Ed Miliband did something extraordinary this week. I’m not referring to his speaking for over an hour without notes, though that was extraordinary enough. Nor to his delivering that speech with the fluency and timing of a seasoned stand-up comedian, though that was more extraordinary still. No, what was truly astounding was his assumption that right this minute the British people would rather put their trust in a Jew than a toff.
I don’t say it’s a subject burning a hole in the mind of the British public; we have better things to do, in these grim times, than adjudicate between the competing claims of the Bullingdon Club and the synagogue. And I doubt that the electorate has an attitude to Ed Miliband’s Jewishness, if it’s aware of it at all. But this week, he chose to make us aware of it, gambling that we do have an attitude to David Cameron’s toffishness, and that it’s negative.
Whether this is a gamble that will pay off only time will tell. I don’t doubt he’s right about the way Cameron is currently perceived. His Chief Whip’s unguarded, but by all accounts characteristic, tirade against the “fucking plebs” struck many as coming from the soul of Cameron’s party. I’m still not sure which word Andrew Mitchell continues to deny he employed – “fucking” or “plebs” – but we know which is worse, and it isn’t “fucking”. “Plebs”, we surmise, is exactly what the Tories call the rest of us, not because it’s in the nature of men like Cameron to have reached that conclusion for themselves – I suspect Cameron hasn’t – but because some attitudes are ingrained and ineradicable.
Once upon a time, we could have lived with that surmisal. There was advantage in knowing one’s place. But we have lost sight of what that advantage was, and the insult is no longer one we will swallow on the understanding that class is God’s plan. Money has entered the grand design, and with money a new disdain. Now we are contemptibly plebeian on two accounts: by accident of birth and by virtue of not knowing how to get rich.
“My family hasn’t sat under the same oak tree for the last 500 years,” Miliband quipped. It was a well-constructed jibe, suggesting unchanging privilege, supine arrogation of power, and country matters, remote from the concerns of a populace sweating blood (those who are lucky enough to have a job to sweat over) in the cities. But by calling up his own, radical, Jewish family, who’d have had trouble finding anywhere to sit peaceably for the past 500 years, Miliband risked a more daring assault on the entrenched.
When challenged on his Jewishness by Daniel O’Connell, Disraeli famously replied, “Yes, I am a Jew. And when the ancestors of the right honourable gentlemen were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”
Miliband didn’t quite go that far. Sitting under an oak tree for 500 years might make you out of touch, but it doesn’t make you a brutal savage; and Ed’s father Ralph wasn’t exactly a priest in the Temple of Solomon, though he did officiate at the Temple of Karl Marx. But there was a point in invoking Disraeli, beyond reminding us that a Jew could be, and had been, a British prime minister; without exactly “reimagining his Jewishness as a glorious inheritance”, to quote Disraeli’s biographer, the critic Adam Kirsch, Miliband nonetheless enlisted his Jewishness on the side of probity, toil and the dignity of the once-excluded.
And that was the great gamble. Would enough people recognise themselves in that delineation? Had we become, thanks to the Tories, a nation of the alienated, and could an immigrant Jew speak for this sense of dispossession, if indeed dispossessed was what we felt?
That leaves out a subtler touch still. If the Milibands had come from somewhere else, they had been made welcome here. Through the eminence he has himself attained – as Disraeli had attained an even greater one before him – Miliband exemplifies the mobility this country at its best facilitates. He was thus returning to us British a benign portrait of ourselves.
We are a kind and tolerant people. We move over, make room and make possible. I can speak openly of my Jewishness, Miliband implied, because I have every confidence that it will not alarm you. If Disraeli had climbed to “the top of the greasy pole” by means of his outlandishness, a wizard Jew dazzling the nation and enchanting its Queen by his dark arts, Miliband was proving the opposite case. He had got where he had got a) thanks to the magnanimity of the British people, and b) because we are all now, in a manner of speaking, and because of the squeeze put on us by those who consider the country theirs to do with as they wish, Jewish.
Jeremy Paxman gave Miliband’s supporters a hard time after the speech, for not being able to put the poetry of “One Nation” – another allusion to Disraeli – into plain prose. But it does have a meaning in the context of his address: Miliband was uniting all those who feel they have come from the margins of society, or been forced back into the margins of society, with those whose nature is essentially liberal and welcoming. One Nation, but also a New Nation, not only far removed from the landed and the wealthy who have been dozing undisturbed under the same oak tree for 500 years, but inexplicable to them. A new nation with which the Wandering Jew is in tune, and the Rooted Toff is not.
And anti-Semitism? Well, there always was more of it to be found in the oak tree mob, who seldom if ever met a Jew, than in the population at large. Miliband simply assumed its non-existence, anyway. I call that a significant moment not only for Jews, but, if we are One Nation, for the country, too.