Those familiar with the tactics of the British press will not be surprised at its attempts to use the background of the Miliband brothers against them once they gained high office - David Miliband as Foreign Secretary in the last Labour government, Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party in opposition.
When the Germans invaded Belgium in May 1940, the Milibands’ grandfather, Samuel Miliband, a Polish-born Jew living in Brussels, fled with his 16-year-old son Adolphe on foot to Ostend, where they were fortunate enough to board a ship that brought them to Britain as Jewish refugees. Adolphe changed his name to Ralph, volunteered for the Royal Navy – as he was not a British citizen he could not be compelled to join up – and later became a well-known Marxist academic at the London School of Economics. He was the father of David and Ed. Samuel Miliband spent the war years in Britain and went back to Belgium in 1946. But the difficulties he encountered there caused him to apply to the British authorities to return to Britain in 1948; in the event, it took him several years and repeated applications before he was granted permission to return in 1953.
The Sunday Times was the first to try to use the Milibands’ refugee background against them. On 6 April 2008, it ran an article claiming that in 1949 ‘the family of David Miliband, the foreign secretary, was branded untrustworthy and misleading by Home Office and Foreign Office when it tried to migrate to Britain’. At the suggestion of AJR Chairman Andrew Kaufman, I wrote a letter to The Times, protesting that this was a travesty of the truth. The real issue in this case was not the dishonest or underhand methods allegedly employed by Samuel Miliband in seeking re-admission to Britain, but the systematic attempts of the Home Office to refuse entry to Jews from Europe, even after the Holocaust. The Home Office decided in 1945 to restrict the number of Jews admitted to post-war Britain to two specific categories: about 1,000 child survivors from concentration camps were admitted, as were a modest number of ‘distressed persons’, camp survivors, mostly children or elderly people, who had relatives already living in Britain. As a response to the sufferings of the large numbers of displaced Jews in post-war Europe, this was grossly inadequate.
By contrast, some 100,000 immigrants were recruited from late 1946 to come and work in Britain under the European Volunteer Worker schemes. While Jews were excluded, workers from the Baltic states were favoured, even though some of them had extremely dubious wartime records. Numerous Ukrainians (mostly from those areas of Ukraine which had formed part of Poland before 1939) who had served in Nazi-organised units were also permitted to settle here. Samuel Miliband had a very strong case for re-admission: he had family in Britain, and he had previously spent six years in Britain, more than the period of five years’ residence normally required to acquire British citizenship. It beggars belief that he should still have been manoeuvring to regain permanent residence in Britain as late as 1953, when most people from Western Europe would have been granted residence easily enough.
The recent article in the Daily Mail branding Ralph Miliband, nearly 20 years after his death, as ‘the man who hated Britain’ took this process of casting a refugee family as outsiders, somehow not properly British, a stage further. On the basis of a few lines taken from a diary written by the 16-year-old Ralph Miliband in autumn 1940, in which he expressed his extreme irritation at certain British attitudes and institutions, the Daily Mail sought to build up a picture of a refugee and Marxist bent on attacking and undermining ‘British’ values and institutions throughout his life – an aspiration that he had, by implication, passed on to ‘Red Ed’, his son. Not surprisingly, Ed Miliband reacted strongly against this attack on his late father.
Most of those who have taken the Milibands’ side in the ensuing dispute have, quite rightly, pointed to the foolishness of judging a man’s life’s work on the evidence of a few comments that he had written in an adolescent diary. But it is worth considering what Ralph Miliband found in wartime Britain to provoke his anger and scorn. He had arrived in Britain in May 1940, just as some 25,000 Jews from Germany and Austria were being arrested as potential security risks, despite the obvious absurdity of interning Jewish refugees as spies and agents for the Nazis. Several thousand of the male internees were deported overseas; one ship carrying deportees to Canada was sunk by an enemy submarine, as were two bringing deportees back to Britain from Australia, with the wholly unnecessary loss of many hundreds of completely innocent lives. Miliband would without doubt have known of this, and who can blame him for feeling angry? Were the imprisonment and deportation of defenceless and blameless Jewish refugees consistent with British values? What sort of British patriot is it who would condone the stupidity and inhumanity of the British government’s measures, spurred on by the xenophobic hysteria whipped up in summer 1940 by the right-wing press?
Ralph Miliband was also incensed by the policy of appeasement pursued by the Chamberlain government, which had supinely acquiesced in Hitler’s annexation of Austria in March 1938 and had then sold out its ally, Czechoslovakia, under the Munich Agreement of 30 September 1938. European critics of British policy suspected, with reason, that elements on the right in Britain were not only unwilling to stand up to Hitler, but that they were also unsympathetic to the democratic, progressive regimes in countries like France (the Popular Front government, led between 1936 and 1938 by the Jewish socialist Léon Blum) or Czechoslovakia, admiring instead the ‘strong men’ leading Fascist movements. Was it not the then proprietor of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere, who in January 1934 expressed his support for Oswald Mosley in the paper’s notorious headline ‘Hoorah for the Blackshirts’? Was Ralph Miliband wrong to despise those who sought an accommodation with Germany by cosying up to Hitler? Which more truly reflected patriotic British values – the refugee who volunteered for the Royal Navy, or the fellow travellers of the right whose notion of Britishness was to flirt with the Jew- and Red-baiting enemies of democracy?