
He is surely right, and the illustration of Obamacare is helpful. But the sentence I have italicised makes clear just what an enormous swindle the referendum was. The fault in the first instance was David Cameron’s, for setting the ballot question; the void left by the question was never filled by the Remain campaign; the Leave campaign saw their chance – a campaign entirely negative, targeted on the EU – and gleefully took it. The losers were the British people.
Miliband considers Brexit “an unparalleled act of economic self-harm,” but believes that it was a big mistake to reduce the referendum to the economic question.
“The EU represents a vision of society and politics, not just economics… The real truth about the single market has been lost in translation. It is not just a market. It is a vision of the good society. Rights (and holidays) for employees, limits on oligopolies, standards for the environment are there to serve the vision. The single market stands against a market society.” (My italics.)
This aspect of the EU is well understood and appreciated in Europe. Britain has relegated it to the dustbin. We should be ashamed of this, and worried about what has influenced it. It has impoverished the debate to the point where it is not reality that is being debated; and it makes us look what we are in danger of becoming, a small, narrow-minded nation.
“The EU is not just a group of neighbouring countries,” Miliband reminds us. “It is a coalition of democratic states which pledge to advance human rights, the rule of law and democratic rules. That is not a threat to Britain; it is the team we should be in.”
And, going back to the Atlantic Charter, agreed between Churchill and Roosevelt in 1941, he says, “The insight was simple. Globalisation without rules and institutions would not mean more control for ordinary citizens. It would mean less.”
Put that on the buses.
Finally, he quotes Eisenhower’s brilliant insight, never more apt than now, “If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.”
How this article has been received in the Labour Party I do not know, but I imagine they will deal with it by ignoring it. Jeremy Corbyn, believing himself within striking distance of Downing Street, will not even want to think about a second vote. Nor, should David Miliband fancy his chances of returning to British politics, will he find the party readily making room for him. The left doesn’t want another Blairite on the scene, particularly a clever one with experience of high office. And why should the Blairites welcome a returning hero who will think he has a right to lead and who moreover isn’t that much of a hero, not after an absence of …
In fact it’s only four years. It seems longer. It seems longer because it’s seven years since he lost the leadership battle to his brother. He remained an MP until 2013.
Seven years is a long time. But it is also a fairytale period. It’s transformative. In seven years one can experience a radical change of mind. David Miliband has gone a long way away from us: if he had taken a post under Clinton he would have had to take American citizenship. He must have been willing to do that, ready to turn his back on Britain. It would be understandable. Rejection by his brother, rejection by his party; in the end he would have seen it as rejection by his country. Rejection is a hard thing to handle, and the easiest way to handle it is to reject the rejecter. And he has his pride. After all, he was the older brother and the senior politician. Probably quite a lot of pride.
Is he ready to change his mind?
Also, if we are to apply the highest standards, is it quite good enough? The article he has written is wise, mature and shows a breadth of political thinking. Are the same qualities apparent in his behaviour? Or does he have the same, almost impermeable, membrane between the good bits and the bad bits that most of us have? It matters. It matters if he’s coming back.
He has given no clear signal either that he is or that he isn’t. It seems that he cares deeply about what is happening in Britain but not deeply enough to get involved in it. Perhaps it really is too hard to get over, all that Biblical stuff. And it’s possible that saving refugees is the best thing he could be doing. Yet I have a feeling he doesn’t think so.
Situations like this are resolved in the heart, not the head, or not resolved at all. This one needs resolution.
There is need, in the Britain of 2017, for a political intelligence like David Miliband’s. There is need for strong leadership. Blair has the qualifications, but he can’t do it. Iraq is always ahead of him.
Here is a glimpse of how deeply deception, confusion and contempt for the public have penetrated our politics. This is David Davis, talking on Tuesday’s Today programme about the opaque document on the customs union which his Department had just published.
“You will find it difficult sometimes to read what we intend,” he said, apparently unaware that the population has been unable to read what the Government intends for more than a year. “That’s deliberate.”
Oh, I see.
David Miliband, come home. Forget everything else. The house is on fire.
* The Telegraph, 29 April 2016.