The Mail on Miliband: What does it mean to call a Jewish person “un-British”?

We are not so far from a time when Jews were treated as undesirables, when right-thinking people preferred to ignore what was happening to them. We must not ignore the plight of those - the illegitimate, the rootless, the "illegal" - who fall on the wrong

This is an online extract from this week’s New Statesman magazine, published on Thursday 3 October.

My grandmother left Germany for England at the end of August 1939. She was able to leave because the Nazi official who stamped her passport once a week had taken a liking to her and warned that the following week they would be confiscating Jews’ documents. She was only able to enter England because a friend had gone ahead and procured her a false offer of work, such were the British laws designed to keep out undesirable “aliens”. She wasn’t to return to Germany until some time in the 1950s.

When she did go back, it wasn’t to Berlin, where she had spent most of her youth, but to a provincial town – and she was accompanying my grandfather on a business trip, with children in tow. (Such trips doubled as family holidays, since my grandfather’s business was frequently in crisis.) At some point they stopped in the town square, perhaps at a cafe: of course, I only heard this story from my grandmother decades later, and now, nearly 10 years after she died, the details even of her anecdote are hazy to me. The two children, my mother and uncle, were left to run around in the square, while my grandparents sat down. As they were doing so, a German woman turned to them, smiling, and told her: “was für schöne Kinder” – what lovely children. My grandmother felt an intense flash of anger, although all she did was sarcastically mutter “Judenbälge” - Jewish brats - under her breath. What went through her mind, as she later told it to me, was: “Twenty years ago, you’d have spat at them.”

She had a lot of stories about her past: and most of them were funnier, or sadder, than this one. But her description of what she felt at that moment has always stuck with me. It would have required a huge erasure of memory to feel anything else.

***

I’ve thought about this story twice in the past week. The first time was when I saw the photographs of Golden Dawn’s senior members being led in handcuffs to police cells. The sight of the neo-Nazi group’s leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, with arms outstretched, his expression contorted into a mixture of fear, contempt and injured pride, has provided a moment of collective relief both inside and outside Greece.

Online, the photograph of Michaloliakos – he stands, facing the camera, with outstretched arms clutching a briefcase – was gleefully detourned by Facebook users. He has been likened to Davros, the shrivelled creator of the Daleks; to Psy of “Gangnam Style” fame; to the Penguin from Batman Returns. The jokes are good. Even for an outside observer like me, it’s gratifying to see the man humiliated. To those residents of Greece who have had to watch the rise of fascism on their doorstep, I can only imagine the elation.

Yet it would be disastrous to assume that just because the symptom of a crisis has been tackled, however temporarily, that its roots have disappeared. I stopped finding the meme funny when details of the indictment against Golden Dawn – accused of being a criminal organisation by a justice system that suddenly appears to have discovered evidence of alleged crimes dating back years – began to filter through to English media. Chief among them was the allegation that Golden Dawn may be linked to the disappearances of more than 100 migrants, all of whom are presumed dead. Greek-speaking Twitter users were quick to bring up a gruesome story from May, in which the dismembered bodies of Asian men were found at an Athens rubbish dump. It may or may not be linked, but what’s clear is that many such crimes were happening in plain sight.

This made me think back to an encounter I witnessed a year ago in Athens. I had just been out to the suburbs to interview a family of Afghan refugees, and was making my way back to the centre by metro. The story they had told me was disturbing enough: penniless since the husband had lost his job after being hospitalised by a racist attack, the wife was forced to scavenge in bins for food under cover of darkness. Such was her fear of abuse from neo-Nazis, from the police, from members of the public – they didn’t make much of a distinction – that she would only go out as part of a group, with other Afghan women who found themselves in the same situation.

But the shock came on the journey back, as I was standing on a crowded escalator at Syntagma station. A man of African origin was standing just in front of me with his tiny son who, although he barely came up to knee height, was dressed immaculately in a black suit, bright white shirt and tie. I don’t need to go into great detail to tell you how cute a sight it was. The boy, standing ever so slightly unsteadily on his feet, but dressed like a man, was kept from falling by his father’s hand on his shoulder. Two middle-aged Greek ladies in front of us had turned round and were looking at the child and smiling. I started smiling. I caught their eyes. We smiled at each other. Then I remembered my grandmother’s story.

I don’t mean to imply that the women, who I did not speak to, would have expressed racist views in another setting. The shock was at seeing “normal” life continue in a city where I had just seen people so desperate and under such pressure. Still, I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since.

***

The second time I thought about my grandmother’s story was when reading the Mail’s hatchet job on Ralph Miliband, headlined “the man who hated Britain”. A far more trivial affair than the events in Greece, but unsettling nonetheless. To me - regardless of the author being one “Geoffrey Levy” - the piece drew its venom from a well-worn anti-Semitic stereotype: that of the rootless Jewish subversive who hates his or her adoptive country and even works to undermine it.

Britain’s own history of anti-Semitism is something conveniently obscured by its heroic self-image of being the country that defeated Hitler. Yet that anti-Semitism existed, and its traces are still discernible today, even if it largely remains beneath the surface of polite society. The Mail would no doubt aver that it was attacking Ralph Miliband’s Marxist politics, and not his ethnic origins. But the message of that piece was that those politics were not merely objectionable; they were deeply sinister because they were foreign and did not belong here. The subtext, further reinforced by the way the paper worded its refusal to apologise for running the piece, is that there’s something foreign about Ed Miliband himself. Never openly said, of course, but a series of snide digs that say - watch it, Ed, you’ll never be fully British and don’t you forget it.

From the Daily Mail in 1938

Ed Miliband’s response has been defiant, and brave. Until now, I haven’t particularly liked the way he has used his father’s refugee story, which he first aired in a piece for the New Statesman in 2012. I can understand the desire to engage in current debates about immigration, to make a powerful argument that people born abroad belong here as much as anyone else. But it seemed to be contorted for immediate political gain, to bolster the Blue Labour-inflected take on patriotism that Miliband thinks will help him win an election in 2015. Would Ralph Miliband really have seen himself as a “patriot” in the way his son describes? We’ll never know. Just as I will never know whether my grandmother became an ARP warden and ran out into the streets to throw sand on top of incendiary bombs before they exploded out of love for her adoptive country, or simply because she didn’t want to be burned alive. Should it matter?

To me, the stories I’ve had passed down from my grandparents - who were not all Jewish, but Irish and English, too - means saying that “my country” is never enough. Despite the unpleasantness the Mail has stoked up this week, Jews in Britain are safe, secure and thriving. But we are not so far from a time when even here they were treated as undesirables, when right-thinking people preferred to ignore what was happening, and to forget about it as swiftly as possible after the event.

There are people who find themselves in a similar situation today: they are the migrants who fall from the undercarriages of planes, or who disappear into detention centres where they are thensexually abused, or who drown in boats in the Mediterranean, or who have been targeted by paramilitary-style attacks in Athens. It’s the result of a system that has been constructed by European governments, including Britain - and it is perpetuated because we have largely convinced ourselves that these are “non-people”.

Stress patriotism too heavily, and it can end up sounding like those who fall on the wrong side of the line - the illegitimate, the rootless, the "illegal" - have got something to be ashamed of. Yet not belonging is also a strength: it frees us to say that wherever injustices happen, it's our business too.

The images of the arrest of Golden Dawn's Nikos Michaloliakos became an internet meme, but as details of the party's alleged involvement in the disappearances of more than 100 migrants emerged, it swiftly ceased to be funny. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle