Interview: David Miliband

The foreign secretary explains he has identified four great progressive causes for the world.

The timing is awkward. David Miliband has been urged by his top mandarins to cancel our interview. They don't want us in the building, after their case against our whistleblower Derek Pasquill collapsed so ignominiously at the Old Bailey. Miliband, to his credit, politely declined their advice. We had agreed a long time beforehand to talk about his new world order, which he was preparing to set out in a speech to the Fabian Society's annual conference.

By way of an opener, we ask the Foreign Secretary to assess the state of play in British politics. He launches into a soliloquy: "The Arsène Wenger school of management says that you focus on your own team . . . and let the oppos ition take care of themselves. We've got a con viction leader who is determined to ensure that ideas as well as competence are at the heart of government. There is a genuine crisis of Conservatism and the fulcrum of it is how you reconcile a belief in markets with a belief in social order. It's unreconciled at a philosophical level and an intellectual level, and that's why you see it unreconciled at a political level."

Miliband has invented a catchphrase - the "civ il ian surge". He develops this theme: "There are 200 million Chinese learning English; there are more bloggers in Iran than any other country in the world per capita; Buddhist monks march for democracy in Burma. I got the idea of a civilian surge when I was talking to David Petraeus [the US military commander] in Iraq because, he says, 'You can't kill your way out of this problem - you need politics as well as security.'"

There are four great causes in current foreign policy, Miliband says. He lists them: tackle terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, "and that's what we're trying to do in Afghanistan"; try to reduce conflict, "and that's what we're trying to do in the Middle East, Kosovo and Sudan"; tackle inequality through low-carbon, high-growth economic aid and development policies, "and that's what we're trying to do in Bali and elsewhere"; and build durable international institutions that recognise international inter dependence, "and that's what we're trying to do with the EU and the UN". These, he says, "are all great progressive causes".

Democracy or security?

Miliband is seeking to reconcile what he calls "the old Westphalian settlement, which says we have no business being concerned with what goes on in other countries", with the mistakes of Iraq. He suggests that the present Tory position of David Cameron and William Hague is not unlike that of John Major and Douglas Hurd when the west stood back and allowed the massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda to take place.

We talk in detail about Tony Blair's criteria for "humanitarian intervention", and how it foun dered in Iraq. "People say, and I say myself, there are no military solutions. There are military victories, but then you've got to win the peace. That means building the institutions of civic society, and that's true in all the places where our military are deployed," he says. "It's the old argument of: 'Do you want democracy first or security first?' Actually, it's the wrong question because sequencing doesn't work. You can't have democracy without security, and as we're seeing in places like Pakistan, if you want true security you need democracy as well."

And was Iraq a great cause? Perhaps for fear of antagonising a US administration wary of the new incumbent in Downing Street, he is strange ly robust. "The idea that Iraqi citizens should be able to determine their own futures, in a democratic system that respects human rights - that's a progressive thing to want to do." So was it a progressive war? "The aim, which was to free the Iraqi people from a tyranny, is of course a progressive thing. Twelve million Iraqis went out to vote. Now, there's all sorts of things we could talk about - there are lessons, there are things that haven't gone right . . ." We put it again. Is he really proud that Britain went to war?

At this point he draws back. "A lot of our people have died. A much larger number of Iraqis have died. You have to have a lot of humility about what happened. I believe this was done for the right reasons - I don't believe the conspiracy theories. I believe it was done after a lot of hard thought and a lot of hard searching.

"The fifth anniversary invites us not to put a glib label on it, but to make sure Britain and the international community are more united about the next five years. There is a real opportunity, without pre judice to any of the deeply held views of New Statesman readers and others about the wisdom of the original decision, to say: 'Where we are now, what does Iraq need?' It needs political reconciliation, it needs economic reconstruction and it needs continued commitment to the security of the people there."

We press him on Iran. Miliband supports the US, but puts his own gloss on the issue. "Iran is a sponsor of terrorism. It is a potential source of conflict." He elaborates. "It's a country that should be contributing all its riches and all its people to a stable international community. That doesn't require a change of regime in Iran, it requires a change of behaviour on the part of the regime.

"The challenge is to make clear that the international community is serious about the stability we say is important, but also show that we're serious about the offer we're making [to Iran] to engage with the international community."

Whatever happened, we wonder, to the neoconservative dream that Blair seized on with such alacrity? "What do they say is the definition of a neocon? A liberal who's been mugged. People who came out of the 1960s, but who had lost their faith in progressive policy because they said we weren't hard-headed enough," he replies. "Now the PM says our foreign policy is going to be defined by hard-headed internationalism. The military can't bring you the solution alone, but sometimes you need the military. In Darfur, we need an African Union/UN force. It's the progressive position to say economics and politics and social intervention where possible, military intervention where necessary." He adds: "We shouldn't cede the ground of universal values to the neocons."

Miliband develops his challenge to the left, saying it should do more to reappraise the relationship between state and individual. "On its own, social democracy is not adequate for this changing world. It's necessary but not sufficient. On the other hand, you've got a progressive tradition of radical liberalism . . . whose defining belief is the idea of individual freedom in the market economy. But it's not enough, because it's got no answer for distributional questions that are thrown up - the inequality questions. The politics that will address the 21st century is the fus ion of the social democratic commitment to social justice through collective action, not just through the state."

He talks of combining a greater emphasis on civil liberties with the need, post the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, for security. He produces a curious approach to pre-trial detention. Once you have agreed on the need for any length of time you have established a principle, he says. "There's no magic in any number. What there should be is robustness and integrity in the processes. In dividual liberties depend on strong checks and balances." The longer anyone is held, the greater should be the scrutiny, Miliband says, but there need be no limit.

We turn to the issue that has caused such discomfort: the collapse at the Old Bailey of the prosecution of a Foreign Office official, Derek Pasquill, under the Official Secrets Act. It is our contention that this was a malicious prosecution pushed by the Foreign Office, even in the know ledge that the case would not stand up. This is now the second instance of an OSA trial foun dering, and we ask Miliband if the act should be reformed. "You always have to be open-minded about this. Have I been persuaded of the case for change? No. Do I rule out that it might need to be changed? No."

Does he not recall that Labour advocated such a reform when in opposition, particularly the inclusion of a public-interest defence? Miliband appears not to be aware of this. "I need to go and do some further research before I get drawn into that." And what of the principles of the case? "In principle, I think the confidentiality of government discussions is absolutely essential to effective government and I think we need a very effective regime to police that."

Religion and terror

We press him on our demand for an inquiry. He bridles. "I'm not going to get into any individual case. There are internal disciplinary issues relat ed to the leaks and I'm not going to say anything about it." What if someone at the Foreign Office had misled the courts? "Any suggestion of that is a matter for investigation by the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] on the back of a complaint.

"We are a department that always seeks to make sure it upholds the highest standards of government, and we always look at our own procedures and processes to make sure that happens." He concludes: "I've seen nothing to suggest that there weren't appropriate and high standards followed all the way through. But you're not going to tempt me into discussion on this."

We move to the broader issue of engaging with Islam. Miliband describes this as a two-strand approach involving security and "hearts and minds". He has been persuaded by studies that suggest "you don't confuse degree of religiosity with propensity to terrorism". He adds: "We're much further ahead than we were three or four years ago in understanding what we're dealing with and how it feeds off grievance, both real and alleged. What we're clear about is that we're trying to counter insurgency, not counter people's religious freedoms. We're trying to avoid a clash of civilisations, rather than prosecute one."

Amid reports of the odd disagreement with Downing Street, and with a new baby on the home front, we ask him if he is enjoying his job. "It's a fantastic job. Great job. All these jobs are very demanding, but it's a great job to do. It's a huge privilege to do this." Miliband is curious to know why we called it the "Edward Stourton question". Because, we advise him, that was the question on the Today programme that stumped the Prime Minister. He winces.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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