You couldn’t have asked for a better snapshot of the zombified nature of modern politics than the Ralph Miliband / Daily Mail spat. In past eras, the political sphere was sharply divided between a lively left and a cocky right, and occasionally, in hairier historical moments, between combative socialists and unforgiving fascists. And now? Well, we have a ghostly war of words between a dead socialist and his offspring and a newspaper fancifully described by its critics as a fascist rag. Yesteryear’s life-and-death struggle for power between living, breathing leftists and rightists has been replaced by the exchange of shrill insults between fans of a late leftie and a tabloid newspaper, by tweet-fighting rather than streetfighting, by the dead vs the Daily Mail. Behold the danse macabre of the left-right divide.
The most striking thing about the Miliband/Mail saga is how much the two sides have in common. The Mail and its haters think of themselves as diametrically opposed, as the yang to the other’s yin, yet the Miliband controversy reveals they are bound together by one very important thing: a preference for living in the past over engaging with the present. If Ralph Miliband is, in the Mail’s shrill words, ‘The man who hated Britain’, then both the Mail and its maulers are the men and women who hate political reality - or at least can’t fathom it or handle it and so take refuge in the long-gone, now meaningless struggles of the past.
The most stupid thing about the Mail’s attack on Ralph Miliband, the New Left Marxist dad of Labour leader Ed, who died in 1994, is that it was a serious attempt to drum up some public passion for Red-baiting. The Mail is so out of touch, it seems, that it actually thinks commie-exposing can be used to make a connection with the public. Memo to Mail: it is not 1955. In its attack on Ralph, it described socialism as ‘one of the world’s most poisonous political doctrines’, as if it still exists in any serious form anywhere on earth, which it doesn’t. It claimed ‘Marxism supplied the philosophical underpinning to a monstrously evil regime’ – the Soviet Union – where ‘dissidents were locked in mental asylums’. The Soviet Union stopped existing in 1990. What will the Mail thunder against next? Ferdinand Marcos? The Hungerford massacre? Niggas With Attitude?
Like a bad impersonator of Joseph McCarthy, the Mail talked about the ‘evil legacy’ and ‘poison’ of Marxism, as if it were a virus, still extant, in the water system perhaps, rather than a political ideology that emerged in particular circumstances and withered away many years ago. The Mail isn’t the only institution in modern Britain that is so out of touch with the present that it has decamped to the 1940s. The Tories are at it, too. In response to the hilarious claims that Ed Miliband is ‘Red Ed’, Tory chancellor George Osborne said it was ‘the historic work of this party to [combat socialism]’. This pantomime pinko-chasing says a great deal more about those on the right than it does about any resurgence of serious leftism: it reveals how much they miss the certainties of the past, particularly of the Cold War, when traditionalist and Tory institutions derived a massive chunk of their moral and political authority from posturing against Marxist elements and the ‘Evil Empire’ of the Soviet Union. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at the fact that they have gone from fuming about the ‘Red East’ to handwringing over ‘Red Ed’, as if that bumbling, ideology-free son of a professor is a one-man USSR. Never mind Reds under the bed; today it’s apparently Eds under the bed we have to look out for (that is admittedly a scary thought).
Yet the Mail’s many haters – which is everyone at the BBC, every academic in the country, every man of the cloth and every leftist – are playing the same reality-dodging game. They, too, prefer the comfort blanket of the past over the prickly realities of the present. Where the Mail treats Ed as the modern incarnation of Ralph and Co’s poisonous Marxism, the Mail’s critics treat that newspaper as the descendant of fascism. They are constantly reminding us of the time the Mail expressed support for the Blackshirts and the fact that its founder, the first Viscount Rothermere, was at one point a fan of Hitler. They refer to the ‘fascist Daily Mail’; George Galloway thunders about how ‘the Mail supported Hitler yet smears Ralph Miliband, who fought Nazism on the beaches on D-Day’. Some people seem seriously to believe that the Miliband / Mail war of words is a modern version of the real war fought by the Allies and the Nazis 70 years ago, which only goes to show how epic historical ignorance has become in recent times.