Keeping it in the family

There’s nothing <em>that</em> unusual about Miliband <em>v</em> Miliband

That the Labour leadership contest seems destined to end in a race to the finish between David and Ed Miliband has excited many, some to the point of fever -- such as the Observer's Tim Adams, who, in an entertaining piece a couple of Sundays ago, raised the examples of the Brothers Karamazov, Romulus and Remus and even Jacob and Esau (evidently Cain and Abel was a comparison too far).

However, the Labour Party has a great history of prominent politicians not necessarily owing their positions to family connection, but certainly being related to each other. In his 2006 study Britain's Power Elites: the Rebirth of a Ruling Class, the historian Hywel Williams -- an occasional NS contributor -- details this most thoroughly. Parts of the relevant passage, which I'm going to quote in full, will be familiar, others not:

Roy Jenkins had a significant career start as the son of Arthur Jenkins, a Labour MP, who was close to Clement Attlee. Peter Mandelson's grandfather was Herbert Morrison -- a dominating party manager of post-war Labour London and a looming figure of consequence within the postwar Labour cabinet. Estelle Morris, the former education secretary, is the daughter of a former deputy chief whip as well as the niece of Alf Morris, a life peer and former minister whom she has now joined in the House of Lords. Hilary Armstrong is not just the Chief Whip, but is also the daughter of a long-serving Labour MP who also served in the Whips' Office. Charles Clarke shows a political-administrative continuity at work, being the son of Otto Clarke, a permanent secretary with an invincible confidence in the rectitude of his own judgement.

When Bob Cryer died it seemed only natural that his widow should take his seat in the House of Commons, where her son also sat as a member until 2005. Hilary Benn, the Overseas Development Secretary, is the son of Tony Benn, and Gwyneth Dunwoody's career starts with the fact that her father was Morgan Phillips, general secretary of the Labour Party (1944-62), while David Miliband is an august member of the Labour aristocracy, being the son of Ralph Miliband as well as the brother of Ed Miliband who in 2005 was elected the Labour MP for Doncaster North.

The career of Llinos Golding (Baroness Golding of Newcastle-under-Lyme) is a fine paradigm of familial politics, since she is the daughter of Ness Edwards, the Labour MP for Caerphilly (1939-68), and succeeded her husband, John Golding, as the member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (1968-2001) having previously been his aide.

There are of course family connections on the Tory benches. George Osborne's father-in-law, Lord Howell, is a Foreign Office minister and served in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet.

Bernard Jenkin may now be known better for his keen espousal of naturism than for the shadow cabinet, er, briefs, he held under Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague, but the Harwich MP's father, Patrick Jenkin, was also a cabinet minister under Mrs T. The same goes (not the naturism) for the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, whose father, Angus, nicknamed "the Mekon", had a two-year stint as paymaster general. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is the son of a former Tory MEP, and his brother Jo is the new MP for Orpington. (Advanced students of Johnsonology may like to refer to the NS cover story Brian Cathcart and I wrote in March 2008 -- "Who is Boris Johnson?" -- for a full explanation of how those Johnsons are related.)

These, however, Williams argues (or argued in 2006), are exceptions rather than the rule. "Among past and present members of the opposition front bench," he wrote, "Nicholas Soames and Dominic Grieve are very rare examples of significant Conservative politicians who have been reared from Tory political families." His view is that: "Beneath all the sentiment about what used to be referred to as 'this great movement of ours', there are some strikingly continuous facts of patronage and family connection which make New Labour the heir to the Hanoverian-Whiggish elites of the 18th century."

That does not sound terribly like a compliment -- or, at least, one cannot imagine a Labour politician publicly professing to take it as such. Worse for the Milibands, however, is the example of another political family in which two sons of a prominent father both served in the cabinet and both aspired to the premiership. Let us hope they do not follow in the footsteps of the Chamberlains: of Joseph, who helped destroy the Liberal Party, and of his sons Neville, forever remembered as the great appeaser of Hitler, and Austen -- who had the distinction, until William Hague, of being the only Conservative leader in the 20th century not to become prime minister.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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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