Miliband denounces McCluskey over "reprehensible" attack on Blairites

The Labour leader moves swiftly to condemn the Unite general secretary over his comments to the New Statesman.

Len McCluskey's fierce attack on the "Blairites" in the shadow cabinet in my interview with him for the NS has been met with a no less fierce response from Ed Miliband. In his most significant criticism of the Unite general secretary since becoming leader, Miliband has denounced McCluskey's remarks as "reprehensible" and "disloyal". A spokesperson for the Labour leader said:

Len McCluskey does not speak for the Labour Party. This attempt to divide the Labour Party is reprehensible. It is the kind of politics that lost Labour many elections in the 1980s. It won’t work, it is wrong, it is disloyal to the party he claims to represent.

McCluskey, whose union helped secure the Labour leadership for Miliband in 2010, told me that Miliband would be "defeated" and "cast into the dustbin of history" if he was "seduced" by "the Jim Murphys and the Douglas Alexanders". Of Liam Byrne, the shadow and work pensions secretary, he said: "Liam Byrne certainly doesn’t reflect the views of my members and of our union’s policy, I think some of the terminology that he uses is regrettable and I think it will damage Labour. Ed’s got to figure out what his team will be."

One of the three shadow cabinet ministers singled out for criticism by McCluskey - Jim Murphy - has now responded on Twitter. "It's disappointing in advance of important local elections that Len McCluskey turns his fire on Labour," he said.

Miliband's decision to distance himself so swiftly and explicitly from the Unite head will come as a relief to those in the party who feel that he has often been too tolerant of McCluskey's regular attacks on the party's Blairite wing and the Progress group in particular. But Unite's status as Labour's largest donor (it was responsible for 28 per cent of donations to the party last year and has given £8.4m to Labour since Miliband became leader) means he won't be able to dismiss McCluskey as easily as many would like.

The politics of the intervention, though, could yet work to his advantage. By rejecting Blair one week (another NS exclusive) and McCluskey the next, he has positioned himself as the reasonable moderate, holding the centre between the New Labour diehards and the union militants.

Ed Miliband addresses delegates at the annual CBI conference in central London, on November 19, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear