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The Daily Mail, the Milibands and the failure to talk about England

The Daily Mail said that Ralph Miliband hated Britain. Their evidence was quotes about England. This tells us much about the attitude to Englishness...

David Rickard
9 October 2013
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British, or English?

I suppose by now I should not be all that surprised, but I am in fact staggered that none of the national media conversation around the Daily Mail’s insidious slur on Ed Miliband’s late father Ralph and his alleged ‘hatred of Britain’ has yet thought to mention that the Marxist intellectual’s venom appeared to be directed at England, and not Britain at all.

Let’s have a look at the quotes from Ralph Miliband’s writings that the Daily Mail adduced as evidence of his purported ‘Britophobia’.1 First, there is the infamous diary entry of the 17-year-old refugee from Nazi controlled Belgium:

“The Englishman is a rabid nationalist. They are perhaps the most nationalist people in the world . . . you sometimes want them almost to lose [the war] to show them how things are. They have the greatest contempt for the Continent . . . . To lose their empire would be the worst possible humiliation”.

No mention of ‘Britain’ or the ‘British’ there.

The Mail article goes on to refer to Ralph Miliband’s description of the “genuine sense of outrage . . . of bourgeois England” at the post-war Labour government’s programme of nationalisations. Again, this is not an attack on Britain. On the contrary, you could read it as a celebration of a new socialist Britain replacing an old, Conservative ‘Middle England’.

Next, we have Ralph Miliband’s tirade against the Establishment:

“Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, the great Clubs, the Times, the Church, the Army, the respectable Sunday papers . . . . It also means the values . . . of the ruling orders, keep the workers in their place, strengthen the House of Lords, maintain social hierarchies, God save the Queen, equality is bunk, democracy is dangerous, etc.

“Also respectability, good taste, don't rock the boat, there will always be an England, foreigners, Jews, natives etc are all right in their place and their place is outside . . .”.

Admittedly, some of these features of the Establishment are British, such as the Army, Parliament and the monarchy. But Miliband’s target here is clearly the socio-culturally English elements of the Establishment, with some of the institutions listed being exclusively or effectively English, e.g. Oxbridge, the Church of England and, of course, “there’ll always be an England”: the only country actually mentioned in this excerpt.

Finally, we have Ralph Miliband’s reflections on the impact of the Falklands War: “[Margaret Thatcher’s] brand of Toryism may now come to predominate. The Falklands has served her well . . . if she is returned at the next election England will look a very different country than even in 1979”. OK, this may be ‘England’ used carelessly as a synonym for ‘Britain’, although my point still stands: Ralph Miliband does not refer to ‘Britain’ at all, but only to England. However, this may indeed be intended as a reference to England as England, with Ralph Miliband’s focus being on the cultural transformation of England by Thatcherism, which was deeper and longer-lasting than in Scotland and Wales – although the economic effect of Thatcherism in those countries was at least as great if not more so.

So why has the fact that Ralph Miliband’s antipathy was directed, in these instances at least, to England and not Britain been so systematically, as it were unthinkingly, ignored in the media and social-network debate? It really is as if the fact that Ralph Miliband depreciated England to such an extent is a matter of no consequence whatsoever for the British media: no one mentions it, because no one is bothered by it. And perhaps no one is bothered by it because it is so uncontroversial and everyone at root agrees with it. That is, everyone with a claim to being an opinion former in the British-national media does associate English patriotism with characteristics such as ‘narrow nationalism’, racism, xenophobia, profound political and social conservatism, unswerving faith in the Establishment and the monarchy, and economic neo-liberalism or libertarianism.

So no one has bothered to criticise or even point out Ralph Miliband’s anglophobia, because everyone basically goes along with it.

It is only when 1) Miliband Sr’s hatred of England, or a certain understanding of England, is translated by the Mail into a purported ‘hatred of Britain’, and then 2) Miliband Jr’s own political philosophy is said to have been moulded by that of his father, that the slur becomes potentially damaging to Ed Miliband, and it is thought to be worth having a political row about it.

The implication that Ed Miliband might harbour a secret ‘hatred of Britain’ is potentially hugely damaging to him, as he has put ‘Britain’ at the centre of his whole policy vision for the 2015 election: the concept of a ‘One Nation’ Britain, which is the locus for a set of policies built around economic fairness and inclusion, social solidarity and egalitarianism, and a renewed participatory politics.

At the heart of the ideological battle with the Conservatives that will be played out in the extended election campaign that this year’s conference season has kicked off is a dispute over what constitutes true ‘British values’. One Nation Britishness involves, among other things, an emphasis on collective, ‘national’ solutions to economic and social problems, including powers to limit the rights of private enterprises and property owners (such as utility companies and owners of development land) to pursue profits to the detriment of the public interest.

Opposed to One Nation Britain is David Cameron’s conference speech vision of Britain as a “land of opportunity”, based on things like: individual aspiration and hard work; the moral ‘greatness’ of the British people, and their determination to defend their liberty; and the enduring strength of Britain’s established institutions. These could well be described as the kind of ‘bourgeois’, Conservative values and institutions that Ralph Miliband despised: the emphasis on private property and enterprise; the assault on the welfare state, and the relentless dismantling of the remaining vestiges of the post-war socialist settlement; the appeal to ‘Middle England’-type, petty self-interest; and the Establishment, including the armed forces and British parliamentary democracy.

If the ideological debate between Labour and Conservative, Left and Right, is being framed as a battle to define and appropriate the true British values, then the Daily Mail article can be seen as a first salvo in the Right’s attempt to paint Ed Miliband’s ‘neo-socialist’ political philosophy as intellectually antithetical and emotionally antipathetic to those values, portrayed as incarnated in and defended by the Conservatives.

In this context, there is absolutely no room in the present national political conversation for any engagement with England or Englishness. If the ideological argument revolves around what constitutes true Britishness, then any actual policies that flow from the statements of principle have also to be presented as ‘British’, because they are about realising the ideals of Britain evoked in the mission statements. Never mind the fact that, in vast swathes of policy, the UK government’s remit now extends only to England – the policies are still rhetoricised as ‘British’.

So it was in Ed Miliband’s conference speech, which contained 60 instances of the word ‘Britain’ but mentioned the word ‘England’ only twice, and even then only in the context of a geographical reference to the North East of England. This is despite the fact that many of the policy initiatives the Labour leader discussed are entirely limited to England, such as the much trumpeted plan to force property developers to use the land they own or lose it, along with the goal for “Britain [to] be building 200,000 homes a year” by 2020, a plan that can actually take effect only in England.

In this respect, at the Labour conference, Ed Miliband completely failed to meet the challenge set him by Anthony Barnett to talk for and about England. Instead, Miliband’s conference performance and the debate around the Daily Mail article have exhibited an utter unwillingness to even acknowledge the existence of England as a nation of which Miliband would effectively be the First Minister in all but name if Labour were to win the 2015 election, along with being Prime Minister for the UK.

In this sense, England is not just mute like Gromit, in Barnett’s analogy, but completely invisible and effaced behind a rhetoric of ‘Britain’ – with ‘Britain’ itself being the prize over which Labour and the Conservatives are intent on doing battle.

Ralph Miliband may have expressed contempt and loathing for the English; but in today’s political conversation, that contempt has become so total that the word ‘England’ isn’t even worthy of a mention, even when the land of England – literally – is being referred to. In this sense, Ed Miliband is indeed a worthy son of his father, and is perhaps striving to succeed where his father failed: to abolish a much despised, old Tory England and replace it with the vision of a ‘better Britain’, as the endless refrain in his conference speech put it.

Everyone wants a ‘better Britain’, it seems; it’s just what constitutes it and can bring it about that is at issue. But on the fact that ‘Britain’ is better than mere old England, the Daily Mail, Ralph and Ed Miliband, and today’s whole political class are all in ironic agreement.

1 I have discussed these in more detail here.

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