The second act in the political life of David Miliband

Our political leaders are callow men, writes the <em>NS</em> editor, Jason Cowley, so no wonder they

Throughout the New Labour years of frivolous and credit-fuelled consumption, our culture was in thrall to a banal cult of celebrity - which reached its apotheosis with Tony Blair's Cool Britannia party in Downing Street - but also one of youth. The old were traduced and disrespected; potential was often prized over experience. Middle-aged women in the broadcast media were prejudiced off our screens. And our political leaders kept on getting younger - Blair was 41 when he was elected leader of the Lab­our Party; ludicrously, William Hague was 36 when elected Tory leader.

It was as if we no longer trusted the wisdom that accompanies hard experience and deep learning, which is quite the reverse of what happens in the new superpowers of China, India and Brazil. The prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, is 79; his foreign minister, S M Krishna, is also 79.

A culture as jejune as ours ends up with the political leaders it deserves - callow men in early middle age who have very little experience of the world beyond Westminster and Whitehall policy forums. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband (not forgetting the Chancellor, George Osborne) are all intelligent and articulate enough, but not one of them has run a business or institution of any significance, or published a book (even a collection of scholarly essays in the tradition of Lord Salisbury) to which we can turn for an exposition of the depth of his reading or the breadth and seriousness of his ideas. Meanwhile, they are caught up in the whirlwind of the most severe econo­mic crisis since the 1930s, and it's little wonder that they are flying blind.

Had we but world enough, and time
When he failed to become Labour leader last year, it was expected that David Miliband would turn away from domestic politics altogether - either that, or he would brood on the back benches, waiting for his brother, Ed, to stumble and falter. It hasn't turned out like that. Miliband has no wish to destabilise his younger brother's leadership. Nor does he want to serve in the shadow cabinet. Some of those closest to David have urged him to take up a well-paid professorship in the US to remove him from the anguish and frustrations of front-line politics - and the incessant gossip and speculation.

My advice would be for Miliband to continue very much as he is, because in recent weeks he has made a series of astute interventions - on university education in the New Statesman, on foreign affairs in the Financial Times, and on the government's mismanagement of the economy in the House of Commons - that have reminded us all of how much he has to offer.

When I travelled in India with Miliband in January 2009, the senior politicians we met there were often astounded by what they considered to be the then foreign secretary's extreme youth. I was present at a lunch at the high commissioner's residence in New Delhi, attended by many former Indian diplomats and military personnel, during which Miliband, who is now 46, kept being referred to as "the young man".

He has time and ought not to be rushed into making definitive decisions about his political career. To adapt F Scott Fitzgerald, there are indeed second acts in English political lives (just ask Hague), and Miliband shows every indication of having learned from the failures of his leadership bid and begun to remake himself in unexpected ways.

Patterns, actually
A while back, we asked Bill Nighy to write a column for us. We liked him as an actor and as an activist. He was interested, but then he went off to do some filming and nothing much happened. I forgot about the column and our approach until a few weekends ago, when I read an interview with him in the much-improved FT Magazine and was amused by the enthusiasm, indeed fervour, with which he spoke about his favourite Margaret Howell shirts.

One recent afternoon - it was not yet four but the sky was already ominously dark - I was walking east along Wigmore Street, in the West End, when I saw a Margaret Howell store. I went inside and there before me, paying for some shirts at the counter, was none other than Nighy. His grey-blond hair was swept back from a high forehead, he was wearing a long black coat, black trousers and black, thick-framed spectacles, and for some reason he seemed pre­ternaturally pale, even ashen.

I was once told that we are foolish to ignore coincidences, that events and encounters we too readily dismiss as random are in fact "meaningful", in the Jungian sense. We like to mock all those coincidences that abound in melodramatic Victorian novels, but should we? For Carl Jung, coincidences were expressions of "synchronicity", of deeper networks and patterns of connections in the universe of which we are only subliminally, or unconsciously, aware.

Anyway, back to Nighy. Was this the moment to remind him about the column? Was this coincidence meant to be meaningful? But I said nothing and took a look around the shop and ended up buying a shirt, as you do.“Bill Nighy just bought that one," said the young man accepting my credit card. "Oh, I saw that he was in." I told him about the FT interview. "How odd is that!" he said. "Give Bill this the next time he's in" - I handed him my business card - "it's about a column."

A print factory for ideas
It's 20 years since the closure of Marxism Today, Martin Jacques's great, iconoclastic magazine. I used to read MT as a student in the late Eighties as well as Jacques's column in Andrew Neil's Sunday Times, when that newspaper had the best - the most urgent, provocative and intellectually challenging - comment pages of any British daily or weekly. It was fervently Thatcherite but also plural, and surprisingly open to other radical possibilities. At a time when the Labour Party was moribund, even though Neil Kinnock was bravely attempting to modernise its structures, you could read in Neil's paper Jacques on "New Times" and post-Fordism, as well as the former Labour MP-turned-Thatcherite-ideologue Brian Walden, Simon Jenkins, Peter Jenkins and Norman Macrae of the Economist. Reading MT together with the Sunday Times, you had a sense that something important was at stake in our political culture and economy. Perhaps only the FT offers a similar sense of engagement today.

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.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war