The David Miliband interviews

In extracts from his exclusive interviews with the New Statesman, David Miliband talks about his childhood, the current state of British domestic politics, and his outlook on foreign affairs.

A former head of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit, the Foreign Secretary shares his thinking on the current economic crisis, inequality and redistribution, and David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative Party.

On international affairs, he ranges across the impact of the attacks of 11 September 2001; the UK's involvement in Afghanistan; the importance of Anglo-American relations and the need for Britain to remain a strong player in Europe. He also offers his thoughts on anti-Semitism on the left, in the wake of a recent article by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian.

David Miliband on:

Work-life balance
I believe in work hard and play hard... maximise the amount the work you do while you are away to minimise the time you are away... thinking about policy, about people, about communication, about alliances, events...

On self-image
Very happy to admit that my brother is better than me at everything. You can't be concerned about your image then you are self-obsessed. But if you think you are right about everything, you are wrong as well. It's a balance.

Much more concerned about the image of the Labour Party than I am about my own image.

On childhood and family life
My memories of my childhood are about school and friends not about discussions of the Hegelian dialectic. We had a very small family, with a relatively small extended family. The four of us at home were very close, very supportive.

My mother was a very important influence on me, not just my father, my mother... she kept the whole show on the road. When I was a very small child she was a history teacher then she worked in the voluntary sector, in child care. Our house wasn't some kind of intellectual and political salon, but people like Joe Slovo and Tony Benn were friends of the family, and I used to talk to them. It was a remarkable privilege to have that. But the iconic memory of my dad isn't one of politics. It's of one Saturday morning in Guiseley, in west Yorkshire. He used to come to watch me play football. I was a goalkeeper and he would stand behind the goal. I remember on this wet Saturday morning I let the ball go straight through my legs and I turned round to see that he had his head in his hands. But yes, obviously, politics was to the fore in our house. My father was a member of the Labour party in the 50s. After that, he never joined any other party. He was a genuinely independent Marxist-socialist.

Comprehensive school
The school did a lot for me but a lot of kids did not do very well there. I learned from my school that the truth about mixed ability teaching is that you need exceptional teachers. In my third year at Haverstock, our English class was taught by our headmistress. She was an exceptional teacher and she had a mixed ability class in the palm of her hand. But you can't design an educational system around the most exceptional teachers.

Is that why you need to stream pupils?
I'm in favour of setting rather than streaming. Streaming means you are in a group and you are stuck in that group for every class. Setting is much more flexible, and it is right.

Domestic politics

Is Labour to blame for the recession?
At the same time we experienced a credit crisis, and a resource crunch, with the oil price surge in 2008. The question is how ready were different countries to address these problems.

Is this the end of neoliberalism?
The wave of centre left governments who were elected around Europe in the mid-to-late nineties marked the end of neoliberal political dominance and the events of the last year have marked the end of its intellectual dominance. Long before this, the ideas of monetarism had run out by the mid-90s. The idea of private good, public bad had run out. The idea that the government is the problem, the market is the answer had run out. New Labour asserted collective action but it didn't restrict that to the state. It asserted the need to tackle poverty and inequality. It's wrong to say that New Labour was a continuation of a linear trend.

What about redistribution?
The truth is that the growth of inequality was a massive problem for Britain in the 80s and 90s. One of the main inequalities was between those who work and those who don't. My constituency bears the scars of the 80s and 90s recessions. But redistribution is a very static way of thinking about everything. The primary question to ask is, inequality of what? Equality of opportunity is a far more radical idea than anyone in the 50s or 60s believed. Crosland was damned as a pusillanimous revisionist because he didn't believe in equality of outcome. The key, as I see it, is to reduce inequalities, plural – inequalities of power and of wealth rather than concentrating on inequalities of income at any one time.

And on accusations that Labour is too relaxed about wealth or as Lord Mandelson put it “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”?
You are always going to have a 0.1 or a 0.5 per cent who are in the stratosphere. It's important that they pay their dues. But that doesn't create two nations. What makes a two nation society is if the top 20 or 25 per cent just float off from the rest of society, in terms of schooling, income, healthcare and housing. Remember the top 25 per cent takes you down to someone earning £35,000 a year.

The bigger point is to reduce inequalities of opportunity. That's a better way of looking at it. Equal opportunity for all special privilege for none: that comes very close to what I believe in. If you wrote that on your banner you'd be on your way to producing a decent society.

How about Gordon Brown not showing enough humility?
On the whole 10p tax business he accepted frontally and clearly that we made a mistake. But we must rebel against the suggestion that everything is bad, that it's all our fault, that the international argument [that the crisis is global] is bogus. We are working incredibly hard to confront the problems. What I want to say is that it's all to play for. We made the right decisions – on Northern Rock, on the recapitalisation package – but there's a lot to do.

Yes, but you presided over a housing bubble, a debt bubble, and cheap credit?
What does cheap credit mean? Low interest rates. The alternative to low interest rates is high interest rates. You don't want that do you? Having high interest rates generally means that the economy is out of control, and you're trying to tame high inflation. Now we have a low inflation, low interest rate regime. I'd much prefer that to a high interest rate, high inflation regime. Right. QED. Yes, we have a low rate of personal savings in this country. That is true but actually our government debt is also relatively low. Each day is about granularity and trying to look underneath the headline to try to get closer to the truth. There's a longer, and different argument to be had about how the British economy rebuilt itself on a low carbon basis. How we generate alternative centres of economic growth around the country and how we sustain cities that have made such progress over the last 10 years – the Leeds, Edinburghs and Newcastles – how we expand the university base that is good for the economy and good for society. Those are profound and difficult questions that are linked to political reform. We are one of the most advanced post-industrial economies – and we have to see over the precipice to see how our economy with its particular balance of service and manufacturing, and its particular structures of the housing market, linked to our own social market economy...There are big things that we have to address.

Impression of David Cameron and the Conservative party
He's presentationally good, he's repositioned the party but he hasn't changed it. The Tories are like a hologram. The thing about a hologram is that there's nothing there. Conservative means to reach progressive goals. There's bankruptcy there.

The role of all of us is to expose that choice. The Tories are trying to get away from that right-wing image, not by changing their policies but by changing their image!

International affairs

The post-9/11 context
There's a guy in a Birmingham jail today who is serving a sentence for trying to blow up the centre of Birmingham in 2000 – before 9/11, before Afghanistan, before Iraq, which is a very important thing to remember.

It's our position to use both sticks and carrots to persuade countries to pursue what I call responsible sovereignty. The nature of the multilateral challenges are clear. In Pakistan, for instance, can we get them to chase after the LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba] problem? It's important to recognise that we cannot sort out Afghanistan in isolation from Pakistan.

There is a post-9/11 foreign policy becoming clearer... We were in shock after 9/11. Now we have shifted from reactive mode into a more strategic mode, which takes account of the shift in the balance of power in the world from east to west, national to international, organisations to individuals. There's greater clarity about that context and about the threats to stability... terrorism, inequality, climate change, frozen conflicts, weapons of mass destruction... what the challenge is, especially with a new administration in the US, is to show that you can't handle these threats without progressive values, to use multilateral instruments to make a difference...

How long will the UK be in Afghanistan?
We are there to help a democratically elected government defend itself against Taliban/Al Qaeda. Why does that matter? If the democratic government is usurped in Afghanistan it has been shown that the country becomes an incubator for global terrorism. How long will we be there? It depends on our progress in training up parts of the Afghan national army. The development challenge is a much longer term one.

Is there a need for more British troops in Afghanistan?
That’s not proven. We’ll have to see. It depends on strategy. If Americans bring the issues of Pakistan and Afghanistan together, and why we can help them work very closely on that issue.

On southern Lebanon (Summer 2006): was it a mistake to not condemn Israeli military action more strongly?

I can't freelance... you either play by the rules in politics or you don't: you work as a collective and you are bound by those decisions. You'll have to wait for the cabinet minutes to see what was said. But it's important if the government takes a position on something that you support it. This is a very unfactionalised period in Labour history... the bludgeoning we took in the eighties taught people about the dangers of factions.

Reaction to Jonathan Freedland’s recent article in the Guardian concerning the left's silence on anti-Semitism

I'm disturbed by anti-semitism and racism full stop. I read Jonny's piece. It was powerful. But it's important not to beat up on leftist anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is not leftist as far as I'm concerned. But if Jonny reports it, I take it very seriously. There's no question there's more fear in the Jewish community, but freedom of speech and of religion in our society is important. We cannot compromise the ideals on which we base our own society. No one should feel uncomfortable about wearing the yarmulke or turban or any other religious symbol.

Anglo-American relations
There is a special relationship. We should not be afraid of better relations between Washington and Paris and Washington and Berlin and Washington and Madrid. The EU as a whole needs to build a better relationship with the US. The only thing that threatens the special relationship with the US is if Britain is not strong in Europe. The Tories' Euroscepticism will threaten the special relationship. Hillary Clinton is committed to a united, forceful, strong Europe and believes Europe is stronger for Britain being at the heart of it, at the leading edge. In his Munich speech Joe Biden was both forceful and humble. It's all a question of the relationship between rights and responsibilities. Iran can have its rights under the non-proliferation treaty but it has a responsibility to curb nuclear proliferation and to have no truck with the creation of weapons of mass destruction. The new administration wants to establish bilateral relations with Iran. That's good. Iranians don't actually hate America; some are quite interested in it, some of them admire it. We don't seek regime change in Iran: we seek behaviour change.

Israel and Gaza
I feel even more strongly than I did then [in India] that the only solution is a two state solution. It's strongly in Israel's interest to engineer the creation of a Palestinian state with the Arab world, but the more conflict there is the harder it becomes. One has to hold fast to the vision of a Palestinian state; it's the only vision that brings security and justice to both Israelis and Palestinians.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.