It's not about Englishness, it's about the meaning of Ed

The Labour leader wants to challenge preconceptions about what a Prime Minister is supposed to look and sound like.

Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday on English identity and the Union attracted a good deal of attention and commentary. (Some of it is reworked in an op-ed for today’s Telegraph.) Inevitably, it has divided opinion – the spectrum ranges from those who think it was a superficial intervention on an important subject to those who think it was an important intervention on a superficial subject. In the middle will be quite a few who are cautiously intrigued and made curious to hear more, which is enough of a win for Miliband. No-one is going to agree on the precise meaning of Englishness and how it interacts with Britishness and no politician is going to satisfactorily resolve the issues in one speech.

The theme is to be developed over the coming weeks and months and woven into a discussion of wider and more pertinent policy themes. A big speech on immigration – an obvious question raised by the discussion of national identity and tricky terrain for Labour – is, I learn, coming up soon. The intention is to engage with public anxiety on the subject, building on some of the points in the Englishness/Britishness debate, but without reaching for the obvious bemoaning of un-policed borders coupled with blood-curdling pledges to crack down that have become the political default setting whenever the topic is broached.

Meanwhile, I suspect Team Ed will just be glad that so many people are chattering about a topic their man placed on the agenda. Starting the conversation instead of reacting to events is one of the trickier aspects of opposition. One passage of the speech that leapt out at me, however, was not his discussion of what it means to be English or what it means to be part of the United Kingdom, but what it means to be Ed Miliband:

This is who I am. The son of a Jewish refugee and Marxist academic. A Leeds supporter, from North London. A baseball fan. Somebody who looks a bit like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit. If spin doctors could design a politician, I suspect he wouldn’t look like me.

This is not just a casual joke to warm up the audience. The self-deprecation comes naturally to Miliband but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also very carefully considered. Miliband’s strategists long ago came to the conclusion that he will struggle to compete with David Cameron in a Presidential-style beauty contest election. Focus groups of voters have reported difficulty seeing in the Labour leader the kind of qualities that, according to conventional wisdom, are exuded by a man striding purposefully towards Downing Street. Miliband does not, so the thinking goes, resemble the Prime Minister from central casting and attempts to make him act, sound and perform like one fall flat. “He is at his worst when trying to do a Blair or a Cameron,” concedes one aide.

So the plan is to challenge perceptions of what constitutes the obvious image of a Prime Minister – to own and subvert the jibe that Miliband looks a bit like Wallace until it becomes a kind of advantage. The thought the Labour leader’s team want to trigger in voters’ minds is something along the lines of: “Yes, he doesn’t necessary conform to conventional expectations of a PM, but these are unconventional times and, besides, we have a smooth performer in Cameron - slick, confident, classic leadership material according to the rule book - and he tuned out to have no substance, out of touch ..” etc. (Team Ed are very keen on projecting the idea of “ripping up the rules” of conventional politics.)

The strategy is not without risk. Embracing the idea that the Labour leader is a bit of a geek might not do him any favours. The message, as one friend of Miliband jokes affectionately, has to be more dynamic than “Ed: the guy who will help Britain with its homework.”

But the current thinking around the leader is that he might as well promote what he is instead of trying to be something he isn’t. In an age of ferocious cynicism about politics, authenticity is the most precious commodity a candidate can have. There is, of course, a tricky contradiction involved in the whole business of spinning authenticity – a paradox in itself. There are painful memories in the Labour camp of trying something similar with Gordon Brown. “Not Flash, Just Gordon” – was the slogan for a while. It worked, up to a point. The comparison is flimsy, though. The two men have vastly different personalities and campaign in vastly different circumstances. Brown was a deeply unpopular incumbent; Miliband a largely unknown challenger.

Expect more of those self-deprecating little jokes, asides and riffs about the cliches of conventional politics and what a PM is supposed to look and sound like. They are part of a very deliberate strategy to persuade people a PM can actually look and sound like Edward Miliband.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”