(c) Daily Telegraph
I’m not a big fan of Labour Party leader Ed Milliband. Until now I’ve viewed him as being bland, timid and vacuous. However, at the Labour Party conference the other week, he seemed to suddenly develop a backbone by promising that a future Labour government would freeze household energy bills until 2017.
I’m sceptical that Milliband will ever become Prime Minister, and if he does I’m sceptical that this promise will ever become policy, but at least for once he managed to wrong-foot his political opponents and generate debate and headlines. No doubt it was for this reason – Ed Milliband setting the agenda – that the world’s most horrible wee right-wing tabloid newspaper the Daily Mail decided last Saturday to go gunning for him.
Or rather, the Mail went gunning for Ed Milliband’s father, the late Marxist academic Ralph Milliband who, it claimed in a two-page expose, was a ‘man who hated Britain’. To back this accusation, it quoted something the teenaged Ralph had written in his diary shortly after he’d arrived in the UK as a Jewish refugee, about the English being rabid nationalists. Nearly thirty years later, Milliband Senior also wrote about his contempt for the British establishment, which he saw as including Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, the army, the Church of England, the Times newspaper, the House of Lords and the monarchy. Like father, like son, seemed to be the Mail’s subtext – don’t vote for Ed because he’s been tainted by the evil unpatriotic Marxism of his dad.
This past Tuesday, the Mail allowed Ed Milliband page-space to write a reply to these claims. His father, he retorted, did not hate Britain – for one thing, during World War II, Milliband Senior had served in the British Navy against the Nazis. (This, incidentally, was just a few years after the Mail had been espousing Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and printing headlines like Hurrah for the Blackshirts.) However, the newspaper also published an unrepentant defence of its original allegations. Ralph’s political views, it said, ‘underpinned incalculable human misery’ and the influence he may have had over young Ed was ‘a fundamental question of ideology and enormous public interest.’
By the latter part of this week the Jewish Chronicle writer Jonathan Freedland had also waded into the row, criticising the Mail for what he saw as an anti-Semitic tone in its Ralph Milliband coverage. And a reporter from the Daily Mail’s sister paper, the Mail on Sunday, had been ejected from a memorial service held at London’s Guy’s Hospital for Ed Milliband’s uncle, Professor Harry Keen – she’d sneaked in, trying to get comments from Keen’s friends, relatives and colleagues about the controversy.
The first thing that struck me about this episode is the fact – obviously not graspable by the Daily Mail – that it’s entirely possible to be critical of a country, and of some or most of its institutions, without ‘hating’ it. You can hold a place in great affection whilst also lambasting it for its failings. George Orwell was, in his own, anti-patriotic way, a patriotic Englishman; and he is now revered by many for projecting a quintessentially honest, decent type of Englishness. But Orwell, of course, was scathing of the political and social institutions in the England of his day.
The second thing to strike me was the irony of who was attacking who, and about what. When it comes to hating Britain, Ralph Milliband is small potatoes compared to the Daily Mail, a newspaper that regularly pours bile over Britain’s education system, Britain’s welfare system, Britain’s national broadcaster, Britain’s trade union movement, Britain’s environmental movement, Britain’s immigrant community, Britain’s gay community, and most aspects of Britain’s 21st century culture. In fact, the Daily Mail seems to hate everything in Britain that isn’t white, Christian, middle-or-upper-class, based in the English Home Counties and supportive of the Conservative Party or UKIP. Which constitutes a hell of a lot more of Britain than what Ralph Milliband ever fulminated against.