Ed quietly takes up Tony’s mantle

Tony Judt’s, that is.

We have been told over and again that Ed Miliband's first speech as leader of the opposition was "devoid of any concrete policies". That may be true as a point of fact. But reading a little between the lines of his speech, a decent whiff of what Miliband has in mind can be had. More to the point, we can get a pretty good sense of the ideas that will lie behind his agenda.

The key to deciphering the new Labour leader's vision lies in the following line: "We must never again give the impression that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing," as Miliband declared on Tuesday.

Ring any bells?

If you've been reading Tony Judt it might, for this is one of Judt's opening salvoes in Ill Fares the Land, his final book -- written earlier this year while suffering from advanced ALS -- and a theme to which he returns throughout: "We know what things cost, but we have no idea what they are worth," was how Judt put it. But the similarities don't end there.

Indeed, dig a little deeper and a strong resonance between Judt's later writing and the political tenor of Miliband's speech becomes clearer by the moment. Time and again, nuggets of the former emerge in the vision of the latter.

This has little to do with the fact that both are sons of Jewish families. But we know that Ed has been casting around for ways to move the Labour bandwagon on from Blairism. And Judt was one of the more articulate critics of the Third Way project under Tony Blair -- a man for whom he reserved special dislike. It becomes increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that, in fact, Judt's Ill Fares The Land is a book to which Miliband has turned more than once.

At the heart of Miliband's speech, for example, was a vision of political economy hitched to a redistributive agenda: "an economy too dependent on financial services, too many people stuck in low pay and dead-end jobs and growing inequality", he said. This was a comment that appeared just before the other half of a well-known equation: "We must build prosperity as well as redistributing it."

Judt, a staunch supporter of the Scandinavian model of social democracy, could hardly have put it better. Ill Fares the Land is in fact stuffed with evidence of the negative consequences of inequality under most other systems, but much of it taken from the authors of The Spirit Level -- whose ideas, it should be noted, also influence the Compass group, which has supported Ed Miliband, and identifies with him.

But there are closer intellectual and political synergies between Judt's social-democratic vision of "the good society" and Miliband's vision of the same: a phrase that he used in variaous forms at six points in his speech. Here are the most important:


This was a major theme for Judt, who pointed out that "the corrosive consequences of envy and resentment . . . arise in visibly unequal societies". And so, too, do we find that this is an important theme for Miliband. We need "to win back the trust of the country", he said in Tuesday's speech. Elswhere, Judt argued that one of the things required for building a fairer society was overcoming the current "disdain" -- the very opposite of trust -- for the public sector. And, as good as bid, a fair portion of Miliband's speech was indeed about raising the flag for just this.


Miliband's speech touched at numerous points on the need for all parties to the democratic pact -- be it the state and its citizens, or employers and those whom they employ -- to adopt a more responsible attitude. In place of the now-compromised bluster of Cameron's "big society", whose ambitions have already foundered on the predictable rocks of Budget overreaction and irresponsibility, Miliband promises an attention to caring for the building blocks of any functioning society. Judt long ago wrote about "the burden of responsibility" -- the need to stick to principled guns in the face of the challenges and trends of the present. And Miliband's emphasis throughout on "values" was most often about precisely this.

A society founded on more than just the notion of economic gain

Perhaps the central argument of Ill Fares the Land comes when Judt declares that, "for 30 years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose". Here is Miliband on the same: "Here is our generation's paradox: the biggest ever consumers of goods and services, but a generation that yearns so much for the things that business cannot provide. Strong families. Time with your children. Green spaces. Community life. Love and compassion."

It isn't hard to discern further elements to the speech that resonate with the other Tony's project. A deep sense of history was apparent, for example -- perhaps not surprising for the son of Ralph Miliband, of course. But this public avowal of it bodes well for a party that does indeed need to learn from the past, and is not something David Miliband would have articulated. As Judt would have said -- indeed, did say, quite rightly, and quite often -- "we have been here before". Indeed we have. And as if recognising this, Miliband was at pains to point out that the party should not become "a prisoner in its own certainties". That, too, is classic Judt.

Looking forward, there were also more than a few Judtian attempts in Miliband's speech to rethink old ideas into the frameworks fitted out for today: his comment that "true patriotism is about reducing the debt burden we pass on to our kids" was a sharp-minded way to gear nationalist pride to a more inclusive public agenda, for example: something that could not be further away from the poisoned harangues of the British National Party and English Defence League.

But perhaps above all, it was the very tone, not just of the speech itself, but of Miliband himself, that marks him out as a man looking to take Judt's social-democratic agenda forward. And that is one of balance.

In what is the most important chapter of Ill Fares the Land, on "The Unbearable Lightness of Politics", Judt pointed out that neither the "Nanny Knows Best" approach that marred the record of the postwar welfare-state years (often quite literally, when it came to the monstrous housing schemes of Ronan Point or Sarcelles) nor the "I Know Best" inheritance of the baby-boomer generation will work today.

What is required is a state, effective enough to support us when we need it, and to safeguard the communities within which we move, but not so overblown as to leave us unable to turn anywhere else for fulfilment. Outside this lie only those two extremes whose flags were planted and fought for throughout the 20th century. The politics of the 21st century must be different. And to date, of the current crop of British politicians, Ed Miliband looks to be the closest to grasping this.

If so, then Miliband has even more work before him than many have yet acknowledged. Judt deeply lamented the dismal performance over recent years of the social democrats right across Europe. And he would not have been pleased to see that, since his death this summer, the situation has only got worse, with the heartland of social democracy, Sweden, having taken a crushing blow just last week. One of the few social democrats now still in power in Europe is Spain's José Luis Zapatero, and his recent anti-labour laws are hardly in the classic social-democratic mould.

Tony Judt would likely have found solace in knowing that his thought was already threaded into the new Labour leader's speech. He would doubtless also have cast a barbed comment or two on the lingering influence of neoliberals within the party. But as Judt once said of social democracy itself, so for British voters might it be said of Labour under Miliband the Younger: it "does not represent an ideal future; it does not even represent the ideal past. But among the options available to us today, it is better than anything else to hand."

One thing at least is certain. We haven't been quite here before.

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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.