Thursday 28 March 2013

A Greedy Failure In A Cosmic Sulk

There's only one Peter Oborne:

Convulsions of grief were still being felt across north London last night in the wake of David Miliband’s resignation. The BBC, which has long felt special reverence for the great man, reported the event in hushed tones. The Guardian hosted feverish and wistful discussions about whether Mr Miliband might condescend to return one day to public life.

Tony Blair regretted “a massive loss to UK politics”. A near tearful Tessa Jowell said “it’s very sad”. Lord Adonis mourned an “inspirational leader”. A tremulous Yvette Cooper praised a “powerful speaker” and a “great minister”. Across the Atlantic, former president Bill Clinton called him “one of the ablest, most creative public servants of our time”. Lord Mandelson, whose protégé Mr Miliband was, almost begged him to reconsider.

The rest of us, however, can contemplate the situation with equanimity. We are, after all, talking about someone who was at best a minor politician, no towering colossus. Mr Miliband has left only one lasting legacy, and that was destructive. As foreign secretary he closed down the Foreign and Commonwealth Office library. It had been there since before the days of Palmerston, and its absence has done permanent damage to the corporate memory of the FCO – now that its contents have been dispersed, it will never be restored. Apart from this one moment of breathtaking bibliographical barbarism, which only a politician who cared nothing for British tradition and history would have contemplated, Mr Miliband achieved nothing.

However, before he fades into obscurity, it is important to ask what the fuss is all about. Why is the BBC, which would scarcely have noticed if a former Conservative foreign secretary stood down from Parliament, unable to contain itself? Why is the Blairite wing of Labour in such a state of desolation and hysteria? Why the agonised Guardian inquest? Any detached judge has always been able to see that David Miliband was not front-rank. He is a hopeless public speaker (whatever Yvette Cooper’s protestations), and has never once expressed an original thought.

Yet after Labour’s 1997 election victory he was the poster boy of a new ruling elite which seized control of the commanding heights of British politics. Anti-democratic, financially greedy and morally corrupt, this new political class has done the most enormous damage. Since David Miliband was its standard-bearer, his political career explains a great deal about what has gone wrong with British public life, about why politicians are no longer liked or trusted, and about how political parties have come to be viewed with contempt.

Mr Miliband – and this is the essential point – set the pattern that so many others, including his brother Ed, have followed. Obsessed by politics at university (like Ed and David Cameron, he read PPE at Oxford), he has never had even the faintest connection with the real world. From life in think tanks he became a Labour Party researcher and special adviser, before being parachuted into the north-eastern constituency of South Shields as an MP.

He rose up on the inside track, getting in with the right people and making sure he stayed there. This meant not rocking the boat. He wrote Labour’s 1997 and 2001 election manifestos, which even Labour people now admit were content-free. He was at the heart of the Labour machine when it spewed out its now notorious falsehoods over immigration and Iraq (there is a savage irony to the fact that Mr Miliband is going to head a humanitarian organisation when the government of which he was such a loyal member created so many of the world’s disasters). When promoted to education minister, he was personally responsible for issuing false claims that exam marks were getting better because of higher standards rather than (as we now know) grade inflation.

I used to speak to Mr Miliband fairly often during this period, and it is important to make clear that he was personally not an especially bad man. It was simply that he was completely inexperienced and had no idea how the world (which he famously defined as a “scary place” during a Labour conference speech) worked. This meant that he was out of his depth when promoted to the Foreign Office, where he quickly became an apologist for British government involvement with torture. I once counted six lies emerge from his lips on the subject of our complicity over “extraordinary rendition” during the course of a nine-minute interview with Andrew Neil on The Politics Show.

It is a great pity that Mr Miliband, who is only 47, is not entering politics now, after learning the ropes elsewhere. If so, this well-meaning man would surely have a serious contribution to make. As things stand, however, we can learn lessons from his failure, and the most important of these is that MPs need more ballast when they come into Parliament.

There was a time when politicians picked themselves up and got on with it after a setback. When Denis Healey, much the more serious candidate, was defeated by Michael Foot in the 1980 Labour leadership election, he did not go into some cosmic sulk. He dusted himself down, joined the front bench, and served Foot loyally. Willie Whitelaw probably felt hard done by when he lost the Tory leadership to Margaret Thatcher in 1975. But he was her bulwark and support ever after.

But the Whitelaws and Healeys had enjoyed a deep knowledge of the world, which told them that a personal setback such as losing the party leadership was a trivial matter indeed, and other things mattered far more. Nobody expects this kind of wise judgment today. When, yesterday, the BBC sent its political editor, Nick Robinson, into Mr Miliband’s home to ask reverentially about the great decision, he did not ask why Mr Miliband was leaving his South Shields constituents in the lurch. Nor did Mr Robinson ask any questions about Mr Miliband’s finances.

Yet these are extremely pertinent to his decision to resign. The House of Commons register reveals that he has earned an incredible sum – nearly £1 million – from outside interests since losing the party leadership to his brother, including £125,000 for 15 days’ work as a director of Sunderland, a constituency-based football club owned by a super-rich businessman with interests in private equity. Approximately £60,000 has come his way from the UAE, a gulf state with an unappetising human rights record, and another hefty chunk from St James’s Place, a company that advises very rich people how to invest their money.

Like his mentors Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, Mr Miliband is one of that unappetising breed of modern politician that has chosen to profiteer out of public service. It is a pity that the BBC did not ask him whether his sudden decision to abandon his constituents was not informed by a desire to keep his huge earnings out of the public eye.

During his short, undistinguished career, Mr Miliband has done grave damage to British politics. He is part of the new governing elite which is sucking the heart out of our representative democracy while enriching itself in the process. He may be mourned in the BBC and in north London, but the rest of us are entitled to form a more realistic view. David Miliband has belittled our politics and he will not be missed.


  1. How ironic, the MP for Jarrow is a library-destroying barbarian.

  2. He's not the MP for Jarrow. An important consideration when the CLP insists on a local candidate. It means really, properly local.

  3. *was* the MP for Jarrow ... didn't they put it in his constituency after a boundary change?

  4. I bet it's not in South Shields. There'd have been riots.

  5. My mistake. They moved Whitburn from Jarrow to Shields, not the whole of Jarrow :D