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Ed Miliband Defends His Father’s Legacy

Labour leader responds to Daily Mail charge his immigrant father was disloyal

Ben Cohen
October 01, 2013
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband gestures during a Question and answer session during the conclusion of the final day of the Labour party conference in Brighton, Sussex, south England on September 25, 2013.(ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband gestures during a Question and answer session during the conclusion of the final day of the Labour party conference in Brighton, Sussex, south England on September 25, 2013.(ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Ed Miliband, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, is among the most senior Jewish politicians since Benjamin Disraeli—and some corners of the British press continue to wonder, as they did in Disraeli’s time, whether the son of an immigrant is fully trustworthy.

Last weekend, the right-wing Daily Mail newspaper published a story about Miliband’s father, Ralph, headlined “The Man Who Hated Britain.” In it, the paper revisited the Shakespearean 2010 standoff between Miliband and his elder brother, David, for the Labour leadership, offering its own, distinctive interpretation of the conflict between the two brothers couched in an attack on a diary entry a teenage Ralph Miliband, a refugee from the Nazis, wrote criticizing British society.

For the Mail’s correspondent, Geoffrey Levy, all roads lead back to Ralph. Levy’s piece began with an anecdote about the young Ralph, “a Jewish immigrant who, with his father, had fled to London from Belgium just weeks earlier to escape the Nazi Holocaust,” standing at the tombstone of Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery, swearing an oath that that he “would be faithful to the workers’ cause.”

In essence, the paper detects the whiff of a Marxist plot, sourced to the grave of a man who died in 1994. Ralph Miliband went on to become one of Britain’s leading Marxist academics, teaching at the London School of Economics, Leeds University and Brandeis University. Both David and Ed grew up within the framework of their father’s politics, which neither ever explicitly abandoned. The brothers worked as interns at The Nation magazine in New York, before embarking on political careers in the Labor Party that saw them serve in ministerial posts in the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

According to Levy, any doubts about their father’s trajectory belonged to David, not Ed. “In his explosive memoirs, serialised last week in the Mail, Gordon Brown’s spin doctor Damian McBride argued that Ed Miliband was obsessed with maintaining his father’s legacy,” Levy wrote. “Winning the leadership was Ed’s ‘ultimate tribute’ to his father.”

The article carried uncomfortable overtones of the middle of the twentieth century, when much of the British press portrayed Jewish immigrants as subversive ingrates. In that regard, it’s worth noting that British leftists, many of whom have a decidedly tin ear when it comes to understanding the contemporary twists of anti-Semitism, never tire of reminding us that in the bad old days of fascism, the Daily Mail supported Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts as they terrorized the Jewish community in London’s East End.

Today, Ed Milband submitted a wounded reply to the attack on his father, which was in turn answered by a Mail editorial defending the original piece. It’s clear that Miliband too detects the unpleasant insinuation of immigrant disloyalty. “He arrived here as a 16 year-old boy – a Jew – having walked 100 kilometres with his Dad from Brussels to Ostend to catch one of the last boats out before the German soldiers arrived,” Miliband wrote. “Then he joined the Royal Navy. He did so because he was determined to be part of the fight against the Nazis and to help his family hidden in Belgium. He was fighting for Britain.”

Not surprisingly, the Mail’s clumsy attempt to depict Ed Miliband’s turn to the left as a loving gesture directed at his deceased father raised the hackles of Britain’s more influential commentators. The Mail’s “continuing campaign against the late Ralph Miliband violates every cherished British notion of fair play,” declared Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian. Norman Geras, a distinguished academic who has consistently challenged the British left’s import of classic anti-Semitic tropes into its hostility toward Israel, asserted that “Ralph’s stature in the public domain was also something of which [David and Ed] could be justly proud. No smear campaign against him will be able to erode that.”

Lost in this controversy is the notion that it is possible to be alarmed by Ed Miliband’s political direction without invoking his father. In many ways, the Obama Administration’s debacle over Syria can be traced back to Ed’s eleventh hour campaign, back in August, to defeat Prime Minister David Cameron’s bid to secure parliamentary backing for military action against the Assad regime. Ed’s success led to the gruesome sight of Labour parliamentarians cheering the vote just days after Assad’s chemical weapons murdered hundreds of civilians in the town of Ghouta.

If Ed Miliband does become Britain’s Prime Minister, and if he leads Britain back into the social-democratic statist system undone three decades ago by Margaret Thatcher, only a hardened conspiracy theorist would reduce that outcome solely to Ralph’s malign influence. But that, for those who don’t read it, is the Daily Mail for you.

Ben Cohen, a former BBC producer, is a writer based in New York who publishes frequently on Jewish and international affairs. His Twitter feed is @BenCohenOpinion.