Goodbye, David

Miliband Sr looks set to announce he’s quitting — and it’s the right thing to do.

Had David Miliband disowned the Iraq war during the summer-long Labour leadership campaign, he would now be leader of the Labour Party. I can't prove it, but, Nick-Robinson-style, I feel it in my "gut".

So it's rather ironic that the shadow foreign secretary, a prickly and insecure politician to begin with, and reeling from the shock of such a narrow defeat at the hands of his kid brother only 72 hours earlier, should choose the Iraq passage of Ed Miliband's conference speech to inadvertently reveal to the world his (understandable?) irritation and frustration at the current state of affairs. The clip from ITV News seems to show him saying, to a clapping Harriet Harman:

You voted for it, why are you clapping?

Bizarre. Did he not realise that journalists and photographers would be watching his every facial expression throughout the speech, to try and catch him looking unhappy? Here's a title for a future book: "Why do intelligent people do such stupid things?"

Harman's answer, however, is key:

I'm clapping because he is the leader, and as you know, I'm supporting him.

If Miliband decides to stay on in the shadow cabinet — and, like others, I doubt he will — he would have to internalise this rather crucial point. He is not leader. Ed is. Oh, and he got Iraq wrong, Ed (in private, if not in public) got it right.

But, the truth is, if he does decide to stay on, the media will spend the next five years looking for splits/divisions/rows between the two brothers. For the sake of Ed's leadership and the future of the Labour Party, this "giant", to quote my colleague James, has to walk away from the front bench and, I would assume, parliament, too. (Is there an IMF or EU position becoming vacant in the next year or two??)

On a side note, those of you who criticise journalists/columnists/bloggers for being ultra-cynical and suspicious about politicians and their various public statements and motives (eg, Jeremy Paxman's "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?"), should pay attention to the David Miliband story.

Here is a politician who spent the entire campaign saying again and again that he had no plans to quit front-line politics, even if his brother beat him. He told me in an interview for the magazine, in mid-July:

I'm not walking away from the people of South Shields. I'm not walking away from the Labour Party . . . I'm very happy to serve under anyone.

And on the Politics Show on BBC1 three weeks ago, he mocked me as a journalist of "infinite impatience" for daring to suggest that he wouldn't be able to serve under his younger brother. Asked by me to give an explicit, on-air guarantee that he'd stay in the shadow cabinet under an Ed Miliband leadership, he said:

Of course. And I am absolutely clear about my intentions, my assumptions, and I answered that very, very clearly.

I guess we'll see if my journalistic cynicism (and impatience!) is vindicated at 5pm.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder